Villas get new life

PATTIE PEGLER
Last updated 10:56 27/09/2012

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Papanui's gracious old villas are being converted into modern boutique businesses.

Viva la villa

Take away the sign from outside Mille Feuille bridal wear and you wouldn't know it was a shop at all.  
In the single-arch windows of this 1940s double-storey villa hang vintage bridal gowns, their faded, ivory elegance sitting comfortably with the graceful old, weatherboard building.  

Inside, owner Robyn Stewart and her sedate wire-haired terrier greet clients in what was once the living room of this former home. It is comfortable and welcoming and, although not designed for this purpose, it feels like the perfect place for brides to sit and discuss their dream dress.  

Robyn is not alone in choosing to run her business from a former residence. It is an increasing trend in Papanui, and unsurprising, given that commercial space is at a premium in post-quake Christchurch. Business owners are having to be innovative and that can mean shifting into premises they might not previously have considered.

Robyn and her bridal-wear business have made five moves since the September 2010 earthquake. She found the prices in Merivale "ridiculous" and the new hub areas, such as Addington, weren't quite the right fit for her shop, so she widened her search to include residences on main roads and came across a weatherboard villa on Papanui Rd.   

"We just love it; we feel like we've come home," Robyn says.  

Although not designed as a shop, the building works well. It had recently been painted and the different rooms and nooks and crannies lend themselves well to displaying bridal accessories. Delicate silk wedding shoes sit in a recessed wall cabinet, vintage dresses are dotted around, and the lighting is soft and warm.  

Upstairs, there is a large sewing room, where dresses are made. Ample windows look out over the street and leafy gardens, giving a feeling of light and space.  Next door, a former bedroom has become a homely office area.

Originally from Australia, Robyn set up her bridal business six years ago, when she decided to make her hobby her work. She started off working from home for the "welcoming, warmth and relaxed feel that you get". It's an atmosphere she feels has been recreated in the villa and it has been good for business.  

Mille Feuille has grown more this year than any other year, despite being away from other retailers. In fact, it has done so well that Robyn is adding another staff member to her small team. She is also surprised by the level of foot traffic on Papanui Rd. "We get around three or four people a day just popping in after they've seen the sign on the road."

Robyn's enthusiasm for her unconventional work space is echoed further up the road towards Merivale, in the menswear shop Working Style. The black, double-storeyed, weatherboard house forms a bookend to the corner of Papanui Rd and Murray Pl.  

Fraser Bremford, southern director of Working Style, says various options were considered after the February 2011 earthquake displaced the business from the corner of Lichfield and Colombo streets. Moving to this heritage house was "most difficult to achieve because of insurance issues".  But, despite this, it was the most exciting option because of the potential.  

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The house was originally a doctor's residence in the 1940s. Since then, it has had other lives as a language school and a Hungarian consulate. However, walk in now and it feels like a refined gentlemen's club, all dark wood and period accessories.  

Fraser says he and his colleagues were initially concerned about being isolated from other retailers and also how the space might work for them. But, as it turned out, the villa has worked exceptionally well. Because it was originally a GP's house and surgery, it was laid out in a way that was quite easy to adapt to Working Style's needs.  

The former surgery has become the changing room and the reception is now a welcoming entrance hallway to the shop. The front room has a pool table and a beautiful original fireplace in Oamaru stone. It is easy to imagine elegantly dressed men drinking malt whisky in the battered leather armchairs. Suits, tailored shirts and shoes are on display in what seems their perfect environment.  

"We haven't really done anything to it. There's a lot of natural light and it's north facing," Fraser says. "We ripped up carpets, stained floorboards ... all we did was enhance what was here."

Working Style must have got it right because it has received an award from the Christchurch Civic Trust for renovating and revitalising a heritage building. "It was a real feather in our cap because initially there was an uncertainty, a concern" in the local community that it would end up just looking like a shop, Fraser says.
"We're really stoked with where we've ended up ... it's a wonderful place to come to every day."

Of course, it's not just the business owners that benefit from working in appealing buildings. They also offer a different experience for the customer, as Malcolm Fleet and Karen Smith, of women's boutique Victoria Black, have discovered.

"The thing with converting a villa is the ambience is fantastic and the customers adore it," Malcolm says. While they might have lost some foot traffic when they relocated from their damaged High St premises (they are now tucked away on Office Rd), Victoria Black's loyal customers have followed and the business has gained new ones in nearby residents.

Some shoppers are less keen on getting lost in big malls or busy shopping areas these days, preferring to see daylight and space. The Victoria Black store offers both, as well as a feeling of relaxation. The villa, painted black on the exterior, has a bright white and polished wood interior. Outside, there's an elegant verandah and decking, with a wrought-iron table and chairs, perfect for a mid-shop cup of tea. "Customers spend time with us now. It's become a more personal shopping experience," Malcolm says.

The Victoria Black store didn't just happen. Malcolm and Karen had to do some serious work to make the space function for them. "We were excited because we'd found somewhere to operate from, but also there was a sense of 'oh my god', because there were cracks everywhere, the chimneys were down, the garage was down." However, undaunted by the task, the pair set about getting ready for business.  

"The main thing is layout," Malcolm says. "There were doors everywhere and so we took those off to give a more free flow."

The individual rooms also meant it was difficult to fit in clothes stands, so they had to source made-to-measure retail fittings. Designing shop lighting was also an important part of the process, but the result is impressive.

"It's absolutely superb. Karen adores her working space," Malcolm says.

For jeweller Julian Harding, also on Papanui Rd, the challenges of working out of a residential space came in a different form. Julian has been in the jewellery business since he was 16, and has been working from his studio for five years.  Before that, he worked in Hereford St, but a combination of health issues and an expiring lease prompted him to take a new approach to his working space.

Julian decided to work from his turn-of-the-century home and set about extending it so that it fronted on to Papanui Rd. In a completely sympathetic style, a workshop and client area have been added to the 1906 weatherboard villa.

A striking black and white décor and welcoming sofas reflect a professional atmosphere. Offsetting these are homely aspects - a radio playing in the background and a fluffy white dog padding out to greet visitors. Two workbenches are supported by old sewing-machine legs. It's a quirky and relaxed environment and a lovely place to work, says Julian, who would never move his business back to the inner city.

Five years ago, the concept of working from home was not as common as it is now. "I always thought there'd be some negative reaction from clients. People think of working from home and think of someone in their garage," Julian says.  But clients were delighted with the new space.  

There have been challenges, however. Some neighbours were concerned about a retail element encroaching on a residential area. Julian liaised with the Christchurch City Council, which he says was very sympathetic, and he abides strictly by the rules that have been set. He must have the studio blinds down by 5pm, is not permitted to have anything displayed in the window, and client visits must be by appointment only. But even this has its benefits, Julian says, as it allows him to organise his working day more effectively.

Some might worry about the use of heritage homes as businesses, but the reality is the old buildings can be expensive and labour-intensive to maintain, which can be daunting for homeowners.  

One man who knows all about the realities of villa ownership is Murray Williams, of the Papanui Heritage Group. Passionate about heritage homes, he also used to live in an old villa and while he thinks they are beautiful, they also present a lot of challenges.

"Most have no insulation; they tend to be draughty," he says. "Heat-pumps don't really fit in with the look of the place and log burners are no longer allowed, so that can be tricky". Then there's the regular maintenance. "I used to set aside two weeks a year just to paint the outside of the house."

Murray agrees that is a turn-off for some and believes "if businesses are interested in maintaining these buildings, that's a good thing".

"It's better than someone looking at it and thinking, 'I'll just clear it and put up a block of flats'."

In many cases, business owners are prepared to spend the time and money to preserve these old beauties. Raj Biala recently reopened the Maharaja restaurant, which he owns with his father, Vijay, at new premises on Papanui Rd.  

When they first came across the 19th century square house, it was very rundown. Originally built as a home, its most recent use was as an office. Much work was required to bring it up to the standard required for a pleasant dining environment. The Bialas enlisted the help of an architect and started restoring and upgrading the house.

"From the inside, we insulated the ceiling and walls, stripped the floors, treated for borer and also the porch was in a bad state, so that needed all new floorboards. It was quite a lot of work," Raj says. But the hard work and expense has paid off - he's delighted with the results. "It kind of works really well, because each room is different. There's privacy and customers are loving the place."

These business owners are passionate about their premises and, with thoughtful renovations preserving the buildings' charm and character, they are helping to save the city's heritage.

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