A decade or two ago — Ponsonby, Westmere and environs were the affordable domains of immigrants, students, artists and bohemians. That's what Gideon Keith remembers, when in 1989, his mother, artist Susan Firth, bought her property on the edge of the harbour on Rawene Ave.
"Honestly, this part of Auckland was still the wild west, it was all Susan's artist friends,"
"She began planning her dream house with her friend architect Grant Copeland, living in the old bungalow on the site. Her father Ted Firth was a great environmentalist in the Waikato, the family loved the bush at Hahei and Mount Pirongia. Her family was the Firth Concrete, so were trailblazers with the new material.
"And her grandfather had a house with a garden inside. So this was realising her dream. You think you could be in the Kaipara, not the middle of the city."
The house that Susan designed in such detail is an extraordinary building: tucked down a shell driveway edged in palms hides a glass-topped gable roof over an entire indoor tropical garden.
The 1998 home is Roman courtyard meets Bali retreat, with lashings of Susan's coloured tiles edging paths, kitchen splashback and bathroom walls.
Inside the house, ahead-of-its-time double glazing keeps the temperature even all year around, with automatic vents opening to circulate air.
The back garden is a riot of natives, tropical and edible plants edging the lawns, with big and small seating areas tucked at various spots for views or privacy — and to showcase Susan's enviable sculptures from name artists.
Susan managed to tuck in a potting shed down one boundary, a utility and vege garden down the other, but the key charm of this garden is the sea lapping at the bottom of the steps and the close up views of Kauri Point and Birkenhead on the other side of the harbour.
Neighbours have dotted boat sheds and jetties into the water, and Gideon says these rights still exist for Susan's house.
Susan died six years ago and nearly two years ago her son Gideon, his wife Elena and children Spike, 13, and Ivy, 12, inherited the house from Susan's partner and set about gently restoring it.
A modern electronic system controls irrigation and ventilation as well as the usual safety and security.
With one exception, the layout of the house is surprisingly practical. The exception is the bathroom, vanity, shower and huge green spa bath — open to the tropical garden. Elena laughs that many a time she sat on the loo and chatted to Susan busy in the kitchen on the other side of the jungle (trees obscure views, but even so).
On one side of the bathing area, Susan's former studio, with french doors to the back yard, is now Ivy's bedroom, while on the other side is Spike's room, carved into a music studio.
The kitchen is the hub of the living side of the jungle, with cleverly designed cupboards, handmade tiles and a generous bench that always had people gathered around it. The parquet floors mark these as the 'indoor' part of the house .
The sitting room is the only internal room — leaving plenty of wall space for the family's collection of art, sofas grouped around a huge open fireplace. Up the curved staircase — steel balustrades designed, of course, by Susan — is the master suite.
But it is the expanding need for office space, music studios for Spike and more room for visiting friends and family that has prompted Gideon and Elena to sell.