Domain: How to renovate a modest Australian 1950s home in a posh suburb

The following article was published on Domain and The Age on 27 Oct 2021 Author: Jenny Brown

A mid-century Beaumaris gem was saved, restored and enhanced. Photo: Wilko Doehring

It was fortunate the blond-brick Beaumaris house, built circa 1954, fell into the hands of a contemporary architect who understood how to honour its unpretentious bones.

With broken windows, mouldy carpets, obvious termite activity and a leaking roof, it was almost down to its skeletal structure to the degree that the place was advertised for sale as “a blank canvas”: A big bayside Melbourne block with three frontages and two titles was a sitting duck development site.

Fortunately for the dwindling stock of mid-century houses in one of Australia’s most famous mid-century enclaves, a backyard sewer easement scared off redevelopers and left it to Wilko Doehring to “go outside our price range” and buy it.

“It was too nice to knock down,” he says. “We were just lucky we were the highest bidders.”

From the street: a Beaumaris mid-century beauty. Photo: Wilko Doehring

Over four years, using practised skills and an admirable restraint that didn’t muddy an original, Doehring – who works with John Wardle Architects – pulled “a quite humble three-bedroom house in which I could see the potential”, back from the brink.

Although the name of the designer of the home remains unknown, Doehring could see a professional had been involved. “The grand entrance is the one big gesture and that’s why I’m sure it was done by an architect.”

Doing a lot of the manual work himself – “I’m good with a nail gun and router”- he repaired many of the ’50s characteristic Stegbar window/walls, removed one load-bearing inside wall between kitchen and dining area, sorted out the hardwood floors, and matched in Tasmanian oak veneered cabinetry, to create a sparsely elegant house, admirable for its lack of architectural statement.

Doehring says most of the new work is in the substance that can’t be seen: the beefed-up insulation that changed “a bitterly cold house in winter to one where now I can run around in T-shirts”, for instance.

The clarity of the mid-century restoration celebrates the best of the era’s attributes. Photo: Derek Swalwell
The internal bricks were deftly repointed and re-bagged to create another pattern in a simple home. Photo: Derek Swalwell

The numerous, virtually invisible new operational qualities have brought the home for his young family up to passive house standards. “Everything is airtight.”

But let’s drill down into the German-trained architect’s ethos of “keeping things simple; of letting things speak for themselves. Things don’t need to scream like a red Ferrari,” he says.

The great success of this light and lovely home is in the subtlety of the detailing; in the tricks that architects know how to apply.

With the main aim of improving the liveability – which was to make a small house feel bigger, and for spaces to flow into each other and to the outdoors – the non-brick interior walls and ceilings and windows were painted white. The same “carefully chosen white. Dulux Natural White that is not too yellow and not too pink”.

But that same white “is in three different gloss levels to make rooms look bigger. The ceiling woodwork is matte. The windows are satin. The different levels of gloss mean it doesn’t look bitsy”.

The wonderfully sound exterior brick walls were good to go, while the internal brick blades were repointed.

But Doehring explains how the vertical lines were pointed to be flush with the brick surface, while the horizontal incisions were more deeply indented. “The bricklayer had never done that before but it creates another pattern.”

Keeping with such subtle interplay, the inside bricks were also lightly rendered with an especially white cement from South Australia, mixed with three parts yellow sand. “That was the biggest bang for $10 bucks that I got.”

It’s also another part of the palette of inclusions in which “everything is natural. Nothing is plastic”.

On the theme of sand in the sandbelt southern suburb of “Beauy”, the architect wrenched out the dark, overgrown tangle of introduced plants to leave only the natives, and particularly the coastal-characteristic twisting tea trees that poke through the new deck that has been lifted to the level of the internal floors.

Then, on top of the too-dark soil that had resulted from almost 70 years of the wrong decaying humus, he overlayed 30 cubic metres of sand; “a self-compacting sand that gives it that sandy look”.

How cool. How right is all of that discreet detailing and tasteful moderation?

Instagram: @wilkodoehring

A 1950s Beaumaris house was reinvigorated and released from a choking garden. Photo: Derek Swalwell