Converting a South Otago school and principal’s cottage into a wedding venue and guest accommodation was a passion project for this creative expat
When British expat Jade McNab and her Kiwi husband, Lyndon, got married in 2012, they were disappointed with the lack of wedding venues near their home in the remote, windswept Catlins in South Otago.
So when the 130-year-old Port Molyneux School came up for sale a few years later, the couple jumped at the chance to turn it into a stylish events and wedding venue. It helped that the backdrop is stunning with the property encircled by lush green hills on one side and lapped by the wild Pacific Ocean on the other.
But having been closed for 16 years, the school buildings were in a bad way, as was the neighbouring headmaster’s cottage, but Jade and Lyndon could see the buildings’ raw potential as a venue and accommodation.
“Someone had been living in the cottage and it was pretty run-down, but most of it was in its original condition,” says Jade.
The couple, who met while working in Canada’s ski fields, were living half an hour’s drive away from Port Molyneux on Lyndon’s family’s sheep and beef farm. And although Jade enjoyed life on the farm, the former Londoner missed her career as an interior designer.
“Doing up the cottage and converting the school into a wedding venue was a chance to use some of those design skills,” she says.
Fortunately, the layout of the 60-square-metre cottage was mostly good, meaning the couple only had to make a few structural changes such as shifting the door to the master bedroom two metres further up the hallway, allowing the bed to be moved to the opposite wall to take advantage of the glorious sea views.
“It’s nice to lie in bed and see the sea, especially in the winter when it’s stormy outside,” says Jade.
They also removed a dated pot belly stove in the living room, as well as a rotten window, which was replaced with sliding doors.
Their biggest job was converting the cramped bathroom into a bright, white sanctuary. That involved borrowing space from the adjacent linen cupboard to give them some badly needed storage. They also relocated the toilet and replaced the claw-foot bath with a modern rain shower.
Thankfully, the kitchen cupboards were in good condition, so the couple painted them white and replaced the canary yellow Formica benchtop with a neutral laminate top. They also demolished a wall of built-in cupboards and replaced them with simple ply shelving. Those shelves are now home to simple crockery and accessories in glass, ceramic and copper.
“Although the cottage is rented mostly to bridal parties during summer, we host tourists year round, and we also use it some weekends when it’s free, so we needed pretty robust furniture, bedding and appliances,” says Jade.
When it came to decorating, Jade was in her element. A fan of neutral backgrounds interspersed with shots of colour in the decor and furniture, she got rid of the yellow, green and purple walls, covering them with litres of white paint. Not only did this create a more spacious feel, it also provided a backdrop to the mix of old and new furniture and fittings Jade had been collecting since coming to New Zealand 13 years ago.
“We were doing up the house and school on a budget so I had to be clever about the decor,” she says. This included trawling Trade Me and garage sales for the mixture of mid-century chairs in the living room, which Jade then had reupholstered. Her magpie-like instincts also turned up the vintage mirrors dotted throughout the house.
Although Jade originally wanted to polish the rimu floors, she had to admit defeat soon after she’d started sanding.
“They didn’t look as good as I’d hoped, plus it can get really cold here in the winter so I thought carpet would be cosier.” She chose a dark grey carpet for the three bedrooms and opted for vinyl in the kitchen.
Jade’s mother-in-law taught her to sew, which enabled her to whip up the curtains from fabric found on sale. Jade’s eye for a bargain was also rewarded with the wallpaper used in two of the three bedrooms, including a striking yellow design picked up for $20 a roll.
The couple had their work cut out for them when it came to the school buildings. Port Molyneux School closed in 1999 and the new owner had not maintained the building or grounds.
“However, once we started work it was obvious how well the school had been built and looked after up until its closure; she had good bones,” says Jade. More buckets of white paint worked wonders on the interior and a small extension was added to improve the general flow of the space.
Two years after opening their events venue, the couple say they love everything about the renovation. Although they’re not done yet – future plans include double glazing when the budget allows.
“People thought we were crazy taking this project on but we really enjoyed it and love welcoming visitors to this special part of the world. We’d be keen to do another project if we could find the right property,” Jade says.
Words by: Sharon Stephenson. Photography by: Guy Frederick.