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

As a boy, Maffra artist Ken Roberts was always fascinated by a futuristic looking house that was perched on a hill in the posh end of town.

It was unlike any house he’d seen before.

“Somebody referred to it as the Thunderbirds House, as it was extremely modern, open, with wide windows,” Mr Roberts said.

“Nothing like we’d ever grown up with — very space age.”

Front angle of brick home with large glass windows
The home appears to be from the space age.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

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

After a whirlwind inspection of the mid-20th century home, whose owner was moving into aged care, he promptly purchased it the next day.

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

Built in 1961, with its original brick feature walls, exposed beams, wood-panelled walls and handmade timber doors still intact, the four-bedroom home boasted panoramic windows across the front lounge room with views to the mountains.

Man leans against fire place mantel piece with windows behind
Ken Roberts was enchanted by the home’s panoramic windows and garden views.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael 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 wrapped in leafy garden views through floor to ceiling windows in every room, which elegantly bathe sitting areas in natural light.

“I think they were very social, they entertained a lot and so this front formal living area is a marvellous area to lounge, but also I was told that at some point if you wanted to, you could remove the bar so there was more room for dancing,” he said.

Early 1960s style wooden bar with decanter and glasses
The original bar could be removed to enable more floor space for dancing.    (ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas )

He said triple bi-fold doors could also be removed to open the lounge up to an open plan kitchen so guests could flow through to the rock paved patio courtyard and in-built barbecue.

Migrant success story

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

Wooden ibis statue with clean modern design
Ken Roberts inherited many of the original owner’s art works and homewares.  (ABC Gipplsand: Rachael Lucas)

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

They were processed through the Bonegilla migrant camp to eventually work as labourers at the Nestle factory in Maffra.

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

“They became so well known across the whole of Gippsland, they built hundreds and hundreds of houses, shops, offices, churches, schools and hospitals,” Mr Roberts said.

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

Light streams into a living area through a glass window and door
Floor to ceiling windows in each room bathe sitting areas in natural light.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

New housing styles

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

Standard three-bedroom, Hills Hoist, quarter-acre block, box homes were re-imagined with more light-filled, open floor plan designs, supported by post and beam structures that allowed for window walls of glass that allowed the “outside to come in”.

White painted kitchen with large corner windows
Ken Roberts has been careful to make moderate updates to the home.(ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

Mr Skulte, who is now in his 90s, told Mr Roberts that the post-war period was a golden time in Australia’s history where “they could do anything”. 

He and Mr Lemchens set about building the home after purchasing six blocks of land on the edge of the Maffra township.

They camped on site as the project progressed, including a car port and cellar underneath the house, with a native garden of banksias retained by rock walls in the front garden.

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

Unearthing mid-century treasure

Mr Roberts said much of the original furniture, artworks, prints, homewares and possessions were packaged with the home by the time-poor vendors’ family when he bought it.

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

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

1960s cabinet with sound system and records
The house came packaged with vinyl records, artworks and hundreds of books.  (ABC Gippsland: Rachael Lucas)

The lounge came with a catt jarrah dining suite and set of swivel chairs with original upholstery as well as a fire place answered by leather Tessa lounge chairs.

The original wooden bar came with a decanter set and aperitif glassware, an in-built turn table stereo system with cassette deck and accompanying classical record collection.

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

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

“Everything in the house has been extremely well cared for over many years — it’s a 60-year-old this house but it’s basically in new condition,” he said.

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