For some, looking at houses online is a leisure activity. But when you’re really on the hunt, you have a deadline looming, and your target location is nearly 9,000 miles away, it can be serious business.
In 2015, Tara Morton and Nick Walbridge—both public servants in New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade—were nearing the end of several years in New York when they began looking for a house to settle in when they returned to Wellington.
As the couple searched, Morton stumbled upon an a listing for a circa-1965 house with a California modernist sensibility and Japanese influence.
It had an elegant facade of native Hinuera stone and the interiors got plenty of natural light through broad windows and sliding glass doors. Much of the interior was lined with native Rimu wood, which lent the spaces warmth. Its small pond, tennis court, and pool were surrounded by lush gardens dotted with Japanese maples, cherry trees, and magnolia trees.
Technically a three-bedroom, two-bath and a little over 4,000 square feet in size, the home was divided into what Walbridge and Morton refer to now as three “wings”: one for living and dining, one for the bedrooms, and one for a studio. (The couple has heard from neighbors that the owner might have gotten his plans from a California design.) They were smitten.
It was only later that Morton realized the house was located about an hour north of Wellington, in a small town called Waikanae on the Kapiti Coast. “It’s a town that’s notorious for [being] where all the retired people go,” says Walbridge, laughing. “Everyone in New Zealand has an elderly aunt or their grandparents living in this town.” Due to Waikanae’s distance from Wellington, they chalked the house up as a pipe dream.
But over the next year, Walbridge and Morton continued to check in on the listing anyway. In early 2016, Walbridge was back in New Zealand for a visit and decided on a whim to look for the listing again. The house was set to be auctioned just the next day, and Walbridge attended with the intention to make an offer.
“I had to reassure Tara that it was basically everything that she thought that it was,” says Walbridge. And Morton had to reassure Walbridge that a small town was the right move after a lifetime of city living. They made an offer—the only one at the auction for the house—but it wasn’t high enough for the seller’s reserve. The couple then entered into a six-month period of on-and-off negotiation with the owners. “It was quite a strange time, partly because we were the only people really interested in [the home, and] the owners didn’t seem particularly wedded to selling it,” he says, noting that they had a strong attachment to the property.
But a visit to Palm Springs, California, that July solidified their resolve. “It was at a time when our negotiations [with the owners] had broken down and it looked like there was no way we were going to get it,” says Walbridge. “We lost interest and were looking at other options.” While in the desert city, they did a tour of the midcentury homes for which the area is known; Walbridge says that “by the end of the tour, we just looked at each other and realized that we had to try and get this place that we both love back in New Zealand because nothing else we’d seen came close to it.”
Morton adds that when she first arrived in the U.S., she was interested in bringing a sense of dressed-down New Zealand style to their life here. But as they prepared to return to Wellington, Morton became interested in the opposite idea: bringing a modern, graphic U.S. aesthetic to New Zealand.
This interest was partially borne of their travels across the States over the years, like their visits to several sites designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The couple knew that good midcentury design—much rarer in New Zealand—was what they wanted in the long run.
The two parties finally managed to reach an agreement in October of 2016, but part of the deal was that the owners could have one last summer in New Zealand at the property, so Walbridge and Morton set a move-in date for April 2017, which gave them ample time to make moving preparations.
Morton was so inspired by the house that, ahead of closing, she began hunting around online for midcentury and modernist furniture, building a repository of pieces she’d want to bring in. “She obsessively compiled a spreadsheet, room by room, before we even bought it,” Walbridge says, before adding that he had to be coaxed again at this point. “It took me a long time to come around to the idea that the best way of doing this was investing in good-quality furniture that was going to last us a generation.”
Thankfully, the previous owners’ renovations had brought areas like the kitchen up to date without sacrificing the house’s midcentury charms. Ahead of moving in all their furniture, Walbridge and Morton hired interior designer Katie Lockhart to give them advice on new paint colors and to make suggestions for potential future updates. “We were pretty lucky that it was one of those places that we could move in, everything was working well and met our needs, and it was quite high quality,” says Walbridge.
Another plus to the property? Central heating. “Central heating is extremely rare in New Zealand,” Morton explains. “When New Zealand was colonized, the early settlers seemed to think it was some sort of tropical paradise and houses were built without any sort of heating in mind.” And while it certainly isn’t chilly all the time, the heating and living room gas stove makes it relaxing and cozy to be in through the winter months.
The climate in Waikanae is warmer than in Wellington, and there’s less wind. This means lots of pool time, which is important to Morton as someone who grew up around pools as a child. It also means they can utilize the immense garden and grow food and herbs they wouldn’t have been able to in Wellington.
Thanks to its proximity to a small river that runs alongside the property out to the beach, they call the home “Riverbank,” an apt name for a place meant to evoke tranquility. The house, says Walbridge, “is extremely peaceful.”