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This Dunedin cottage is like something out of a fairytale

An abandoned cottage in Dunedin was this family’s dream come true

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Meet & greet: Rory (framing and truss detailer) and Bella O’Mahony (artist), their daughter Dusty-Rose, five, dog Clover, cat Hecate and canary Sosuke.

The property: Two-bedroom historical cottage in central Dunedin.

Modernising an 1800s Dunedin cottage

When people recount their first impression of the do-up they’ve bought, it often involves a wrinkled nose and distasteful expression. It’s usually only through their exceptional visualisation skills and positive mindset that they can see the potential.

That was not the case for Bella O’Mahony and her husband Rory, however. Where others might have discounted the Dunedin abode in its ramshackle state, all Bella saw was perfection.

“It was this adorable, abandoned fairytale cottage of my wildest dreams. This long, magical path led to a secret hideaway in the middle of central Dunedin and I fell head over heels,” Bella laughs.

“It felt like a cottage from another time and place; something I didn’t know could be found in New Zealand. Sure, there was a lot of work needed, which might have put others off, but I would’ve happily lived in it as it fell down around me because I’m a very impractical, hopeless romantic. Luckily I have an extremely practical and sensible husband who wouldn’t allow that to happen.”

The cottage certainly had its share of fairytale details, with beautiful leadlights, a full library, patterned wallpaper and matching curtains, and a gorgeous wooden staircase with a wee landing at the top – all of which had Bella swooning.

“Most friends on their first visit say things like ‘of course, this is your house; it just makes sense.’ I don’t know what to make of that. We get a lot of Hansel and Gretel comments and everyone wants to know about its history,” Bella says.

The cottage was initially owned by renowned Dunedin whaler Johnny Jones, possibly as a home for his daughter. It was a three-bedroom kitset house brought over from England and built sometime between 1865 and 1875. The living room was added in the 1930s as a music room.

“I was a lost cause. I couldn’t believe we’d found this gorgeous historical cottage and no one had ruined its quaint character by modernising it at any stage. It was fully furnished with many beautiful items when we bought it. Deciding what to keep and what to replace was a big job – it took the best part of a year.”

Despite Bella’s adoration for the cottage as it was when they bought it in 2019, she agreed it would be even better with a bit of a makeover. Over four years, slowly but surely, the couple have shown the old girl some love. The O’Mahonys managed to make this beauty shine for less than $10,000. Of course, keeping to a budget like that meant a lot of grunt work was necessary – Bella and Rory worked really, really hard.

They aimed to refresh, not replace. They painted, pulled up carpet and floors, rewired, sorted drainage and sewerage, put in heating, landscaped, and removed the existing gas fire so they could enjoy the ambience of the open fire. As beautiful as it is, they only light it when they have gatherings. “It takes a huge amount of wood to keep it going.”

Additions and subtractions

For more than a year they spent most of their weekends in the garden, landscaping. Removing the resolutely stuck 1930s lino under the carpet in the main bedroom may have resulted in a few swear words. And, worst of all, it took a few weeks to get internet to the house: “I think that may have been the biggest challenge for me,” says Bella.

It was the 1950s kitchen that needed the most work but made the biggest difference. They ripped out shelves and cupboards, repaired ceiling damage, removed the lino and varnished the floors, and put up open shelving to make it more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. Rory cleverly whipped up a new benchtop. The whole kitchen renovation was finished with a lick of fresh paint.

Bella loves the colour they landed on, but finding the right shade wasn’t an easy job for the artist.

“Annoyingly, I had a colour in mind for the cupboards and wouldn’t settle for anything less, so I ended up mixing my own colour. Then I couldn’t decide on a wall colour for three years until I tried a colour my sister had. It hadn’t worked in her kitchen but it was right for ours.”

Choosing the right colour for the bathroom didn’t take quite so long. “I chose the colour for the toilet on a whim, then I liked it so much I painted the bathroom that colour, too. I just loved the moodiness and richness of the colour in contrast to the rest of the house. It immediately transformed the shiny peach bathroom, which you wanted to get out of as soon as possible, into a luxurious little retreat.”

Speaking of painting, it turns out Bella and Rory aren’t the only dab hands with a paintbrush. Much to their entertainment, a closer inspection revealed that all the wooden beams in the house had been very skilfully painted to look like bare wood. “They must’ve been painted over, and then someone changed their mind and took on the impressive task of making them look like wood again.”

When asked to describe their interior style, Bella laughs. “We both have strong opinions about aesthetics. Rory has a penchant for the gothic/macabre and I lean towards little old lady/vintage clutter-core, if that’s a thing. We butted heads a lot in the early days of our relationship, but over the years I think our taste has blended quite well. These days we only have minor passive-aggressive disputes about the placement of things, like moving something and finding it moved back the next day.”

She adds that having a house with such a distinctive style gives them boundaries to work with when making décor decisions. It also helps that she’s become more selective with her purchases over time rather than buying whatever catches her eye.

“When we moved in, we put all our stuff and art wherever it fitted and then – as we lived in the space – we rotated, shuffled, upgraded and replaced items until it felt right.”

Finders, keepers

Much of their decorative items come from op-shops and thrift stores Bella frequents, some of which are dangerously close to home. Others have been handed down from family members who have finally given in to Bella’s nagging when something takes her fancy. Some came with the house, like the piano.

“It’s really just a plant stand that came with the house and was too heavy to move out. It’s definitely grown on us and Dusty likes to serenade us by plonking on the out-of-tune keys.”

The walls are jam-packed with art, most of it by Bella, her sister, her mum and artist friends. They sit among op-shop pieces picked up over the years. There’s no criteria for what art makes the cut – if they love it, up it goes.

Not only does having so many of their possessions on show give the house personality and a homely vibe, but it also creates a sanctuary for the family of three to enjoy. Rory has guitars within arm’s reach in multiple rooms around the house, both adding visual interest and making it easy for him to pick up and play on a whim.

The books in the library aren’t just for show – the shelves groan with favourite reads. Rory collects music, motorcycle and biography books; Bella collects Jane Austen, classics and fantasy.

Type cases in the entrance and Dusty-Rose’s room are full of tiny memories from throughout the years the couple have been together, making a starting point for chats about the past with Dusty-Rose. The pew on the veranda is the perfect spot for a cuppa after a day in the garden.

“It’s a visually beautiful environment and we all have our own space to retreat to if we need to,” says Bella. “The layout is somehow perfect and easy to live in. Dusty particularly loves that there’s a circuit through Rory’s study to the kitchen, then back to the entrance to run around continuously with the cat chasing her.

The big window in the living room is a pretty special spot – the sun pours in and we’ve hung a bird feeder just outside so we can watch the tauhou and korimako feasting.”

Family history

The garden is a work in progress, requiring an incredible amount of work and often taking second place as the couple focuses on the house. Bella loves to garden, though, and takes pleasure in planting whatever she’s drawn to, then shuffling and rearranging the placement if it’s not to her liking.

“I’m building a collection of David Austin roses and I love to add scatterings of annuals – anything fluffy and in shades of burgundy, purple and blue,” she says.

With so much heart in this cottage – both from the house and the stamp Bella and Rory have put on it – the family won’t be ending this fairytale anytime soon.

“We love that our home has a history and tells a story. We feel lucky to be caretakers of it, respecting what it was already and giving it a new life. I’m staying here until they have to drag me out, Dusty-Rose reckons she’s never leaving either, but Rory fantasises about a simple modern house in the country without a garden or any maintenance to do – I think he’d get bored.”

Words by: Debbie Harrison. Photography by: Rachel Wybrow

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