Hundreds of Canberrans enjoyed a rare glimpse inside one of the capital’s oldest and grandest historic sites, as Gungahlin Homestead opened to the public for only the third time in over 100 years.
The sprawling 36-acre estate is located between Barton Highway and Bellenden Road in Crace, and is best known in modern times as one of the CSIRO’s key sites.
Now, there are plans to develop the site for a retirement village and retirement home, with the farm and surrounding grounds remaining the centrepiece.
Continuous use of the “core” farm
European ownership of the property dates back to one of the travelers aboard the First Fleet, John Palmer, who was granted the land in 1828.
The homestead itself was built in two phases, with the northern section in plastered brick Georgian built by William Davis in 1860 and a large sandstone Victorian extension added by Edward Kendall Crace in 1883.
It was the heart of the pastoral property for more than 100 years before being converted into a wildlife scientific 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 has also been leased by the Soldier On organization in recent years.
With the lease expiring, the new owners, Urbanstick, are seeking community input on the future of the site.
So far, the response to the farm’s development has been positive, including 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 that the devil would be in the details.
“I think the best way to take care of any historic building is to use it,” she said.
“The building used to be a farm, it has been a functioning office building with CSIRO and Soldier On for most of the last 50-60 years.
“So, some sort of continued use is critical to ownership.”
History of “significant discoveries”
Among the crowd who got a glimpse of the old world’s grandeur on Saturday were many 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 fireplace because the top of the fireplace had been blocked off to keep the possums out,” she said.
“We managed to open it up so in the winter I built a fire in that beautiful fireplace and I’d sit next to him and think things through and read.
“There was a lot of work and interesting people who came to see me there.”
Dr Walker is eager to see the farmhouse preserved, not least because of the “scientific revolutions” that have occurred at the site.
Dr Walker said scientists from different fields gathered on the farm each morning to chat over tea and coffee.
“The amount of interaction that occurred in those coffee discussions led to interactive searches that wouldn’t have happened in an office system in a large block or something,” he said.
“It [the homestead] it has a very important history. What happened on this site was really significant in terms of discoveries in different types of research.”
He said the site has seen many major advances, including control of rabbits and pastures.
“They were working on arid and semi-arid rangelands and a lot of the management principles that emerged from that work are now being applied,” he said.
Homestead will be the “heart of the community”
Claire Gilligan of Urbanstik said the house would be the center of any community developed around it.
“We think that living in retirement would be a nice and compatible use to conserve and maintain the historic buildings but also the incredible trees on the site,” she said.
“This house would definitely stay, we would like it to be the heart of the community.
“Also, we’re eager to explore what uses the community sees that would draw them to come here if it were publicly accessible in the future.”
Ms Gilligan said a new approach to sustainable development had been 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,” he said.
He said he hoped the trial would be a pilot project on how to design for climate change, for people, for species and for country.
“Because we’re taking a project for the Country approach, we start with trees and then build the development around trees,” he said.
“Trees for us are one of the site’s key assets and values, so our whole approach is to work around what’s here now, and then enhance what’s here now.
“But 100% we imagine we’re keeping the atmosphere, the peaceful, amazing feel of the park, that exists here now.”
Ms Gilligan said it was still too early to tell how many people will live at the site, with the long road to planning approval only just beginning.