Jessica Britten has never been one to do things by the book.
The proud mom-of-one, based in Auckland, New Zealand, knew well enough that a smooth home renovation would require experience, resources, a lot of cash — and perhaps above all else, great timing.
"We stumbled across the hall by chance, during an online search for one-bedroom properties," admits Britten, when asked how a 115-year-old fraternity hall becomes a light, bright, and beautifully cozy family home.
"Despite being enormous, it showed up in our search because technically, it only has one bedroom! We had been actively searching for a home for around two years, and things were starting to feel pretty dispirited. In that time, we'd looked at all types of homes, in all different areas. We wanted somewhere that had personality, somewhere we could potentially make our money go further."
Soaring in height, mammoth in stature, Britten and fiancé Warren Durling eventually found their 2,583-square-foot oddball in Freemans Bay, just a stone's throw away from Auckland's vibrant Ponsonby Road. Drafty halls were transformed into sunbaked alcoves, textured niches brought back to life with plush New Zealand sheepskins and honey-hued rattan. Hardwood floors in native timber were buffed back to their former glory, and layers upon layers of fresh paint — in hues of white and duck egg blue — all contribute to a resurrection that must be seen to be believed. In the midst of all this, in an unlikely twist of fate — Britten discovered she was pregnant.
"We were immediately drawn to its vast space and unique character," explains Britten, of her first impressions. "It had so much potential and we fell in love with it but of course, we thought it was way out of our league — financially. We did a little due diligence and soon realized that the high-grade heritage classifications might actually help us, we figured they might scare away potential buyers and investors — and we were right. We made a long-shot offer and wrote a letter to the owners, the R.A.O.B. — or the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo — explaining that we weren’t investors looking to make a quick profit; we were looking for somewhere special that we could help preserve and eventually raise a family. I will never forget the call saying our offer had been accepted and we were officially the owners of a hall."
One hundred or so years ago, things at Britten's address looked a little different. The light and airy space now evokes a similar look and feel to a live-work loft, as opposed to an old boys club, with it's custom timber dividers and minimal pendant lighting.
"When the New Zealand government introduced welfare in the 1930’s, I.O.O.F membership declined and other fraternities rented the space, becoming something of a community hall," explains Britten. "This was where New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Savage, held many meetings. Eventually, the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo bought the building off the I.O.O.F and it's the ‘Buffs’ who we purchased the hall from. Although we don’t know for certain, it seems these fraternities shared pretty similar characteristics — traditions, rituals, beer, and for the most part, exclusively male."
Armed with a can-do attitude and not a whole lot else, the couple decided to document their renovation process, creating a dedicated Instagram account to track their handiwork and stay connected with fellow DIYers. The account, fittingly named @HallWeNeed quickly amassed a steady following of design-enthusiasts.
Open the door and step over the threshold and it's hard not to let out a little gasp of admiration. The ceiling seems to go on forever, measuring at a staggering 18-feet high. Gallery white walls bake in Kiwi sunshine, while assorted memorabilia serves as an artful nod to the hall's historic tapestry and colonial roots. Steeped in history and older than most, this grand old dame hasn't come without her challenges — but Britten admits the couple came prepared.
"We’ve had the good, the bad, and the ugly," Britten laughs. "The ugly being the mummified rat we found in a cupboard, after moving in. The good — when we found a secret lock box built into the back of one of the cupboards. Sadly, there was nothing in there. And the bad, definitely when we discovered there had been a serious fire at some point during the life of the hall — think charred ceiling beams. Fortunately, it wasn't dangerous, however it will need replacing, during our long-term renovations."
For the meantime, though, Britten's hall beams with love and light. The couple's 11-month-old daughter, Stevie, has plenty of room to roam, layered rugs and soft kilims cover the hardwood floors, and a champagne velvet sofa — reupholstered by James Dunlop Textiles — sits surrounded by wicker baskets and wooden toys. A vintage dining table and classic Breuer chairs create a dedicated dining space, while the pared-back gray sectional, sitting adjacent, offers a family-friendly, mom-approved alternative.
