For more than 100 years historic Gungahlin Homestead has been in government hands, closed to the public.
On 19 November, her doors will be thrown open for only the third time in over a century.
But if you’re asking, “Gungahlin what?”, project director Clare Gilligan, who represents the new owner, reckons you’re far from alone.
“I don’t think many people know what’s here given the site has never been accessible to the public,” she says.
Clare says the historic homestead, set on 36 hectares, itself measures a substantial 800 sqm and is one of three federation estates from the foundation of Canberra.
The two others – Government House in Yarralumla and Duntroon House in Campbell – are known well enough, so her obscurity is puzzling, unless you consider the role she has played until recent times.
A former pastoral property homestead and landscape, the Gungahlin Homestead site was adapted for use as a scientific wildlife research station and has been occupied by the CSIRO since the early 1950s.
The CSIRO website says the 1862-65 rendered-brick Georgian-style northern section portrays “the first major phase of rural property development” and the “grand” sandstone Victorian-style addition of 1883 “demonstrates a period of rural economic prosperity during the ownership of Edward Crace”.
Clare says evidence of its rich architectural history has endured.
“You can still see original stone and brick, pressed-metal tiles and there are these deep cellars under one of the outbuildings,” she says.
Sold by the Commonwealth in 2002 to a private owner with a 20-year lease to the CSIRO, structures on the grounds have been used as labs and offices.
With the lease coming to an end and the CSIRO conducting a thorough make-good as it prepares to vacate the site, Clare is considering its next incarnation – and she wants the community to weigh in.
“The CSIRO has finished its make-good, and the homestead is sitting there as a blank canvas. It needs a new purpose,” she says.
“But we don’t want to just lease it out and we don’t want to build a museum there. Our objective is to find a use that makes it accessible to the broader community.
“It has to have a functional role in that community. It also needs to have an economic use because historic buildings have to have a use to be maintained, restored and kept going onto their next evolution.”
As a centrally located site, with buildings on site courtesy of the CSIRO, Clare says the possibilities are endless.
The ideal scenario would be to provide opportunities for food and beverage offerings to attract visitors to see the homestead.
She’s also exploring retirement and seniors’ living more broadly on the site.
“We’re looking at Gungahlin, a booming area, and asking – what don’t they have listed in the ACT government facilities report? And what they don’t have is enough retirement and senior living options.
“Our other objective is to not subdivide. Retirement living is one of those uses that will allow us to meet the community’s needs but retain the site’s character, keep it intact and respect the trees and heritage values of the site.
“At this stage, it’s all just things we’re considering, though. We think retirement living is one sensible use of the site but we want first to gather feedback, thoughts and ideas on how Gungahlin Homestead can be a working, contributing presence in the community.”
Interested parties are invited to provide just that on Saturday, 19 November, from 11 am to 3 pm.
Drop in any time during this window and amble through the heritage precinct where the project team will provide information and gather feedback.
Clare says it’s also just an opportunity to indulge curiosity.
“It’s an amazing building that possibly many people don’t even know exists. You can’t see it anywhere from off the site because of the massive number of mature trees, it’s completely hidden from public view,” she says.
“Anyone interested in Georgian or Victorian-style architecture, anyone who may have driven past the site and never looked at it – now is your chance to see her, perhaps even weigh in on her future.
“Let’s bring her out of the shadows and give her a new life.”