John Bell, who was a bruising prop and captain-coach of Dirty Reds’ first-grade rugby union side in Goulburn in the early 1990s, set aside brute force when he decided to restore an old inn for his family’s home.
Instead of muscle, he turned to an architect who shared his vision for the 1800s inn at the tiny settlement of Breadalbane, west of Goulburn.
John’s father, Keith, a jack-of-all-trades in the building game, and a mate, carpenter Tim Smith, helped with the restoration/renovation after he bought the building in 1993.
Their approach began with architect Garry Dutaillis assessing the random-rubble building and compiling a building report, masterplan and redesign.
The first step was to cut vents into the old section of the inn to get air circulating immediately. For years, water draining off surrounding paddocks settled underneath the home. The accumulation of water is unsurprising, given the sweeping Breadalbane Plains are headwaters of the Lachlan River.
The corrugated iron roof, gutters and downpipes were well rusted and leaking, and windows were smashed. So why such fuss over a creaking, crack-riddled, two-storey relic?
Back in the early 1990s, John was putting down foundations for a 44-year career in local government in the surrounding shires, including many as general manager of Upper Lachlan Shire Council. Breadalbane’s location between Gunning and Goulburn, and not being far from Crookwell, suited him then and has suited him ever since.
The old inn reeked of early European history dating back to 1838 when licensee John Reid opened it as a comfortable alternative to sly grog shops trading along the main Melbourne to Sydney route. In the years to follow, the inn changed hands at least 11 times, trading as the Breadalbane Arms, the Red House, Coach and Horses, and Thatched Cottage.
In 1848, then licensee Joseph Fletcher advertised comfortable, clean and civil accommodation with a good larder and clean beds. His public notice added that stabling was stocked with the best hay, corn and oats, and good paddocks for travellers’ horses.
Soon after, three bushrangers couldn’t resist it, rifling through the inn and taking three sovereigns, three pounds in silver, bottles of ale and bread.
After paying $165,000 for the former inn, John and his wife, Rose, found no sovereigns under the floorboards or any other artefacts. But he believes he pulled off “a steal” acquiring the building, given the family memories that have accumulated there ever since.
“Our boys, Jack and Tom, loved growing up out here,” says John.
After purchasing the property, looking over holes in the rotting floorboards in the nine-metres by four-metres main front room, he could make out where the bar once stood. Off the bar, a door opened into the kitchen and living areas.
Removing layers of wallpaper revealed surface cracks through the lime mortar.
“It was a substantial job over 18 months of chipping and widening those cracks, then refilling them and replastering over the walls,” says John.
A traditional joiner in Goulburn replicated the inn’s original front doors and six-pane windows at the front of the house, which the previous owners had named ‘Rosythe’. The name remains today.
“There was no plumbing upstairs in the main room, which was a copy of the nine-by-four-metre room downstairs, where our bedroom now is,” says John.
“I put up plasterboard on the walls and raised the ceiling to avoid cracking my head – there were not too many six-foot people around back in the day.
“Up one end is a small bathroom which worked quite nicely as well.”
After demolishing 1950s extensions which had admitted the weather through wide cracks, John brought in a backhoe to dig drainage trenches to divert water from the house.
“I then rebuilt extensions according to the architect’s plans, with appropriate-style windows; same with the doors, bluetongue and jarrah flooring throughout, except tiles in the kitchen and carpeted bedrooms and nine-inch (228mm) skirtings all the way round,” he says.
“We put three bedrooms where there had been one, and a lounge room, and added a dining room, toilet, shower and laundry.
“I could see from the beginning the potential was there. Garry Dutaillis saw the same thing – being able to turn a stone into a diamond, basically.
“Having the architect’s plan was perfect – it gave me a strategy to use and I stuck to it rigorously.”
From its earliest days, the Breadalbane inn sheltered weary travellers who had walked along nearby hilly sections of the old main road to give their horses a spell. Today, visitors to the region with a connection to the former inn are shown over the renovation and chat with John and Rose over a cup of tea.
“A bit of country hospitality goes a long way,” says John.
No doubt it’s a sentiment shared with many previous owners of the inn.