Hundreds of Canberrans have enjoyed a rare glimpse inside one of the capital’s oldest and grandest heritage sites, as Gungahlin Homestead opened to the public for only the third time in well over 100 years.
The sprawling 36-hectare estate sits between the Barton Highway and Bellenden Road in Crace, and is best known in modern times as one of the key sites of the CSIRO.
Now, there are plans to develop the site for a retirement village and aged care home, with the homestead and its surrounding grounds to remain as the centrepiece.
Ongoing use of homestead ‘fundamental’
European ownership of the property dates back to one of the travellers aboard the First Fleet, John Palmer, who was granted the land in 1828.
The homestead itself was constructed in two stages, with the rendered brick Georgian style northern section built by William Davis in the 1860s, and a grand sandstone Victorian style extension added by Edward Kendall Crace in 1883.
It served as the heart of the pastoral property for more than 100 years before being converted into a scientific wildlife research station by the CSIRO in 1953, after being acquired by the federal government.
The estate returned to private hands in 2002, but the CSIRO was given a 20-year lease to remain at the site, which was also tenanted by the Soldier On organisation in recent years.
With the lease set to expire, the new owners, Urbanstick, are seeking community input on the future of the site.
So far, the response to developing the homestead has been positive, even from those concerned about the site’s heritage value.
Eric Martin from the National Trust Heritage Council said he supported the idea in-principle, but that the devil would be in the detail.
“I think the best way to look after any heritage building is to use it,” he said.
“The building was a homestead, it’s been a functioning office building with CSIRO and Soldier On for most of the last 50-60 years.
“So, some sort of ongoing use is fundamental to the property.”
History of ‘significant breakthroughs’
Among the crowd of people taking a peek at the old-world grandeur on Saturday were several of the scientists who worked there for decades, including Dr Brian Walker.
One of his fondest memories of working in the homestead was re-establishing the fireplace in his upstairs office — the former master bedroom.
“I opened up the fireplace because the top of the chimney had been blocked to keep possums out,” he said.
“We managed to get it open so in winter I had a fire in that beautiful fireplace and I used to sit next to it and think about stuff and read.
“There was a lot of work and interesting people that came to see me there.”
Dr Walker is keen to see the homestead preserved, not least for the “scientific breakthroughs” that occurred at the site.
Dr Walker said scientists from different fields would come together in the homestead each morning to chat over tea and coffee.
“The amount of interaction that went on in those coffee discussions lead to interactive research that wouldn’t have happened in an office system in a big block or something like that,” he said.
“It [the homestead] has a really important history. What went on on this site was really significant in terms of breakthroughs in different kinds of research.”
He said the site saw many important advances including on rabbit control and rangelands.
“They were working on arid rangelands and semi-arid rangelands and much of the management principles that came out of that work are now applied,” he said.
Homestead to be ‘heart of community’
Claire Gilligan from Urbanstik said the house would be the centre of any community developed around it.
“We think retirement living would be a lovely, compatible use to keep and maintain the heritage buildings but also the amazing trees on the site,” she said.
“This house definitely would stay, we would very much see it being the heart of the community.
“Also, we are keen to explore what uses does the community see that would attract them to come here if it was publicly accessible into the future.”
Ms Gilligan said a new approach to sustainable development was being taken, with emphasis on regenerative development with the help of the local Indigenous community.
“We are engaging in a pro-design process with our local Indigenous knowledge holders around how we restore Country through development,” she said.
She said she hoped the process would be a pilot in how to design for climate change, for people, for species and for country.
“Because we’re taking a design for Country approach, we start with the trees and then we work out development around the trees,” she said.
“The trees for us are one of the key assets and values of the site, so our entire approach is working around what is here now, and then enhancing what is here now.
“But 100 per cent we envision maintaining the vibe, the tranquil amazing parkland vibe, that exists here now.”
Ms Gilligan said it was still too early to say how many people would live at the site, with the long road to planning approval only just beginning.
Read More: Plans to develop Canberra’s historic Gungahlin Homestead into retirement village, aged care home