Here at Brave New Eco we have a particular affection for old houses in need of some love. There is something about the act of custodianship of an old building, especially one that is under-appreciated, that we feel compelled by. Only certain people will take on a loving rehabilitation of a lame home knowing it will become a bottomless pit for time and resources - it takes a very optimistic and imaginative personality. I thought we would share the story of one such house, originally styled and written by Megan and photographed by Penny Wincer for UK Homes and Antiques magazine.
Five years ago, creative Sydney couple Rani Chaleyer and Rupert Glasson were considered crazy by their friends and family for buying ‘Barncleuth’ - an abandoned and derelict Victorian Italianate mansion, located on the edge of Sydney’s notoriously seedy but rapidly gentrifying Kings Cross. The building had fallen into a state of disrepair. Together, on a shoestring budget and in record time, they have restored and transformed the faded beauty to create a unique home - vibrant and robust enough for busy family life.
When Rani first saw the house on the internet she was intrigued as to how such a substantial property, (a set of two semi-detached three-storey Victorian houses in an inner-urban location), could have been left empty so long. The building had been a backpacker’s known as ‘The Pink House’ – reviewed as "the worst backpackers in the world” for its filth and rodent populations. Eventually shutting down, Barncleuth was left empty and inhabited with a transient population of squatters.
When she arrived to inspect the property the real estate agent initially refused to let her inside with her then 5-year-old daughter. Eventually she convinced him to let them look at just a few rooms. It took only those few rooms for Rani to see the vast potential beneath apparent dereliction. The house had 4-metre high ceilings, opposing windows in each room, filigree balconies and a glorious central staircase between three levels of dramatically proportioned spaces. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they moved quickly to purchase the pair with another family member.
With a third child on the way, the demolition and restoration process began immediately - removing partition walls and bathroom stalls left by the backpackers. A tiny kitchen and laundry was opened up to create a large kitchen leading onto a courtyard. What was left of the modest budget was used for the simplest of renovations - polishing floorboards and painting. The transformation was immediate and dramatic, revealing the inherent proportional beauty and period details of the interiors. With new bathrooms and a simple industrial kitchen, some half-hearted patching and repairs, the home was a new modest version of its previous grandeur.
One of the immediate joys for Rani was to be able to provide a worthy setting for the family heirlooms passed down through her mother’s side of the family:
“Luckily I come from a great line of people obsessed with old things. I grew up with very strong memories of my grandparent's and mother's houses being filled with antiques and curiosities. So it was very exciting for me to be in a space that lent itself to that aesthetic. Some of the things I took to the house that I had grown up with were very special."
The home has been filled with industrial and antique furnishings bought both online and at various small stores and markets in Sydney, those more likely to carry the rustic, unrestored items Rani prefers. Rani spent many hours scouring Gumtree, where she has picked up oversized 19th and 20th century antiques from sellers without space just wanting them off their hands.
Her eclectic style is unified by an absence of polish. Everything is faded and worn, yet robust beneath patinered surfaces:
“The worst thing to me is something polished. Industrial pieces create a more utilitarian feel and a simplicity that balances some of the more ornate items. I think it comes from my childhood of growing up in eclectic spaces where everything has an imperfection or rawness and that’s the element that unites it all together."
Rani’s collections of objects reflect a strong sense of nostalgia, wonder and macabre curiosity. Collections of taxidermy insects, butterflies, shells, bones, old photo’s scientific and educational ephemera grace the cabinets and mantelpieces:
“When I was little, my father would take me to the museum to see the taxidermy exhibitions, I have always had a natural history fascination and have loved the uncanny nature of the world of curiosities, biological specimens and Victorian dioramas."
For Rani and Rupert the damaged state they found the home in was one of the qualities that appealed to them - a space that children would not need to be too careful in. The house is an ongoing project and a more substantial kitchen renovation is up next. This ever-changing landscape suits the growing family's lifestyle as a revolving door of local and international visitors use the home as a Sydney base. Large groups of children and adults are regularly entertained, having had created a home with a comfortable balance between utility and beauty.
“We love to fill our house with people, the house is not at all precious or formal, it just absorbs small children and everything in here is robust enough to withstand some boisterous activity”, says Rani.