A black lacquered coffee table and surrounding vintage armchairs help anchor the wide open space, while the couple use timber dividers and neutral rugs to add depth and dimension. The challenge — to find furniture that won't get lost in the open space and create layers without the conventional boundary lines — was no easy feat.
"The biggest challenge that comes with living in a hall is making it feel cozy," Britten emphatically explains. "Plus, heating this place during winter. Furnishing the space in a way that feels warm and not stark, like an art gallery or a school gymnasium, has been challenging. We've lived in it for three years now, and I’m still forever rearranging the furniture like a big jigsaw puzzle. I’ve finally found the layout that best accommodates my chair obsession, my love for interiors, and life with a baby — who is currently learning to walk and pulling everything over in the process."
Adhering to a mid-century-meets-Scandinavian aesthetic, Britten admits her approach to design has evolved since becoming a mother, swapping impractically sharp edges for pillowy linens and earthy, mostly local pieces. With a careful eye for vintage, sifting through her favorite thrift stores and reupholstering hand-me-downs is a challenge Britten revels in. From floor to ceiling, Britten's home is all about revival.
"I have always gravitated towards beautiful design with functionality as the cornerstone," muses Britten. "Becoming a parent has made me embrace this even more. I love homes that have character and depth, yet are free from clutter and offer an ease of living. I also think it pays to be realistic about the ‘stuff’ that comes along with having kids — some of it will probably be noisey, bright, and plastic and make you want to gouge your eyes out but there are ways to manage it, without it running your space. We’ve joined our local toy library to avoid collecting mountains of toys that only get used for a short time and end up in landfill. I have also customized pieces, like our storage locker and wicker baskets, so that we have functional storage that's not only unique, but fits with the rest of our home."
Upstairs, it's exposed bricks, soft textiles, and pared-back perfection. A vintage four poster, canopy bed dressed in raw-edged Città linen anchors the master bedroom space, complete with a cream area rug and woven Moroccan pouf.
Mid-century nightstands with crisp marble tops sit either side of the couple's bed, complete with Menu table lamps, while a paneled ceiling and original early 19th century detailing remains untouched. Britten approaches styling with restraint, the hall is the showpiece, after all, and she feels no need to overdo it.
"Our bedroom is my sacred space and where we spend most of our time," she admits.
"It gets sun all day and I get to watch the light dance around the brick walls — pure magic. As any new mom will say, since our daughter was born, I've spent a lot more time sitting in our bedroom nursing her, I find it such a peaceful place to be. Reflecting, planning, and sourcing inspiration for our next stage."
As anyone who lives in a character home might agree, there's an added level of responsibility when preservation comes into the equation. There are quirks you soon learn to love, kinks you'll never really iron out, and history that soon seeps into your own family narrative. For Britten, this hall is home.
"The renovation process, so far, has been about exploring possibilities, getting to know the building, and finding out our style," she admits. "We've done as much of the work as possible ourselves, but have also learned when to call in the professionals. A design dealbreaker for me is ‘new everything.' We’ve worked really hard to retain the character and charm that we fell in love with, while bringing our home into this century, in terms of both functionality and style."
Despite queries from friends and visitors, Britten admits the couple have no plans to paint over the original "Railway Lodge" signage splashed across the hall's exterior — "It would be a crying shame," she explains, with complete conviction.
"The hall is located in a protected ‘heritage zone’ among a street full of gorgeous, perfectly preserved Victorian cottages. We love that it sticks out, with its grand facade and hand-painted old sign. We love these quirky features — for us, it’s part of the charm and history of the building."
While Britten has come to understand that a renovator's job is never done — a rooftop terrace is next on her list — she wouldn't trade her sweeping hall for anything. With years of DIY experience now firmly under her belt, Britten hopes that one day her daughter Stevie might also be inspired to stray from convention.
"I hope she follows her heart — whatever that looks like," Britten continues. "I hope she sees beyond what is conventional and ‘normal’ and looks for what will bring her the most joy."