Vernon Akitt Brown
(1905 – 1965)- Born in Liverpool and studied architecture in London before coming to New Zealand in 1927. Worked on road gangs during the Depression but found work as an architect with Norman Wade and Grierson, Aimer and Draffin. Also a well known writer and commentator producing articles for magazines and radio before being appointed as lecturer at Auckland School of Architecture in 1942. He was a central figure of Auckland’s art and social circles with many friends, including Rex Fairburn, Douglas Robb, May Smith, etc. Passed away in January 1965 at age 59. Produced a large number of house designs which were often referred to as creosote ‘chicken coops’ or ‘bachs’- due to the use of black Stockholm tar and mono-pitch roof’s. His ideas and methodology were influential amongst a generation of architects which passed through the School of Architecture between the 1940’s and early 1960’s.
‘Hooper house’ by Vernon Akitt Brown; 1953/4.
Cook St, Howick.
Ideally situated on a long sloping section with views to the sea, the ‘Hooper house’ has only had two owners in its 56 year history. Designed in 1953 for Doris and Alfred ‘Hoop’ Hooper, it is one of the few known surviving and relatively unchanged Vernon Brown houses from the fifties. Most of the architect’s surviving designs are from the early to late 1940’s and are centred around Remuera and Takapuna on the North Shore. Well respected and a vocal member of ‘Auckland’s Intelligentsia’ (the coterie of artists, literary figures, politicians and socialists which he and Rex Fairburn associated with) Brown’s designs and influence was widespread. As studio instructor at Auckland’s School of Architecture he was to teach a vast number of young architects – some like Maurice K Smith, Miles Warren, John Scott, Dick Hobin and Bill Wilson would go on to influence the shape of New Zealand architecture of the next half century.
Regular articles in magazines like ‘The Monocle’ and ‘Home & Building’ augmented radio broadcasts, private practice and teaching. A highly successful architect, his clients ranged across his broad social circle, from artist to academic. As the social and cultural centre of Auckland at the time was relatively compact (and bridge-less) almost inevitably the Hoopers would have known of Vernon Brown, if not met him at any number of occasions, as both Doris and Alfred worked within the local advertising fraternity- Doris originally as a copywriter for Carlton Carruthers de Chateau King were Alfred was a commercial artist and partner in the firm. Hooper and his wife, according to Brown’s commentary ”had developed a certain way of living” and ”privacy was considered important” … ”it was felt unnecessary to share the living with the outside world.” Whatever the situation, the house is a successful and gracious design allowing easy and practical use – the ‘L’ shaped layout bringing together accessibility and shelter.
The house was designed with two bedrooms though seemingly one was used as an office or study. The wall between them shares the same storage space, accessible from each side, with a floor level roll-out bed cupboard space in smaller room. Throughout, the windows are oversized with larger panes of glass than usually required, making curtains an issue, also the window ledge is noticeably deeper. The window uprights are also thicker than usual with rounded edges. Versions of this can be seen in several other Vernon Brown house designs including the Doyle’s house in Maungawhau Rd, Mt Eden and the Provis house in Torbay; the larger glass areas allowing more light and connection with the outdoors. Like other of Brown’s houses, the Hooper house is entered through a vestibule; the earlier ‘Haigh house’ designed for socialite and socialist lawyer Frank Haigh and wife ‘Honey’ opens onto a number of different rooms, while the Hooper house entrance flows almost directly into the lounge and dining area, with the kitchen door to the right opposite a wall of panelled wood with inbuilt coat cupboard on the left. Moving further into the house the massive brick chimney, wooden beams and panelled walls of the lounge and dining alcove are revealed, along with the glass dividing wall (with sandblasted designs by James Turkington) and a credenza containing record player, drinks cabinet and radio. A large speaker was mounted in a ceiling height shelf to the left of the entrance, which also hides a curtain which can be pulled across the entrance vestibule, to isolate the room from draughts or cooking odours should one so desire. As with many ‘modern’ houses of the era, the kitchen could also be ‘opened’ into the dining alcove, the highly figured wood feature wall containing sliding drawers, servery doors and cupboards. In the connecting spacious lounge, light floods from east and west facing glass windows and doors, with the north wall of veneered ply punctuated by another small window facing the large stand of oaks in the nearby reserve.
