After years of neglect, Johnstone Callaghan Architects bring a mid-century gem in Ōtautahi Christchurch back from the brink.

The Comeback

The Comeback

On the border of the University of Canterbury, there’s a suburban cul-de-sac. If you were to wander down it, there are a few things you would expect to see, such as the bevvy of student flats and the Subaru Legacy associated with them. What you wouldn’t expect to find is a cluster of Ōtautahi Christchurch’s best-preserved mid-century homes. But arched around the end of the short street sit three of the finest examples of Christchurch modernism: Allan Mitchener’s Messervy House, Humphrey Hall’s Fletcher House and this, Minson, Henning-Hansen & Dines’ Henderson House.

Designed in 1966 and completed the following year, Henderson House was built for a Lincoln University professor and his family. As a teacher of wool science, architecture wasn’t necessarily in Professor Henderson’s wheelhouse – “He was probably more interested in art and antiques,” remembers daughter Gill Ebel – but the result stands as a stellar testament to this influential design era.

Sweeping the city in the 60s and 70s, Christchurch modernism is characterised by concrete-block construction, timber detailing, prominent chimneys and minimalist forms. Though the residential designs were often small-scale and single-level, they had a sculptural quality and were remarkably efficient. Led by architects such as Miles Warren, Maurice Mahoney, Don Donnithorne and Don Cowey, the movement drew on design references from Scandinavia to Japan to Brutalist principles. It challenged and transformed the city’s architectural landscape until the mid-70s brought about a sharp departure in style.

Ōtautahi is still scattered with remnants of the time, though numbers are dwindling. Many examples fell victim to the Canterbury earthquakes; others have been misinterpreted as stark or cold and then aggressively renovated. But not this one. Henderson House stands almost as it did over half a century ago, improved only by sympathetic (and necessary) modern edits.

The home straddles two joint forms. A concrete-block structure houses the living spaces, main bedroom and bathrooms, while a board-and-batten, half-gable building holds three other bedrooms, a lower-level garage and studio. Inside, white concrete block is softened by timber detailing that travels throughout the home, wrapping every doorway and window. Exposed timber beams intersect on the ceiling, while built-in joinery – much of which Henderson created – demonstrates how high-quality craftsmanship withstands time and trends. “Dad was always in the garage building or working on something,” recalls Ebel. “At the time, I mean I was 17, 18, it didn’t really mean much, but now looking back, what he produced was amazing.”

No items found.

It’s not just the detailing of his work that impresses, but the logic behind it. On the bannisters that lead upstairs to children’s bedrooms, Henderson asked the architects to include a narrow slot where Perspex sheets could slip in to prevent future grandchildren from falling through. This place was always intended as their forever home, and after Henderson’s passing in 1998, his wife stayed on until moving into care in 2006. It was sold the following year when its campus-adjacent location saw it fall into the undesirable role of university flat. “My brother drove past one day and said it looked dreadful,” says Ebel, “He was so disappointed.” Battered and unappreciated, the house was on the brink of disrepair when a young family happened to pop their heads over the fence to ask the landlord if he might sell. Catching him on a particularly rough day – he had just witnessed the tenants enjoying a lawn campfire – he didn’t hesitate.

When they took over, the scars of student life were evident. The bathrooms had been hastily and crudely renovated, the studio had become an extra bedroom, the garden was overgrown, and the place needed a crime-scene-level clean. But underneath it all, the bones were strong, and most of Henderson’s original joinery remained intact. Setting about revitalising the place, the family commissioned Johnstone Callaghan Architects to “undo” the bathroom works and reintroduce a style more sympathetic to the original home. “We went ahead choosing tiles that proportionally suited the mid-century design,” explains project lead Prue Johnstone. “The fittings and fixtures were also more in keeping with what you might expect of that time.”

Other touches further distanced it from its uni days. New carpet was laid in the living room, while plans to replace the upstairs floor coverings were happily shelved when beautifully preserved timber was revealed beneath. The ripe aroma of engineering students also dissipated as the renovations progressed, with the architects careful to honour (not replicate) the home’s 1966 design. The only thing missing from the original layout was the open fire that once stood in the living room. “It’s a shame it’s gone,” laments Ebel, “it was a huge brick centrepiece to the room.” Whether the fireplace was lost in the earthquakes or a previous remodel is unknown, but as consolation, the glazing that replaced it allows all-day sun to stream in.

Having outgrown Henderson House, that young family has moved on, making way for its new custodians, a downsizing creative couple who instantly fell for the home’s “delicate and deliberate” design. “We love it for the journey we are taken on when we wander through the house,” they say. “The proportions of the various spaces are just right – not too big, not too small. Ample room for living modestly and deliberately, which is what we both crave at this stage in our lives.”

They understand the significance of the home. When discussing their own renovations, they speak of a balance between modernity and respect. “We are very aware of the responsibility that comes attached to this beautiful little house,” they say. “The previous owners did a fantastic job resurrecting and saving it, and we in turn fully intend to leave it in a better state than it already is.” You can’t ask for much more than that.

No items found.

1. Entrance Porch

2. Garage

3. Laundry

4. Bathroom

5. Bedroom

6. Study

7. Kitchen

8. Dining

9. Living

10. Terrace

Related Stories: