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How this artistic couple gave a historical Wellington apartment new life

It must have been fate that led two globe-trotting Royal New Zealand Ballet leading lights to a neglected, historical Cuba Street penthouse apartment in Wellington

Before settling in Wellington as the Royal New Zealand Ballet’s artistic director, Patricia Barker and her husband Michael Auer had only spent three days on a whistle-stop tour of the country as a quick break from their company’s tour of Australia in 1979. Between then and now, Patricia has been the artistic director of the Grand Rapids Ballet and been a principal dancer. Aside from the RNZB keeping her busy, she’s undertaken a two-year makeover of her inner-city Wellington apartment.

Can you tell us about your apartment? We live in the heart of Wellington, in Cuba Mall. We are part owners of a historical building that, collectively, we are preserving by earthquake strengthening to ensure its survival for future generations. We occupy the top two floors. There are Juliet balconies on the first floor overlooking Cuba Mall. We have additional balconies, one with a view of Glover Park and two larger balconies on the top floor with panoramic views of the city, mountains and water. The space has all-day sun, when we have sun, which Lola the dog we adopted from the SPCA during the first lockdown, follows throughout the day. The open concept spreads itself over the two floors with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms. A kitchenette on the second level extends to one of the balconies, which allows for great entertaining and plenty of room for guests.

What drew you to the apartment? I love living in the city and being a part of its heartbeat. I like taking part in all the vitality that a city has to offer. In the beginning, I sublet a beautiful place on Cuba Street – way up at the top. Walking to and from the St James every day, I just fell in love with the vibe of Cuba Street – the restaurants, boutique specialty shops and the eclectic individuals. Something fun is always taking place. When we decided to buy, my husband and I (him still in Grand Rapids, USA, me in Wellington), both found the space on Trade Me. I told him I was going to go see a place and he sent me an email asking me to go see the same place. It was fate. I loved the space the moment I walked in: high ceilings, lots of light, balconies, space for friends and a block or so from Kaffee Eis and Duck Island – what could be better? We made an offer and got it.

Had you previously lived in apartments and did you particularly want one or were you open to all types of dwellings? I’ve lived in apartments and houses. I spend a fair amount of time on the road during each season and am a bit of a workaholic – I spend an incredible amount of time in the studio and in my office. I’ve always relied on my surroundings at home to keep me in good spirits and well-balanced – the space I live in has everything designed for our wellbeing. Whether I live in a conventional home or an apartment, it needs to be inviting, comfortable, light and spacious.

What was the apartment like when you moved in? The apartment had style but was a bit outdated and not our style. The brick walls were hidden, the flooring was carpet and dark, the dining room and simple kitchen were raised by three steps from the main living area; and the balconies forgotten and unkempt.

You’ve been working on making it over – what’s been done? We gutted the main rooms, living room, dining room and kitchen. We exposed the beautiful brick walls and steel work that was put in place for earthquake strengthening. We took the carpet out, broke down and removed the raised areas, taking the space back to all the same level, we gutted the kitchen all the way back to the studded walls. We put in a chef’s kitchen, including a six-burner gas range and stove, double fridge and freezer – the largest we could fit in the elevator – granite countertops and installed the largest sink we could find. We found extra space for an open pantry, cleaned up the decks, and brought in new trees and plantings.

You’ve laid parquet flooring – was it a mission? When we stripped everything out to the original floors, we were hopeful they would be in decent enough shape to fix and polish but that was not the case. There were too many boards missing and the floor we did discover was not salvageable, so new parquet it was. In hindsight, I am happy we went with a new floor – the light oak keeps the space bright and elegant. We went with a basketweave mosaic, with dark oak squares for the entry and kitchen, and herringbone for the now-open dining and living area.

You’ve lived in plenty of places internationally – did you draw from this when you were deciding on the renovation process? Michael grew up in Vienna and in the summer vacationed in Italy. We have taken trips along the Italian shores together, all the way to Nice and Monte Carlo. I worked in Slovakia and Hungary, and Michael in Switzerland. Since this is not our first pony ride owning and restoring a home, we pulled from our favorite memories for inspiration. Michael jokingly calls the style ‘postmodern baroque’.

What was non-negotiable for you to have? Wood floors, a gas range, spa and our beautiful antiques.

Where did you save and where did you splurge? We didn’t save, we splurged for how we wanted to live, and the joy we wanted to have living here.

How long has the process taken? There are always new projects to embark on, but it has taken two years. The middle of a pandemic has been an interesting time to remodel, especially when all the building supply stores were closed. When the first lockdown was announced, we walked through every room with a pen and paper writing down everything we could think of that we would need so we could continue our projects during lockdown. We rushed to as many stores as possible and purchased as many things on our list as we could find. We were very busy during lockdown – balancing work over Zoom with working on the house, and training our new puppy, lovingly nicknamed ‘Lockdown Lola’.

What’s your favourite place in the apartment now and how do you use it? I have two. One is the glass room. If there is even just the smallest bit of sun you feel as if you are in a garden, and if there is full sun, it feels as if you are in a cafe on the promenade. My second is the living room area, sitting among the plants, fire blazing and close enough to the kitchen where another glass of wine is within reach while Michael makes dinner, it’s sublime.

Due to Covid restrictions, the RNZB nationwide tour A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been cancelled but a broadcast of the production will be available online in early December. Visit rnzb.org.nz to buy an access code. Next year, RNZB will be performing Venus Rising in Feb/Mar, Swan Lake in May/June and Cinderella in August.

Words by: Fiona Hawtin. Photography by: Anna Briggs.

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