Floor plan

Childhood dream come true for artist living in mid-20th century ‘Thunderbirds House’

As a child, Maffra artist Ken Roberts was always fascinated by a futuristic house perched on a hill in the city’s upscale neighborhood.

It was unlike any house he had seen before.

“Someone called it the Thunderbirds House because it was extremely modern, open, with wide windows,” Roberts said.

“Nothing like we had ever grown up – very space age.”

The house appears to be from the space age.(ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

So, after a lifetime of curiosity, the retired flipper couldn’t believe his luck when the house showed up on his Facebook page as being on the market.

After a whirlwind inspection of the mid-20th-century house, whose owner was moving into a nursing home, he quickly bought it the next day.

“Nothing had changed from the time the owner-builder built the house, so it was a real time capsule from that era,” he said.

Built in 1961, with its original brick walls, exposed beams, paneled walls and handmade wooden doors still intact, the four-bedroom house had picture windows to the front living room with views of the mountains.

Man leans against fireplace mantle with windows behind
Ken Roberts was enchanted by the house’s panoramic windows and the view of the garden.(ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

Mr Roberts said the previous owners loved the outdoors.

“That’s why they had the bush garden with the native garden around the house,” he said.

The house is surrounded by views of the verdant garden through floor-to-ceiling windows in every room, which elegantly bathe the seating areas in natural light.

“I think they were very social, they had a lot of fun and so this formal living space up front is a wonderful place to relax, but I’ve also been told that at some point if you wanted, you could remove the bar so there was more room to dance,” he said.

Early 1960s style wooden bar with carafe and glasses
The original bar could be removed to allow more floor space for dancing. (ABC GippslandRachael Lucas )

He said the triple folding doors could also be removed to open the living room up to an open kitchen so guests can walk out to the stone-paved patio courtyard and the built-in barbecue.

Migrant Success Story

The house was built by Latvian migrants Alex Lemchens and Andy Skulte, who had started a construction business in the 1950s.

Wooden ibis statue with a modern and refined design
Ken Roberts inherited many works of art and household items from the original owner. (ABC Gipplsand: Rachael Lucas)

The couple had come to Australia with nothing after the war.

They were processed by the Bonegilla migrant camp to eventually work as laborers at the Nestlé factory in Maffra.

The couple gradually built up their successful business while living in a shed at the back of the factory.

‘They became so well known throughout Gippsland that they built hundreds and hundreds of homes, shops, offices, churches, schools and hospitals,’ Mr Roberts said.

He said the business has operated for 50 years and has employed many local people.

Light enters a living space through a glass window and door
Floor-to-ceiling windows in each bedroom bathe the seating areas in natural light.(ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

New Housing Styles

The post-war era had inspired new visions for modern Australian housing design.

The standard three-bedroom, quarter-acre Hills Hoist homes were redesigned with brighter open floor plans, supported by post-and-beam structures that allowed for glass window walls that allowed “outside to come in”.

White painted kitchen with large corner windows
Ken Roberts has taken care to make moderate updates to the house.(ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

Mr Skulte, who is now over 90, told Mr Roberts the post-war period was a golden period in Australian history when ‘they could do anything’.

He and Mr. Lemchens began building the house after purchasing six blocks of land on the edge of Maffra Township.

They camped on site as the project progressed, including a carport and cellar under the house, with a native garden of banksias held back by rock walls in the front garden.

Bathroom with bench sink, original prints and wall mirror.
Post-war architecture incorporated space, light and nature into design. (ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

Unearthing a Mid-Century Treasure

Mr Roberts said much of the original furniture, artwork, prints, household items and possessions were packed with the house by the time-poor sellers’ family when he has bought.

“I was very lucky to get all the mid-century modern furniture,” he said.

“There were thousands of books and hundreds of records – a lifetime of what was in a house in a very cultured time, so I was very sensitive about taking care of all of that.”

Furniture from the 1960s with sound system and records
The house was packed with vinyl records, artwork, and hundreds of books. (ABC GippslandRachael Lucas)

The living room came with a catt jarrah dining area and a set of swivel chairs with original upholstery as well as a fireplace answered by Tessa leather lounge chairs.

The original wooden bar was accompanied by a set of carafes and aperitif glasses, a built-in turntable stereo system with cassette player and a collection of classic records.

Mr. Roberts is particularly fond of a Selangor tea service which rests on the wooden credenza.

He said he was delighted to find a recipe box from the era, as well as an original vinyl floor polisher in a cupboard equipped with sheepskin pads.

“Everything in the house has been extremely well maintained for many years – this house is 60 years old, but it’s basically in new condition,” he said.