Red steps shine in all their glory

By Donna McIntyre

Violet Lewis' beloved red stairs at 3 Franklin Road in Ponsonby. Photo / Getty Images
Violet Lewis' beloved red stairs at 3 Franklin Road in Ponsonby. Photo / Getty Images

Ponsonby's Franklin Rd homes are known for their spectacular display of Christmas lights. But even more of an identity within the street was long-term resident Violet Lewis, who was here long before the lights display started.

You can't miss her house at number 3. Its bright red stairs, flanked by large cacti and bougainvillea, lead to the square-fronted villa's veranda, just down from the intersection with Ponsonby Rd.

Her son, Dennis, is not sure why Violet painted the steps red; it may well have been a symbol of her working-class background or perhaps she just liked the colour.

Whatever the reason, those stairs and veranda were Violet's favourite part of her home. One of her six grandchildren, Violetti, named in honour of her grandmother, says: "When she retired she was known for sitting on the deck and talking to the locals. That's how they knew something had happened to her because she wasn't sitting there one day."

Violet died last June, in her 92nd year, marking the end of an era for her family and the street.

"She was a very kind person and I have never heard anyone speak ill of her," says Dennis. "She only had one child, me, but I gave her six grandchildren and they gave her 16 great-grandchildren."

Violet grew up here, shifting from Devonport to Freemans Bay when she was a girl. When her parents died, first her sister lived here, then Violet.

"She spent her childhood here, living through the Depression in the 30s and then the Second World War," says Dennis.

During the war, she worked at Nestles in Parnell and would tuck her own money into the parcels Nestles sent to the armed services. Later, she worked in shoe factories, continuing well into her 70s. "Her last employer said she was never to be fired, even if she fell behind," reminisces Frank. "She was a hard worker."

Dennis says Freemans Bay was very different when he was young. There were no supermarkets, most shops closed at the weekend and a lot of home cooking was done - a far cry from the many restaurants and cafes now dotted along Ponsonby Rd. "Up to when I was 10 or 12, no one ever locked their doors. You could go to work and leave your home unlocked. It wasn't until the 60s that the culture started to change in Auckland."

And he tells how his mother knew everyone in the street. "Neighbours were neighbours, whether they were next door or 10 houses along."

Very little has been changed inside Violet's historic home. Dennis says at different times he has offered to help renovate, but his Mum refused help. "My mother was fiercely independent and would never let me do things."

As Dennis looks through his collection of photographs of family life in this happy home, you wonder if he is tempted to stay here. No, he says. "With Mum gone. The house is not the same without her."

He recognises that the next owner will want to make changes. "It will be someone who is passionate about the area who knows the home has to be renovated. There aren't many houses for sale at the top of this street."

The house has the three bedrooms at the front, off the hallway with its distinctive archway. A living room is on the left before the hallway turns to the right, leading to the dining room, bathroom and kitchen and out to the back porch. Here, steps lead to the backyard where Violet had her vegetable garden.

Original features of the rooms, with their high studs and pressed ceilings, include handsome fireplaces, scroll detailing around ceiling lights, linoleum floor coverings and the Formica benchtop in the kitchen. As Violetti says, this house sale is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a new buyer.

Last month, the family decided to light up Violet's home for the Christmas display. (Violet had never wanted to bother with lights but she was given the honour of turning on the display several times.)

It was a fitting tribute to this salt-of-the-earth resident, made all the more touching when a choir stood on Violet's red steps and began to sing as the lights flickered on.

- NZ Herald

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