October 16, 2019
Feature Homes

The reverse tree-change

From river vistas to inner-city streets, one Adelaide couple has pulled off a remarkable lifestyle change.

Pam Stone and Duncan McConnell had started searching the real estate sites on Pam’s mobile before they even hit the Toll Gate. They had been staying with a friend near Hutt Street and were now driving home to Nelson, south of Mount Gambier on the scenic Glenelg River, where the Victorian border begins.

The couple had initially moved to Nelson for five years, but ended up staying 19. They had just finished their hilltop dream house and produce garden with vistas upstream. There was hardly a place in town that Duncan hadn’t left his mark on, built or restored.

But something had happened to Pam and Duncan in Adelaide’s square mile. Before moving down to Nelson, from a little cottage in Mile End, they had taken a shine to the idea of the inner-city life, just across the train tracks. Back then, an opportunity in Hobsons Place, near Whitmore Square, fell through, so it was off to Nelson they went.

But now the old inner-city feelings were back, with extras. There had always been the little side streets and laneways, the squares and parklands, and the Adelaide Central Market. Added to that, Pam and Duncan’s years away had seen the rise of the small bars and venues, the trams, the street energy. 

“Our trip to the city reminded us of what we had wanted to do,” Pam says. “Being back there we realised we still wanted to do it.”

So, they did it. Today, Pam and Duncan live in an old shop in the southwest corner of the city, once part of the wider West End and also known affectionately by many locals for years as the “Beirut End.” (This is as opposed to the “Paris End” down the leafier south-eastern corner of the square mile.) 

The distinction is drawn in the clear knowledge that in its heyday, before the bombs, Beirut was every bit as beautiful as Paris, and in the hope that one day it will be again. Ditto, with considerate, humane gentrification, the once vibrant working-class southwest city could be restored.

Not that Pam and Duncan knew any of this when they decided to rethink their dream interrupted. Certainly, the good people of Nelson couldn’t believe a word of what they were hearing, but Pam’s brother Peter and family friend Rob Tiver, with a few city smarts, kept an eye out on their behalf. 

Eventually, into the frame came the former electrical shop; nondescript to its Besser block on red brick, with feral fig trees peeping through the cracks out the back.

Then there was the location. “I thought, ‘Too close to a pub carpark’,” Pam says. “And yes, I admit, ‘Down the wrong end of town’.” But the price was ripe for renovation, and the last thing they wanted was to live in someone else’s house — anywhere in the city. “We had to put our own touch on it,” says Pam.

Though the task was daunting, bordering on fantastical to others, the couple had the form to give it a go. Pam is an interior designer, Duncan a builder and gardener. Together for 40 years this Christmas, they created Zest Cafe/Gallery on Jetty Road, Glenelg, before the Nelson excursion. Duncan worked in wood for Coriole and Woodstock wineries; the restored verandah of the Nelson Hotel is also his doing.

Yet despite his versatility as a builder and renovator, Duncan wasn’t fully prepared for the “hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically and mentally. I knew exactly what I had to do, but everywhere there were challenges of space”. 

He dug trenches by hand because there wasn’t room for big machinery. He used his shopfitter friend David King for his expertise in “small spaces and tight timelines”. 

With a small comb hammer, Pam cleaned 2000 house bricks that would become the guest room. “I would have them all in one spot then Duncan would tell me to move them because he was working there that day,” she says. “My happiest day was when the brickie arrived — I wouldn’t have to move those bricks again.”

During the long and exacting exercise, Pam and Duncan lived on South Terrace in the Park View building overlooking the Parklands, which along with Park Holme and Park Lodge make up a historic patch of Adelaide in their own right. Thankfully, after 60 years, the blocks of flats were enjoying a rejuvenation of their own and stuff was getting thrown out in the process, so Pam and Duncan scored a balustrade. 

Recycled, adapted and installed by steel sculptor and boilermaker Rob Tiver, it now leads up to their first-floor bedroom with the city skyline in the window. 

One of the things about the southwest city, dating back more than a century, is a sense of community that still exists in pockets today. Wayne Francis of the nearby Elephant & Castle Hotel provided the bottle-shop forklift that squeezed the couple’s 50-year-old potted cycad in through the front door.

Another of the things about the city is walking, whether for exploration, exercise or to market or the oval. Nothing beats the parklands and Pam and Duncan’s new neighbourhood is so far free of high-rise apartment developments. On one outing Pam and Duncan came across the University of SA’s City West campus rooftop community garden. It is the inspiration for their own rooftop garden.

Sometimes walking and community can converge to mutual satisfaction. The pair dropped in on nearly Sturt Street’s Erb ’n’ Flo coffee and breakfast bar, where owner Josh Muller, a “big fan of street art”, promotes local artists on his walls without charge. For Pam and Duncan’s finishing touch, the old drab shopfront needed to be renewed, and Josh suggested former graffiti-turned-street artist/designer Simon K. Burt aka Stiles. 

Also a local, Simon says his approach was to use stimulating colours, shapes and textures that flowed with the streetscape’s existing lines rather than removed the viewer’s attention from the street. No rockstars depicted here, Simon points out. 

It was the last act in what Duncan describes as an overall project of “artistic release — not just work. We were surprised how much space we found. As we were doing so we slowly realised we were living and working in the best part of the city”.

Nelson friends have followed the whole urban adventure on Instagram. And now when they come to the big smoke, they stay in an old shop down the Beirut end of town, all comforts included. 


This story first appeared in the August 2019 issue of SALIFE Magazine. 



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