Toolangi Tree Change

It began as a yearning for the wide, open spaces and a plan to build a humble weekend retreat. Fast-forward four and a half years and Keith Hughson and Andrew Neilson now spend on average five days a week at their distinctive, architect-designed dream home that sits on five acres of gently undulating pastureland overlooking Mount Tanglefoot and the Toolangi State Forest.

Their original home in Templestowe has become their occasional suburban retreat.

“Our plans evolved rather dramatically,” laughed Keith, a retired pastry chef who revels in throwing lavish dinner parties and cooking cordon bleu dishes that tantalise the palettes of unsuspecting house guests and neighbours.

The magnificently appointed professional kitchen, with its clean lines, open design and 2.7 metres of bench space, is Keith’s creation and domain.

“We know our future is here in Toolangi,” said Andrew, confessing that the understated beauty of the surrounding countryside, which offsets their superbly crafted, custom built residence, Wingspread, has seduced them both.

“Keith and I have been together for seven years. We understand each other’s strengths and never try to push the other into doing something he wouldn’t like,” said Andrew.

This mutual respect made the process of buying, designing and constructing uncommonly smooth.

Wingspread, (the name, a joint nod to the panoramic view and a historic building in Wisconsin, US designed by Neilson’s hero, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright), is the product of a successful collaboration between Andrew and Keith and Fasham Johnson designer, Brian Stacey.

Andrew, formerly a principal with an international accounting firm and now self-employed working in a home based accountancy practice, admits to being a closet architect at heart. “Deep down I’ve always had a passion for architecture and a desire to design my own home,” he said.

Consequently, unsurprisingly Andrew’s role was to oversee the structural design. Keith took on the job of interior designer. But, in the end a constant exchange of ideas prevailed.

The pivotal person in the project, the architect, was determined by the couple’s love of light and their wish to maximise the stunning northerly aspect.

The Fasham Johnson maxim, “the mystery of light and space” was the clincher for the boys and Fasham designer, Brian Stacey established an instant rapport.

“Brian was a hit from day one,” said Keith. “He asked all the right questions, took copious notes and the plan he sketched during the initial meeting was the house we built. We hardly changed a thing.”

The Fasham Johnson trademark is an emphasis on light and space in each room. The high, vaulted, beamed ceiling that runs the length of ‘Wingspread’s’ open plan kitchen and living/dining rooms, together with ceiling to floor windows (the entire northern side of the house is glass) take full advantage of the light and embrace the picturesque view.

Keith explained that the objective of Brian’s design was to highlight “the wow factor.”

“Brian designed the front of the house to be unassuming and almost fortress-looking. Hence, the very small windows on the south side. The front of the house doesn’t give anything away,” he said. “The idea being that the minute someone walks through the front door into the house everything suddenly opens up and they’re confronted with this incredible view.”

The use of glass on the north-facing wall means that the heating benefits of the winter sun is fully capitalised. Even during chilly winter days (Toolangi is 436m above sea level) there is often no need to light a fire in the French fireplace that sits within the stone feature wall at the west end of the living room and opens onto the adjacent study.

“Frankly, it’s such a gorgeous site we couldn’t really have gone wrong,” conceded Brian when speaking to Yarra Valley and Ranges Country Life. “Having said that, it helped that the guys and I were on the same wavelength regarding the integrity of simplicity and the element of surprise with the view. We celebrated the opportunities that the site presented and designed to the passage of the sun. All we (at Fasham Johnson) aspire to do is capture the orientation, the views and sit a house comfortably on the site. We’re not into trophy houses. We’re into functional houses that work for the people who will be living in them.”

The design of ‘Wingspread’ is essentially three pods, the utility end, which incorporates laundry and garages, the living area and two identical master bedrooms, each with an ensuite.

“Apparently someone in Brian’s office joked that the reason we wanted two bedrooms was because we were fighting. That wasn’t the case at all,” chuckled Andrew. “It was purely practical because I’m a light sleeper and like to read.”

The decision to only have two bedrooms came about because there is another house on the property, a two-bedroom, self-contained cottage at street level, which when not accommodating visiting friends and family becomes a self-catering bed and breakfast available to the public.

The cottage has an established garden. A row of five metre high Rhododendrons form the demarcation line between the new and old properties.

The new garden, palettes of colour, the effect of mass plantings of assorted Azaleas, Daphne hedging, Fragrant Rhododendrons, Ginko, Forest Pansy, a range of Maples and Michelia Scented Pearl – bushes and rare standards, is the result of Andrew and Keith putting in many long hours of toil and love from sunrise to sunset. “I couldn’t keep one thing alive in the garden before coming here,” Keith exclaimed. “Now he knows the botanical names of all the plants,” pronounced Andrew.

They have disciplined themselves to down tools before it gets dark. “We do a lap around the garden with a glass of wine before going inside. Aston and Porsche (their well trained, much adored and stubbornly independent, Weimaraners) join us on cue,” laughed Keith.

A curved driveway lined with 40 Senkaki Maples (coral barked) sweeps down from the road, past the cottage and several strategically placed gigantic boulders to a tiny wooden bridge that crosses a pool, or as Andrew likes to describe it, ‘a faux moat,’ and leads to a pristine, unencumbered entrance.

Inside, having fully digested the stunning vista, it’s hard to look beyond two remarkable totem-like retro lights, a floor piece and a pendant, that feature prominently in the vast long main room.

Both reproductions of Frank Lloyd Wright originals, the cherry wood sculptures, designed to replicate skyscrapers, are an acknowledgement to Andrew’s life-long love affair with the work of the innovative 20th century American architect, who told his students, “study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”

“When we were building this house we wanted to include a couple of things from our childhood dreams,” said Keith. “The lights were Andrew’s contribution. Mine was the Bang and Olufsen sound system.”

Long-term Andrew and Keith visualise a permanent shift to Wingspread. But short-term the proximity of Toolangi to Melbourne is a drawback for the arts loving couple that commute regularly to art galleries and the inner city theatre, dance and music precinct.

So while leaving the Yarra Valley and returning to their Templestowe house has become a wrench, for now they philosophically practise non-attachment. But not forever. “We joke that one day we’ll be carted away,” said Andrew.

Words Jill Fraser Pictures Celeste Faltyn
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