Although now painted a cream colour over its previous black creosote finish, the house is still recognisable as an urbane and sophisticated work which fulfils the clients’ brief for a shelter from the outside world, crafted with precision and clarity, and requiring no stage to enjoy the setting – as it is positioned lightly and sedately amongst the surrounding mature growth. The image from 1954 by Sparrow Industrial Photos shows a shed-like angular gabled roofline over the lounge’s glass panel end wall and the kitchen’s contrasting dark weatherboards, looking not unlike a restrained work by one of Brown’s ex students such as Bruce Rotherham. Moving around the building to the sheltered paved courtyard on the other side of the lounge reveals the mono-pitch bedroom wing with its almost full-height glass corridor allowing light and heat into the sleeping area. The main access to the house is via the driveway which runs along the south side of the section to the garage; the “front” door only steps away.
The garage which can be seen on the left of the Sparrow image, was converted and extended to become a clinic area in which Doris, far ahead of her time operated a non-profit naturopathic clinic for some years. Born Doris Cleland (1908) she had grown up on a large property at Stanley Point, before becoming a boarder at the Diocesan School for Girls in Epsom, later gaining both Bachelor of Arts and Commerce degrees before majoring in Economics with grades unsurpassed for a number years. Doris is also well remembered for running a kindergarten for gifted children on the large property, having obtained further qualifications, earlier in journalism and then in her sixties, a teaching diploma, topping her class.
The property was bought only a few years ago by one of James Turkington’s nieces when Doris moved to Ranfurly Veterans home in her late nineties. Little altered in the five and half decades, the Hooper house provides a reminder of how thoughtful design can transcend time and fashion, with Brown’s elegant architecture and assured handling of volumes still perfectly suited to (another) modern life.
Haigh House, Dr Rosten’s house, Provis house and Vickery house
‘Vickery House’: (1944) Audrey Rd, Milford Beach. Takapuna.
Vernon Brown’s design for the Rev Vickery’s house at Audrey Rd, Milford Beach appears to be the one surviving house from three that were built within yards of each other in this now highly expensive street. The plan was drawn up in 1944 during a time of material and size restrictions enforced upon the New Zealand public by ‘The Building Controller’; this wartime figure was a Government position which had the power to determine the size allowable for buildings while the country was at war, though this was to extend well beyond the war years. Thus the Reverend Vickery’s house would be called ‘a cottage’ in today’s language, with a ‘living room’, kitchen, toilet and (what could barely be called) a bedroom of 5’8” by 4’6”- but such was the time.
At 24’ft 6” inches long on the northern side and just over 15 ft on the east end, the almost rectangular little mono-pitched roof building was sited on a flat seaward facing section at the far end of Audrey Road. This length of North Shore street would boast two of Vernon Brown’s designs, and yet another of his houses on the ridge of Kitchener St directly above. The iconic Wright house, built for Neville and Betty Wright in 1942, featured in the North Shore City Councils own heritage postcard collection and Heritage walks, but was given no reprieve from demolition, which the last North Shore City Council allowed to proceed only months ago.
The (third) house, built for Max and Eden Robertson (1944) also featured in the North Shore City Heritage postcards, and was on two levels, painted in Brown’s signature style of black creosote and contrasting pale yellow or off white. In the Robertson house the lighter coloured upper level seems almost to float on the dark creosote base which is embedded in the sloping section. The lower level is designated as a “store under house” which, once the Building Controllers’ authority had eventually been diminished after the wars close, would become a living space. That the controls on building size and material weren’t rescinded until the early 1950’s was a continual point of annoyance to architects and the construction industry, though there was some loosening of the controls as time went on. Many houses weren’t completed or ‘added on’ to until three or four years after wars end.
Like the Vickery House, the Robertson’s house was also removed from the beach-front and taken to another location, which Eden believes was Waiuku. This is indeed a possibility as newspaper reports cite the removal of at least two houses by barge, one of which damaged part of the low lying reef – and the operator was forced to pay damages. Another house was photographed being trucked away at low tide.! George Farmer, a property developer and McCahill & Green were two of the companies involved in the removal of these unique buildings, and in fact the Vickery house site has remained empty since the building’s move to Glen Eden some years ago.
