Being a Brit by birth, the word townhouse conjures up gentrified and noble connotations. Townhouses were originally the city residences of members of the aristocracy and more often than not, they were terraced dwellings – squeezed together side-by-side in much the same way as the homes of far less wealthy city residents – but they were significantly larger and in more affluent locations.
It’s ironic then, that the word townhouse has such positive connotations but terraced housing doesn’t. As a kid I grew up in a Victorian terraced house in a close-knit community in central London. You could easily argue that the strong relationships we had with our neighbours was shaped by the closeness of the housing in which we lived; the highs and lows of family life were dimly audible through the thick brick walls, burglaries were quickly noticed and reported to the police, we spent long summer evenings playing and barbecuing in each other’s gardens and most Sundays we took turns hosting lunch and killer poker tournaments. In my mind those days are a big jumble of arms and legs, laughter and tears, kindness and quarrels and as a family, we’re still in touch with many of those neighbours all these decades later.
A well executed terraced house is the perfect answer to the modern day requirement for compact, centrally-located housing and to my mind, the townhouses on Napier Street in Freemans Bay are the best example of townhouse design in this country. These houses were designed and built in the 1980s by the well renowned architect Marshall Cook who is known for his ability to marry pragmatism with experimentation.
The block stretches the length of one side of Napier Street and sits tucked behind Franklin Road, shielded from the city which tumbles down Victoria Street West behind them. With their colourful facades, the block previously known as the Fruit Bowl is the defining characteristic of the street (although as the years go by, subsequent paint jobs have seen the exterior colour schemes become more muted.)
Cook’s simple and practical design can be seen throughout these properties. The kitchen windows jut out onto the street, filling the space with natural light and making it easier to get rid of cooking steam and smells. Floor-to-ceiling windows and doors extend across the rear of the houses and look out onto secluded north facing gardens, warming the interior of these homes naturally with the sun. Parking is tucked away off the street in garages behind the houses with access to each property coming directly in from the back garden so there’s no interruption to the façade of the block and late night revelers can’t disturb the people sleeping inside when they come home. A procession of mature trees along the street filter the light throughout the day and buffer the noise of the city behind and the spacious interior floor area includes a separate laundry and a guest loo. Ownership is on individual Unit Titles with equitable and neatly defined boundaries and the annual Body Corporate fee is entirely reasonable.
These tough but chic little properties are made of robust and durable materials and their skillful use of light and climate is a signature theme in Marshall Cook’s work. The columns, arched doorways and sliding shutters that adorn the front of the properties help to create a bustling street atmosphere and reflect the intensity and liveliness of the area. An aerial view of the block reveals a jaunty tangle of houses, gardens and garages that complements the slightly dotty exterior.
It’s clear that I’m not alone in my love for these properties; when my colleague James and I sold one of these townhouses a few months back, we were flattened by the number of buyers who wanted to have a look through and we had presented our client with the first of several offers only a few hours after the sign had gone up. The only two open homes we held were over-run with buyers, many of whom lingered in the sunshine spilling across the living room long after closing time.
No doubt Marshall Cook’s Napier Street townhouses will continue to increase in popularity as they are every bit as enduring as they are endearing. And with the average Freemans Bay sale price exceeding its CV by around $115,000, they will no doubt continue to increase in value as well. The new developments rolling out at Victoria Park Market and Rhubarb Lane and the rejuvenation of historic local landmarks like the Campbell Free Kindergarten building and the Rob Roy Hotel are set to make Freemans Bay one of the most exciting suburbs in central Auckland. Mr Cook’s perfect townhouses will finally be in good company.