A House in the Sun - Our Story

Newspaper Story

A House in the Sun

(Published in a local Waiheke newspaper over the summer holiday)

Mediterranean dream becomes Church Bay reality

Waiheke-based artist Gabriella Lewenz looks back on 20 years of living her dream at the beautiful Church Bay property she and husband Claude created from scratch.

It’s now coming up to almost two decades that my husband Claude and I have been working from our hand-built home and studio gallery on Waiheke; and we love this place more than ever.

We made a life-changing move after years of living near New York, where I was exhibiting my paintings.

I had just finished building a new studio in Greenwich, Connecticut when I had a clear and strong sense it was time to make the move to New Zealand.  

Our daughter was five at the time; if we were going to make such a move, best do it while she was young, we thought.

This of course made no sense to our family and friends, and it meant ending my professional relationship with Kouros Gallery in New York as well as other associations I had in the arts; yet it was so clear our decision was the right thing to do.

We put the house on the market and, in a portentous sign, it  sold in two weeks. The new buyers were in a hurry to take possession. 

Suddenly, the dream became a mandate… but where to send the containers? With multiple ports, we needed to decide where in New Zealand to ship them.

I was born and raised in Greece, of American diplomat parents, so I had always held a dream of a seaside dwelling somewhere, influenced by my Mediterranean childhood; to find land on a hill above the sea with bright sunshine, close to a village and lots of views…

When it came time to search for our new home, it all happened so fast.

While I packed, Claude went ahead to New Zealand to find land, armed only with the rather specific vision I gave him just as he left for the airport.

I said the land needed to be near a city, but in the countryside somewhere, overlooking the sea, and over the hill there would be a village that served great coffee, with a diverse, welcoming community.

Having ruled out Christchurch – too cold, Wellington – too windy, and Auckland city – too much suburban sprawl, Claude wasn’t confident he would find such an ideal combination, but off he flew.


He knew no one in New Zealand, but had names of people to look up, and one by one, each heard the description of what we were looking for and pointed him first to Waiheke Island, and then to a real estate agent, longtime islander Chris Palmer, who on hearing the vision said, “Oh, that’s Church Bay”.

In 1997, Church Bay was a new subdivision with many for-sale signs on empty sections.

When Claude emailed me – in those days it was dial up, writing from Vino Vino Restaurant in Oneroa – the description of this land and asked for a decision on whether to buy or not, I had to trust and simply say yes.

It seemed to match the dream perfectly. Within hours we made an offer that was accepted and the deal was done; our new life began.

We still marvel at how closely our land echoed the imagined land we had dreamed of. We felt we were called here.

Claude then visited the former Auckland City Council and asked the consent officers what sort of construction was easily approved.

“Environmentally sustainable,” they said. Asking what was the most sustainable method on Waiheke, he  was told earth brick was popular; there are more than 40 earth brick buildings on the island.

So, without meeting them Claude hired the earth brick experts of that period, Vince Ogletree and Gordon Elvy, and the adventure began.

In a story straight out of A Year in Provence, when we finally arrived in NZ, it turned out Vince had not broken ground because of business matters he had at the time. Vince soon proposed to turn over project management, lead-man Gordon and his workers to Claude who had to learn site management, Kiwi protocol and the metric system all while trying to get a roof over our heads before the summer holiday season began and the country grinds to a halt.  

It did not help that one of the containers arrived with a huge hole in it, coating everything with green goo after three months on the ocean collecting and cooking with tropical rain water. MAF first thought it was a toxic waste spill until testing found it was merely healthy lime-green algae draining out the door. It took Lloyds of London 3 years to settle the claim.

Meanwhile, with a dozen workers tripping over each other, the guest house was completed in six weeks from ground-breaking to move-in. The final week before Christmas was spent in a tent with some of our house furniture and carpets in it (the first glamping on Waiheke?). Russell, the dirt-track racing plumber, finally finished at 9:30 pm Christmas Eve so we had running hot and cold water and could move in.

We had made the deadline to be in our new home by Christmas, only to discover that while Claude had bought Christmas hams for each of the workers, he forgot to shop for us, and all we had in the house were onions and potatoes, which now has become a Christmas breakfast tradition.

The workers returned in January 1998, and the three-year project began. Our yard looked like a bomb site but we were in our new home.

We then set out the rest of the overall plan. To tame the South-westerly prevailing wind, we wanted the house design to include courtyards and wind walls. We imagined arched windows, entryways, long verandas, and white wash interior walls reminiscent of my Greek childhood. 

We walked the land placing pegs where it felt right, outlining my painting studio, facing west and, as it turned out, aligned with compass north, then mapped out the vegetable gardens with lavender surrounds, and a separate writers’ hut for the visiting authors we knew would want to come and stay.

Claude bought an architectural software package and transformed my visions into Auckland Council plans. He had few problems securing approval, because he always made a practice of asking officers what makes their job easier, and then making sure he paid attention to their answers.

The number of workers was dropped to three men, Gordon, Matthew and Marty who proceeded to make 30,000 earthbricks on site – each weighing 20kg, and hand-lifted into place as the walls went up.

On door and window design, Claude convinced his engineer to do “minimum-maximum” design specs so we had flexibility in the details and could make changes without breaching the building consent.

The Council building inspectors were great, sometimes bringing over colleagues to show off the building both because it was so different, but also because it was so strong. At one point one of them asked “are you expecting a mortar attack from the sea”, when inspecting an upper floor lintel that was over-engineered. Claude replied “no, but it takes longer and costs more to get the engineer to calculate for less loadbearing than it does to use the stronger ground-floor design.”