The Reverend Vickery had further building done to the small house in 1947- 48, adding another larger north facing bedroom and ‘Bed – Sitting room,’ as well as moving the bathroom. Included in Simpson & Brown’s additions are expansive shelving and cupboards in the bed-sitting room, which are still in evidence at its new site. These additions vastly improved the house’s function, becoming a delightful seaside residence rather than a ‘bach’ by the beach. Over the years Vickery had become involved with the Mission for Seamen in the city, through his work at the Devonport Naval Base. This may have prompted the houses later sale. The house was bought by the Maarsland’s, and as retiring grandparents the house became central to many family gatherings with its holiday ambiance and beachfront position. Granddaughter Emily later lived in the house for many years before it was finally sold to Mr Farmer, whereupon it was moved off the valuable site and transferred to an empty plot in West Auckland, along with another house.
Initially a ‘Lost Property’ and thought to have been demolished by the time Auckland University came to develop an exhibition from Jonathan Gibb’s thesis on Vernon Brown in 2007, the Vickery house’s new owners, now aware of its heritage have been encouraged (partly by its provenance) to continue with restoring what is another delicate thread connecting the present generation to a quickly disappearing built and social history. Another Vernon Brown building thought to be ‘lost’ was the house for Aileen Provis in Torbay. (This also has been found by public research and although altered, is presently, in redeemable condition.!) Hopefully these will not go the way of the Wright house or any number of others, reliant on councils reading of contracted architectural and heritage consultant’s reports.
The three houses in Milford by Vernon Brown and Robin Simpson were a unique group. No where else in the city did such an enclave of buildings by this renowned and important practice still exist. Of the 70+ domestic houses Vernon Brown produced between 1938 and 1962, less than 20 have survived – with the Wright house being a very well known and well preserved example. It’s destruction through inadequate and outdated legislation or council’s inability to intercede demonstrates the lack of value that is accorded these repositories of real people’s lives and aspirations in a society fixated by the influence of money and status. The absurdidity of the North Shore Council’s position (or lack of) is evidence of the need for new governance which is related to the actual local communities’ needs and desires – and this seems unlikely with the development of a SupaCity.
With very few enlightened councillors it seems only by public organisation and initiatives (such as the campaign to save Frank Sargeson’s house) will any of these historic and underappreciated markers of what was a definitive period in this countries growth survive.?
The Provis house: Torbay (1945)
Designed in 1945 for Aileen Provis, the small house was the product of over two plan changes, with the present house differing slightly to both of those held at the University’s Architecture Archive. This is partly due to the house having been re-sited further back (closer to the road) on the same section, to allow a new house to be constructed on the seaward boundary – and partly due to the alterations incurred over its 65 years.
A compact (579 sq/ft ) two bedroom ‘L’ shaped design of a similar style to the ‘Vickery house’ in Milford, the house is a fine example from Simpson and Browns catalogue of nifty ‘cottages for artists/bohemians’. The plans from the April 1945 version not only give the interior square footage, they also provide the space taken up by the inside and outside walls of the ‘small house’ (another 58 sq ft) such were the deliberations required in the time of ‘the Building Controller’.
Classic Simpson and Brown details are still in evidence throughout the present-day version. The ‘Living Room’ boasts fine exposed wooden beams and large windows either side, once allowing light from the morning and evening sun to fill the room. An irregular shaped kitchen and most of the built-in furniture no longer exist, though the quirky board and batten entrance vestibule on the elevation has been retained, but re-sited further around the house. Other interesting interior features include a mezzanine storage area in what is now the master bedroom. Sadly, it seems the fireplace was removed when the house was re-sited, as were the three large water tanks by the backdoor (at the time the area was a coastal outpost, and years from a town water supply.!) The mono-pitch roof, oversized windows, large rough-sawn weatherboards and exposed roof beams, all once painted in creosote and off-white (as described by Betty Nicholson in ‘before the bridge’) would have seemed either wholly appropriate in a seaside community of bachs and gravel roads, or alternative and modern. Either way, Aileen’s house and lifestyle were remembered, and the steep track she took to swim in the sea most days of the year has been named in her honour.
Hopefully her house may also be acknowledged, joining as it does a very unique and diminishing group , after the recent destruction of Betty Wrights house at Milford beach late in 2009.
Vickery house, Dr Doyle’s house, Tidmarsh house, Provis house, Rosten house. – for other information see ‘Block pages’ pdf download on architecture-archive.ac.nz