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Henley beach renovation: A rare find

The jaw-dropping extension and renovation of a much-loved Henley Beach character home represents a harmony of the old and new.

Sitting proudly on one of Henley Beach’s iconic residential strips, with a gabled roofline and sandstone frontage, Elise Heyes and Brett Filsell’s historic character home garners plenty of attention from local passers-by.

The modern extension is cleverly hidden behind the charming Tudor exterior, framed by the street’s famous Norfolk Island pines, which can be seen from kilometres away. Some of the historic trees were planted by one of the home’s previous owners.

When the home was being built in 1932, the now-sought-after street was merely a dirt road that marked the eastern boundary of the Henley township, beyond which cows grazed on swampland that was regularly flooded by the River Torrens.

Despite the adversity of the Great Depression, and the fact the home was constructed with stone carted down from the Hills and laid on sand, the Tudor home has held true for 88 years, thanks to care bestowed upon it by remarkably few owners.

Elise and Brett became the most recent custodians of the property in 2012, enchanted by the home’s unique aesthetic, gabled roof, and gorgeous art deco-inspired features.

“It was a beautiful home with really good bones, which is important for me as a builder,” Brett says. “There was a lot of love in the house and it had been well looked after, so it just seemed like a great platform for a family home.”

Both Elise and Brett have country roots, but from opposite ends of the state, with Brett born in Naracoorte and Elise raised in the Mid North. Their country upbringings and a love for the outdoors played a major role in the design of the renovation and extension, with a desire for plenty of open space and room for their two young sons.

“There’s also still that bit of a country feel to the little pocket here at Henley,” says Brett. “We know all our neighbours and there’s still that friendly wave you get. The local butcher has been here forever and knows you by name.”

Elise says that living in the property for a few years gave the family time to appreciate its nuances and west-facing orientation. “Often, it’s a great idea to get a feel for the home by living in it before deciding what you want to do,” Elise says. “When our boys Lincoln and Hudson had grown a bit older, we decided we were ready.”

Building can be a stressful endeavour for any young family, yet Brett and Elise have the extra pressure of working together in running their business, BTF Constructions. And although they have helped many other families create dream homes over the years, Brett says it was difficult to find time to build their own.

“I’d always worked on other people’s homes to create something amazing for them to enjoy, but I never had the time to do our own,” says Brett, who started his career as an apprentice carpenter and is now a custom home builder.

Brett specialises in building new homes and resurrecting character homes in the area. For this project, council rules dictated the home’s frontage could not be altered. “Some of the features in the extension are only what you see in a new, modern, high-end home, but at the same time there are many handcrafted heritage elements. It was wonderful to be able to include both,” Brett says.

Elise shares Brett’s passion for historic homes and the one-of-a-kind Tudor style. “There are not a lot of Tudors in the area; definitely less than the more common bungalow style. None of which have the same facade and internal detail,” she says.

“We’ve gained a greater appreciation of the craftmanship which went in to building homes back in the day.”

Upon entering the property, a wide hallway greets visitors with original art deco features. This period front section contains Lincoln and Hudson’s bedrooms, a bathroom, and guest quarters. The bathroom is appointed with neutral tones for timeless appeal and, being on the southern side of the home, a recessed skylight was added for light and to provide the bathtub with a view of the sky.

There is also a living room with the original decorative ceiling plaster; an irreplaceable feature that Brett was particularly conscious of preserving during the build. At knee-level, a sliding picture window provides light from the courtyard garden.

“This is a multi-purpose room — ‘Lego Land’, we call it. We spend hours and hours building stuff here with the kids, fittingly. It’s a great little space for them; future builders in the making,” Elise says.

For the floorboards, the couple opted for shining gum — an Australian hardwood — while spotted gum was used for features throughout the home. “We wanted to keep it Australian where we could, rather than using American timbers,” Brett says.

It’s at the end of the corridor where the grandeur of the extension comes into play. Rather than building directly onto the back of the house, the couple created a buffer of two glazed courtyards to separate the old and new.

The spacious living and dining area creates a grand impression, but to look back upon the original brick wall is equally stunning, with Henley’s iconic Norfolk Island pines peeking over the top of the roof and visible through the picture windows. At night, the illuminated garden projects silhouettes onto the bare brick.

“We were able to meet the old and the new together with the original red brick; that’s our artwork,” says Elise, who hand-picked and cleaned recycled bricks to fill in spaces in the wall.

Inside the courtyard, a large maritime chain hangs from a jetty sleeper; both of which required heavy lifting to install. The family were holidaying at their Yorke Peninsula shack when they discovered a few sleepers washed up on the sand after a monster storm had obliterated a few of the local jetties.

The chain was procured through a family member at Wallaroo to complete the coastal-themed installation. “They’re a couple of elements of us that we wanted to incorporate into the home, and I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon,” Brett says.

A purpose-built wine area reflects Elise’s background working in sustainable viticulture in the Barossa and also provides a connection to her grandfather who was a vigneron at Waikerie. The elegant space was created as an alternative to an underground cellar.

The home is split into two sections; the front half for the children, and the back half for the parents. The hallway can be sectioned off with a sliding glass door that is built into a recess.

The master bedroom is flanked by a view to the back yard and a walk-in-robe that leads through to a luxury en suite, which embodies Elise’s eye for design. “I wanted a luxe bathroom, so it was about how we could fit a bath in here, given we had built the courtyard garden. It’s pretty amazing to be able to see the stars through the skylight at night,” Elise says.

The home is full of subtle details and finishes that only the eye of a tradesperson might pick up. Even the concrete barbecue benchtop is a mini marvel of construction, cantilevered and extending to create a right-angle garden bench next to the veggie patch.

“Credit to all the trades that worked on the job,” Brett says. “They threw us some curve balls as well — we were at framing stage when the supervisor came in and said wouldn’t it be great to have a picture window up there on the rear wall? So we had to figure out how to make it work.”

Elise says the end result is a combination of their combined personalities and tastes. “It’s an expression of us; what we like, and how we live,” she says.

Enjoying moments in the sun-filled back yard with their boys are when the couple realise all the work was worth it; the pine trees visible through the picture windows in the rear wall.

“The Norfolks are synonymous with Henley Beach, and although we have a love-hate relationship with them because they cause a lot of maintenance, the kids earn their pocket money picking up pine needles,” says Elise.

In decades to come, the home may serve as a timeless snapshot, just as the historic villa has for almost 90 years. “We often have people comment. Just walking down the street, they’ll stop and ask us questions — locals that have seen the transformation — so that’s a really nice feeling when someone asks a question or gives you a compliment,” Brett says.

“Everyone wants to be proud of where they live, and we definitely are.”


This story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.