Hundreds of Canberrans got a rare glimpse of one of the capital’s oldest and grandest heritage sites, as Gungahlin Homestead opened to the public for just the third time in over 100 years.
The sprawling 36-hectare estate lies between the Barton Highway and Bellenden Road in Crace, and is best known in modern times as one of the key CSIRO venues.
Now there are plans to develop the site into a retirement village and retirement home for the elderly, with the farm and its surrounding grounds to remain the centrepiece.
Continued use of the “fundamental” farm
European ownership of the property dates back to one of the travelers aboard the First Fleet, John Palmer, who obtained the land in 1828.
The farmhouse itself was built in two stages, with the rendered brick Georgian north section built by William Davis in the 1860s, and a large sandstone Victorian extension added by Edward Kendall Crace in 1883.
It served as the heartland of pastoral property for over 100 years before being converted into a scientific wildlife research station by CSIRO in 1953, after being acquired by the federal government.
The estate returned to private hands in 2002, but CSIRO was granted a 20-year lease to remain on the site, which had also been occupied by the Soldier On organization in recent years.
With the lease coming to an end, the new owners, Urbanstick, are seeking the community’s opinion on the future of the site.
So far, the response to the development of the farm has been positive, even from those concerned about the heritage value of the site.
Eric Martin of the National Trust Heritage Council said he supported the idea in principle, but the devil would be in the details.
“I think the best way to take care of a heritage building is to use it,” he said.
“The building was a farm, it was a working office building with CSIRO and Soldier On for most of the last 50-60 years.
“So some kind of continued use is fundamental to ownership.”
History of “significant breakthroughs”
Among the throngs of people who took a look at the grandeur of the ancient world on Saturday were several of the scientists who have worked there for decades, including Dr Brian Walker.
One of his fondest memories of working on the farm was restoring the fireplace in his upstairs office – the former master bedroom.
“I opened the chimney because the top of the chimney had been blocked off to keep the possums out,” he said.
“We managed to get it open, so in the winter I had a fire in this beautiful fireplace and used to sit by it, think about things and read.
“There was a lot of work and interesting people who came to see me there.”
Dr Walker is keen to see the farm preserved, not least for the “scientific breakthroughs” that have occurred at the site.
Dr Walker said scientists from different fields meet at the farm every morning to chat over tea and coffee.
“The amount of interaction that took place in those coffee chats led to interactive research that wouldn’t have happened in a desktop system in a big block or something like that,” he said. .
“This [the homestead] has a really important story. What happened on this site was really significant in terms of breakthroughs in different types of research.”
He said the site has seen many important advances, including rabbit control and trails.
“They were working on arid and semi-arid rangelands and a lot of the management principles that came out of that work are now being applied,” he said.
Homestead will be the ‘heart of the community’
Urbanstik’s Claire Gilligan said the house would be the hub of any community developed around it.
“We believe the retirement residences would be a nice and compatible use to conserve and maintain the heritage buildings, but also the amazing trees on the site,” she said.
“This house would definitely stay, we would very much see it as the heart of the community.
“Additionally, we’re keen to explore the uses the community sees that would entice them to come here if made available to the public in the future.”
Ms Gilligan said a new approach to sustainable development was being taken, with an 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 on how we restore the country through development,” she said.
She said she hoped the process would be a pilot on how to design for climate change, for people, for species and for the country.
“Because we take a design approach for the country, we start with the trees and then we work on developing around the trees,” she said.
“Trees are one of the main assets and values of the site for us, so our whole approach is to work around what is here now and then improve on what is here now.
“But 100% we plan to maintain the vibe, the tranquil, incredible vibe of the park, which 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 just beginning.
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