For the next three years, we lived in the middle of a building site as we created the design each day.

There was so much serendipity all along this building journey; like Claude visiting a stone yard when they were dumping a warehouse full of marble – selling them for five cents on the dollar on the condition we purchased the whole lot – just as we needed flooring. Claude said yes, having no idea how much he had just bought, which is why there is marble everywhere – so when it came time to repaint the guest house walls, we used marble tiles instead of paint. We even used a marble slab to level the fridge.

Then TV3 contacted us as they were doing a show on House of Dreams. For six months they would film the project, including the day Claude went out to a west coast forest to pick out macrocarpa trees that became the kitchen ceiling beams. The poor logger was in a panic because he did not have a resource consent for the logging track, insisting the camera be turned off for the drive to the standing timber.

The finishing workers who included chemists, graphic designers, journalists, dentists and Maori elders were perfect for such an unconventional design where standard builders would have gone into meltdown. They turned out to be artists of design, and were given a free hand to express their aesthetic as the place grew out of the land.  Everything just worked and Casale di Terra was born, meaning in Italian, ‘cluster of country buildings made of the earth.’


Art and memories

I have always combined my art practice with a kind of intuitive sense of spirit – both of people and place, and I have found it very rewarding to do works of art as a commission where the buyer wants to commemorate something important in their life. So recently, I’ve started artstay.com where, included in the price, I invite my client to stay in our guest house for a week, to relax and unwind as I begin their artwork.

These commissions have been incredibly rewarding; a powerful process and a way to serve beyond the aesthetic of the artwork.

They become totemic paintings marking a significant passage in their lives.  I’m also offering special commissions for wedding couples to commemorate their marriage; included in the commission price, they can use the facility for their vows before going on to one of the large wedding venues for their feast and party.

Sharing the land

We literally share the land longer term as well.  

We built 15 raised beds for vegetables, and in the last several years have two certified medical herbalists, Meggan Young and Nicole Bostock of Plant Medicine Waiheke, who have taken over a number of these beds to plant and harvest their herbs.

They offer presentations and workshops here as well. And, it’s also very exciting to have John and Margaret Laurant from the island brand Delizia Honey keeping their bees here on the land next to hectares of manuka and kanuka trees.

You can find their delicious honey and beeswax body balm at the Rocky Bay pop up café open on weekends at Rocky Bay (Omiha) hall.

 Currently we are looking into possibly collaborating with one or two local cafes to raise fresh vegetables so they can offer more local foods on their menu.

Winter garden

One of the marvels of Waiheke is the winter garden. With the winter rains, the garden is lush and we harvest almost every month of the year.

Lately, I’ve rediscovered the art of the Dutch oven – that heavy cast iron pot set in the kitchen fireplace for very slow cooking.  When we built our kitchen, we installed a Rumford fireplace with hooks for pots.

In the 18th century a Rumford was the best way to cook food, and a Dutch oven with garden-fresh vegetables is unmatched for flavour. •

Gabriella works and sells from her studio gallery. www.lewenz.net


Her paintings are in private collections in Australia, the USA, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, India and Tahiti. You can follow her garden, studio and island creations on Instagram: gabriellalewenzart and to find out more on ArtStay:www.artstay.com

Out of Gabriella's gardenA keen cook, Gabriella has chosen a traditional Greek bean recipe as this week’s dish.

Fassolatha – Classic Greek Bean Soup

From Diane Kochilas’s cookbook


  • Soak 1 heaping cup of white beans over night.
  • Sauté with olive oil 3 medium onions cut into slices and 1 chilli pepper (seeded and chopped) in a large soup pot.
  • Add 2 stalks of chopped celery with leaves and 2 large carrots half lengthwise and chopped in 1 cm half moon rounds for 15 minutes.
  • Add the soaked beans to the pot and simmer, toss to coat and then pour in 6 cups of water and a bay leaf.
  • Bring to boil then reduce heat and simmer with lid partially covered for under 2 hours, until beans are completely soft.  Turn off heat.
  • Then add 3 tomatoes coarsely chopped (optional to peel and seed), a handful of chopped parsley, salt and pepper to taste, stir and let sit. 
  • Just before serving, add 1/3 cup of virgin olive oil and a juice of a lemon strained – about 3 or 4 tablespoons.
  • This meal is great with a fresh salad, artisan bread, and thick slice of sheep’s feta… and wine of course!

Early cooking memory:  Making a large pot of soup with my caregiver, watching her throw in freshly cut dill, a handful of faskomilo - dried mountain sage - and grabbing bay leaves hanging from the window; her hands flying in all directions as she orchestrated an amazing hearty soup. I got to pour Greek olive oil while stirring the brew and nibbling on crusty Greek bread; her hands always scented with lemon and herbs.

Favourite food memory: A long weekend with friends arriving and we spent a day preparing meals in an old kitchen cottage. The 12 of us then walked the platters of food down to the beach, candleholders and champagne bottles under our arm, where we set a long table; we ate under the stars and the sound of the sea, and 23 years later we are still talking about that magical feast.

I wouldn’t be without: My large mortar and pestle and 150- year-old cast iron skillet, passed down from Claude’s grandfather.

I love to eat at: Home, when the garden is in production and with the herbs outside my kitchen. And, at TeMotu’s The Shed for those special occasions. 

Favourite fast food: Bevan Kahn’s Dragonfired delights when on the go, or my oat-bran, parsley, turmeric galette with slices of cucumber and avocado drizzled with our own olive oil.

Best ever foodie tip:

Start your own patch of kitchen herbs, brings joy and fresh flavours to your cooking.  And use lemons with just about every dish.