In 1959, architect Don Wilson returned to Whanganui from a study trip to the United States where he’d spent time at Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Illinois Institute of Technology, before travelling through the US and Mexico. Wilson was particularly keen to see new methods of construction involving steel and glass, and while travelling, he planned a home for himself and his family on land they owned on Great North Road in Saint Johns Hill.
The house he designed for the gently sloping site was crisp and modern at a time when many other architects in Aotearoa were looking to timber and the shed. Essentially, it’s two elevated wings with a covered entry breezeway between. One wing houses three bedrooms and a bathroom, another wing houses living areas and kitchen, with a guest suite and second living area underneath.
Visitors arrive at the top of the slope; a driveway swoops around one side to access a garage, the roof of which forms an upstairs terrace off the living area. It’s airy and open, with large expanses of glass – as he once put it, “creating a free flow with the site so that wherever you are within the house you are not limited by a wall”.
The house was technologically advanced for its time: steel-framed pavilions sit on concrete floor slabs that taper to thin edges as required for structural strength; timber windows with lower louvres sit inside steel frames. It was almost commercial in its construction, with the skin of the building separate from the frame.
Many of the building elements had never been tried in New Zealand before. Wilson improvised when materials weren’t available, using standard 50mm steel pipes instead of pilotis, for example, or, in the case of the Schlage door furniture, imported them himself.
The house was finished in 1960; Wilson and family lived there until 2013, when costume designer Katrina Hodge bought it, in mostly original condition. She has restored and gently modernised it: taking the kitchen back to its original cabinetry and colours, updating the bathrooms and installing period-appropriate cork flooring – plus beautiful green carpet in the upstairs bedrooms.
Now, with fresh projects on the horizon, Hodge and partner Cam Millar are looking for new custodians for the house – it's for sale by tender, closing Thursday 14 December 2023.
59 Great North Road
St Johns Hill, Whanganui