THERE’S a story about the farmer who sold the clifftop block on which the famous Punchbowl house stands.
As the Ermin Smrekar-designed house was nearing completion, the farmer visited and marvelled at the view. “All the years I had this and it was just the back paddock,” he said. “I never even noticed the view.”
For more than 20 years the pink palace has fascinated locals and now there’s a rare chance to buy it. The pink mansion in Punchbowl Road is on the market for only the second time since it was built in 1990.
If you won Tattslotto, you might just be able to afford the $5.5 million asking price, but be warned: you’d probably need to win Tattslotto again to maintain it.
The house was designed by Melbourne-based, Italian-born architect Ermin Smrekar. When he saw the spectacular eight-hectare site, perched just back from the cliffs and with uninterrupted views of Bass Strait and Cape Woolamai, he decided on three wedge-shaped triangles, simple shapes and angles to echo the dramatic surroundings.
There are five bedrooms, including a loft that’s reached via a ship’s ladder, four fireplaces, a north-facing swimming pool and spa.
The view is arresting and expansive from every window. Equally, there are sudden and dramatic views of the house from surprising places, including a glimpse as you round the hill from Kilcunda on the Bass Coast Highway.
Grantville bus driver Mick Gannon knows as much about the house as anyone, having worked there as a caretaker and maintenance man for about eight years. He started work in 1990 as construction was nearing completion. He only met Smrekar once. He recalls the architect wore a “dicky bow tie and was rather aloof”.
He says more of the credit for the house should go to the local team of contractors who put it together: builder Arthur Derrin, brickies Shane and Pat Wishart, plasterer Ken Hall, electrician Lionel Wilson and plumber Bruce Dickie, as well the Tedesco brothers from Carlton, who did the cabinetmaking, and tiler Big John, who did the travertine work.
Mick says the house went into “unknown territory” in its use of concrete cantilevers. “You can draw anything on paper but when it comes to the nuts and bolts it’s people like Arthur who have to make it work. Arthur would ring the architect, Ermin Smrekar, and say ‘What do we do here?’ and the architect would say, ‘What would you do?’ Arthur would tell him and he’d say, ‘That’s exactly what I’d do’. Arthur was solving a lot of problems.
“It was an epic job. They ran low on money in the middle and work stopped for about 18 months. Arthur had been building Coldon houses so he’d never seen anything like this. It took quite a toll on everyone.
“They were basically building to make it cyclone-proof but they were building in hurricane conditions. They’d put up scaffolding and when they came back the next day the planks would have been scattered like toothpicks by the wind. They had to pick them up before they could even start work.”
Mick worked for both sets of owners: Richard and Deana Zalewski, for whom the house was built, and Barry and Linda Richardson who bought it in about 1996. The house was unlike anything he had ever seen. There were no walls. From the swimming pool you could see to the ocean.
“Of course I’d heard all the stories. People used to say it was being built for a Japanese owner because Richard sold Japanese cars. He owned Heidelberg Mitsubishi when Mitsubishis were big.”
He had a lot of time for Richard and his father, Maurie (Mariuz), a Polish immigrant who had worked on the wharves for many years. Mick and Maurie shared caretaking duties. The house was beautiful, he says, but it was not a family house. It was more like a display home. You couldn’t leave books or clothes lying around because it was so open.
With no walls and eight-metre ceilings, the simplest of jobs could be extremely complicated. He recalls Maurie and he once spending two and a half days putting in a four-metre speaker wire because it had to be threaded centimetre by centimetre behind cupboards.
“The dining room was all carpeted with a glass-top table but it was not homely. When Maurie and I had lunch, we used to use the outdoor furniture and sit in a little alcove with an eight-foot ceiling.”
He also recalls $500 power bills back in the early 1990s and shudders to think what they would be now. “It was not built to be sustainable. My sister once said to me, ‘If I won Tattslotto I’d buy that house’. I said ‘You’d need to win Tattslotto again just to keep up the maintenance’.” Maurie used to joke that the only way you could make this place pay was to turn it into an international brothel.”
He says Richard and Diana had a vision for the site and were prepared to do what it took to achieve it. “Richard had all sorts of interesting ideas. At one stage he wanted to put 20-metre pipe into the cliff with half, with a glass-bottomed viewing area, dangling over the water 60 metres below. I said ‘You won’t be allowed to do it’. He said, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll just do it’.”
The Punchbowl is literally one of a kind. Today’s planning laws would not permit a house to dominate the coastline in the way that this one does. Now it would have to be built into the hill, preferably behind it. And forget painting the place pink; the exterior would be a dull Colorbond green to blend into the surroundings.
The sale is being handled by Kay & Burton in the city in conjunction with local South Coast First National Real Estate agent Russell Wilson, a long-time admirer of the pink mansion. His father wired it when it was being built and Mr Wilson got a preview tour.
He loved it then and he loves it now. “It’s remarkable. The architecture is as relevant today as it was when it was built. Buildings usually date but this one is still brilliant.’’
Asked if it is difficult to sell a mansion in the current economic climate, he says, “I don’t think the timing matters with a property like this. It is such a unique property it will sell when the right buyer discovers it.”
Viewing of the Punchbowl house is strictly by appointment and you’ll probably need more than a pension card to prove your credentials. Contact Matt Davis at Kay Burton on 0412 466 858 or Russell Wilson at South Coast First National Real Estate on 0409 005 524.