House of the week: Converted Nelson church now a home filled with antiques video

A converted church layered with unusual treasures is heaven for these Auckland escapees.

On a guided walking tour while holidaying in Rome, Steve Galpin and his partner Tor Muriwai managed to divert the entire group of tourists several blocks off course.

"The guide was taking us to the usual tourist spots – the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona – but we wanted to know where we could find all the antiques shops," remembers Steve. "She happily made everyone detour down a few streets, and once we'd had a good look at the antiques shops, she took us back on the usual path."

Whether they're travelling around New Zealand or overseas, the finding, fancying and gathering of antiques, vintage items and quirky curiosities is always on Steve and Tor's itinerary.

"We tend to buy things that are unfashionable; the items no one really likes any more, and things some people find a bit strange to collect – like vintage taxidermy," says Steve, pointing out the stuffed white swan that appears to be gliding across water inside an enormous glass display case. A badger, also in a vintage glass case, is conspicuous for not being one of New Zealand's resident fauna.

READ MORE:
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What was once the place of worship for the Methodist congregation in Brightwater, outside Nelson, is now Steve Galpin ...
JANE USSHER

What was once the place of worship for the Methodist congregation in Brightwater, outside Nelson, is now Steve Galpin and Tor Muriwai’s lounge and formal dining room.

Steve and Tor had lived in Auckland for almost 30 years when they became increasingly frustrated with the daily commute through traffic-jammed streets. 

They went into house-hunting mode, travelling to Christchurch, to Melbourne and twice visiting Napier before eventually deciding it was too small. 

Then, unexpectedly, a little weatherboard church built in 1904 in the prettily named settlement of Brightwater captured their imaginations and stole their hearts – and suddenly, size didn't matter after all. 

Steve Galpin, left, and Tor Muriwai by the French doors into the garden; the grandfather clock is Welsh.
JANE USSHER

Steve Galpin, left, and Tor Muriwai by the French doors into the garden; the grandfather clock is Welsh.

They might never have discovered it but for encouragement from Steve's sister Maree who lives in Brightwater, a 20-minute drive south of Nelson. The former Methodist church had long been converted into a cafe aptly named Vespers. When the cafe's owners bought the church in the early 2000s, it was a cavernous empty space that had been leased for many years to an artist.

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Not a stick of furniture remained to show it had once been a place of worship – no pews, no pulpit, not even a prayer book or Bible. These days it houses many religious artworks, hanging shoulder to shoulder and even down the back of the hallway door. Steve and Tor share a passion for collecting religious items, from vintage artworks to statues, and they're particularly drawn to Gothic-style church furniture.

The mission of packing their considerable collections in Auckland for the move to the South Island required a 50 cubic metre truck – or so they thought.

An 18th century Italian neoclassical gilt and silver communion tabernacle.
JANE USSHER

An 18th century Italian neoclassical gilt and silver communion tabernacle.

"We had so much jammed into our small villa in Kingsland, a lot had to go into storage while the house was on the market, so it looked less like an antiques shop," says Steve. "Then, to move here, we couldn't get everything into that huge truck, so the rest of it arrived six weeks later. We just couldn't fit it in here, so we sent two vanloads to a local antiques dealer." 

Meeting that dealer turned out to be fortuitous. "Only a week or two after we'd met the antiques dealer, she phoned us and said, 'You'll never guess what I have in the back of my van.'"

Their church's original pulpit had been miraculously discovered in a garage sale some 20-plus years after it was removed, so Tor and Steve excitedly cleared the space where it once stood. "When we got it home, it fitted perfectly in its original spot. All the screw holes and some dowelling holes lined up. There wasn't anything else to show it was from this church, but a local resident remembered it."  

The double doors lead to what used to be the Sunday School; an 1880s stag head hanging on the right is entirely carved ...
JANE USSHER

The double doors lead to what used to be the Sunday School; an 1880s stag head hanging on the right is entirely carved of timber and came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Over a decade, the former owners had transformed the back hall area of the church into a two-storey, three-bedroom home. Out front was Vespers cafe: where the church congregation once gathered, with a counter, coffee machine, tables and chairs.  

Although the cafe quickly became Tor and Steve's living room, it wasn't unusual for people to wander through the open doors hoping for a flat white in the landscaped gardens.

"It happened a lot, even though the cafe signs were gone," says Tor. "I'd just say, 'Well – I can make you a coffee, but it'll be $8 and I've only got instant.'"

Steve’s sister Maree knitted the scarf and a hat for the taxidermy little blue penguin.
JANE USSHER

Steve’s sister Maree knitted the scarf and a hat for the taxidermy little blue penguin.

Steve and Tor say they're "pretty-much retired", though Steve is sometimes asked to appraise deceased estates, which was part of his work in Auckland. Tor also has a background in appraising antiques, and finance too, but he's also a singer and actor and Nelson's local theatre recently coaxed him back to the stage.

"Friends often come to stay," says Steve. "We've made a few trips to Wellington and Christchurch and went on a road trip to Dunedin. I've taken up yoga and I've been upcycling furniture and selling it at a local shabby-chic market. This semi-retirement is quite nice after working six days a week, where so much time was about sitting in traffic."  

Q&A:

The 1800s taxidermy swan is cleverly displayed to appear to be paddling in water; beyond is a Tony Fomison print Tor ...
JANE USSHER

The 1800s taxidermy swan is cleverly displayed to appear to be paddling in water; beyond is a Tony Fomison print Tor acquired from his uncle.

Favourite outdoor spot: The hammock under the magnolia on a summer afternoon. It's the best place for thinking about what you should be doing! (Steve) 

Flowers i couldn't live without: The climate here is perfect for peonies and they're surprisingly easy to grow. We love having them as cut flowers. (Steve)

Our dream find would be: A glass-cased taxidermy kiwi – old, of course. We can never afford one when they come up for sale. (Tor) 

Tor in the kitchen.
JANE USSHER

Tor in the kitchen.

The best places for quirky collectables: Auctions, because the stock is ever-changing; Richmond Antiques in Nelson if you enjoy rummaging, and Murdoch McLennan in Parnell for finding genuine antiques. If you want something a bit different, go to Romantique and Junk and Disorderly on Auckland's North Shore. Portobello in Christchurch always has something good. (Tor)

Steve Galpin and Tor Muriwai

The drinking horns are German Renaissance Revival and the Victorian Berlin woolwork pole screen (used to shield women’s ...
JANE USSHER

The drinking horns are German Renaissance Revival and the Victorian Berlin woolwork pole screen (used to shield women’s faces from hot fireplaces while doing needlework) came from a Nelson estate sale.

The clawfoot bath was a Trade Me find and the dado rail was crafted from original kauri tongue-and-groove wall linings ...
JANE USSHER

The clawfoot bath was a Trade Me find and the dado rail was crafted from original kauri tongue-and-groove wall linings found under the church.

The Italian bronze statue of Mercury was another treasure won at auction.
JANE USSHER

The Italian bronze statue of Mercury was another treasure won at auction.

The ground floor master bedroom is furnished with New Zealand colonial furniture, with elaborate turned finials and ...
JANE USSHER

The ground floor master bedroom is furnished with New Zealand colonial furniture, with elaborate turned finials and native timber inlay; the cherub chair is Italian, bought at auction from a Rangiora homestead.

The black iron bed ends were found at the local recycle centre, but they were in pieces and missing their brass knobs; ...
JANE USSHER

The black iron bed ends were found at the local recycle centre, but they were in pieces and missing their brass knobs; Steve wire-brushed, repainted and reassembled them and bought another set of bed ends for $20 solely for the knobs.

Syrian carved wooden camels, designed as coasters for bottles of wine, now hold collections of turkey, duck, quail and ...
JANE USSHER

Syrian carved wooden camels, designed as coasters for bottles of wine, now hold collections of turkey, duck, quail and chicken eggs.

Doll’s houses in a spare bedroom, “and spooky dolls, too”, says Tor.
JANE USSHER

Doll’s houses in a spare bedroom, “and spooky dolls, too”, says Tor.

The windows above the bench are in the master bedroom, built where the Sunday School stage once stood.
JANE USSHER

The windows above the bench are in the master bedroom, built where the Sunday School stage once stood.

 - NZ House & Garden

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