On Monday morning, Wendy said she was taking us to her friend Lea's house, located an hour away in Coatesville, outside of Auckland. She didn't say much about it, later commenting that she had wanted us to be surprised. Well we were. It blew us away. It was a fantasy house, an artist's dream house, a storybook house. The Millhouse was built by Robert and Lea Chapman from old, recycled & antique architectural salvage. Robert was an advertising executive with a passion for fine woodworking and building. They searched the world over for the beams, windows, millwork and doors and doodads (including dados) and assembled them beside the forest, aside a lake.
We were torn between greeting our hostess, wandering wide-eyed and open-mouthed through the house, and shooting photos. There were photo moments at every turn. Lea and Wendy just stood there with huge smiles on their faces, watching us as we again turned into little children, eyes big as saucers. When we gained our composure, Lea took us on the formal tour of the house that was first and foremost a home, but also had seen time as a venue for weddings, business conferences and garden party teas.
I appraise real estate and over the 24 years of doing so, I have been in some pretty impressive homes in and around the Washington, DC area, but this one was way above anything I have ever seen. It wasn't just the house itself, but the interior still lifes at ever turn. The furnishings were period, the attention to detail was exquisite, even the bathrooms were fit for a king with a Royal Dalton commode. There was not one space that was not artfully arranged. Very English country living. In fact the house has appeared in several home & garden magazines and was even featured in a television special of Extraordinary Homes which aired in the US a year or so ago.
The guest bedrooms were themed - the British bedroom with a four-poster bed Robert crafted that was indeed royal(Wendy's room), and the lavender-scented French bedroom, with hand-tied lavender bundles that Lea collected from her garden, strung above each bed. This was our room. A storybook setting for two women living in what felt like a fairy tale. The plan was to pick up Lea and drop off our suitcases, then head to the Bay of Islands for 2 days of sightseeing, but nina and I were content to settle in to the Millhouse for the duration of our trip. A big fan of English country living, one of my favorite things was the big round table topped with stacks of french, british, australian and new zealand magazines. You know, like 20 high, maybe 12 stacks, all full of photos of homes, gardens and interiors. I would have been content to stay at the Millhouse and thumb through each and every one of them. I snatched a few to read in the car on the 3 hour drive north, hoping to prolong the visual feast of the Millhouse.
We had tea on the front porch while Lea shared some of the house's history with us. There were stories behind each acquisition, tales of trips they took to find just the right beam or floorboards. Robert had passed away 2 years ago and the house no longer held the functions that it did in the past...but the memories were there - Robert dressed in his Officer's uniform, or his cowboy outfit (he loved the US Wild West).
The letters he left for Lea to find after he was gone. The chalk writings on the wall - such an impermanent material for such lasting messages. We were in an extraordinary house in the presence of an extraordinary spirit. A house of marvels, yes, that's what it was. Yet above all it was an inviting and comfortable home. We'll come back to the Millhouse, spending the night there before we leave New Zealand for Australia.
It is time to head north, to the Bay of Islands. Again, we did not know what Wendy had planned for us, but by now we were confidant that it would be extraordinary. Was all of New Zealand like this or was Wendy just an excellent tour guide? I think the answer to that is both.