This historic ranch has been home to colonial-era herders and CSIRO scientists. Now it could become part of a retirement village

Hundreds of Canberrans have been treated to a rare look inside one of the capital’s oldest and largest heritage sites, as Gungahlin Homestead opened to the public for the third time in over 100 years.

The sprawling 36-hectare property sits between Barton Highway and Bellenden Road in Crace, and is best known in modern times as one of CSIRO’s key sites.

Now, there are plans to develop the site into a retirement village and nursing home, with the farm and surrounding land as its centerpiece.

Continued use of ‘fundamental’ homestead

Gungahlin Farm c.1885
Gungahlin farm circa 1885. (Hall School Museum and Heritage Center: Gillespie Collection)

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 farmhouse itself was built in two stages, with the plastered brick Georgian northern 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 heart of the pastoral estate for over 100 years before it was converted into a scientific wildlife research station by CSIRO in 1953 after being acquired by the federal government.

The property reverted to private hands in 2002, but CSIRO was given 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 about to expire, the new owners, Urbanstick, seek input from the community on the future of the site.

So far, the response to the hacienda development has been positive, even from those concerned about the heritage value of the site.

Gray bearded man in turquoise pullover.
Eric Martin is hopeful that the heritage value of the building can be preserved as part of any future development. (ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

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 any heritage building is to use it,” he said.

“The building was a farm, it has been an office building in operation with CSIRO and Soldier On for the better part of the last 50 to 60 years.

“So some kind of continued use is critical to the property.”

History of ‘significant advances’

Man in a navy blue checkered shirt, hat and glasses.
Dr. Brian Walker spent 15 years working for CSIRO at Gungahlin Homestead. (ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

Among the crowd of people who caught a glimpse of the grandeur of the old world on Saturday were several of the scientists who worked there for decades, including Dr. Brian Walker.

One of his fondest memories of working on the farm was resetting 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 open it up, so in the winter I would light this beautiful fireplace and I used to sit by it and think about things and read.

“There was a lot of work and interesting people who came to see me there.”

A room with a marble fireplace and red carpet.
The Victorian-style interior of the farmhouse has been preserved. (ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

Dr. Walker wants the ranch to be preserved, especially because of the “scientific advances” that have occurred on the site.

Dr Walker said scientists from different fields would meet at the farm each morning to chat over tea and coffee.

“The amount of interaction that occurred in those coffee discussions led to interactive research that wouldn’t have happened in a big apple office system or anything like that,” he said.

“It’s [the homestead] It has a very important story. What happened at this site was really significant in terms of advances in different types of research.”

People walking down a wooden staircase with red carpet.
Hundreds of people took the opportunity to explore the interior of the historic house. (ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

He said the site saw many important advances, including in rabbit and grass control.

“They were working on arid grasslands and semi-arid grasslands and a lot of the management principles that came out of that work now apply,” he said.

Homestead will be the ‘heart of the community’

Woman in a gray top with stripes.
Claire Gilligan says the mature trees surrounding the farm will be retained as part of any development. (ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

Urbanstik’s Claire Gilligan said the house would be the center of any community that developed around it.

“We think retirement living would be a lovely and compatible use to conserve and maintain the heritage buildings, but also the amazing trees on the site,” he said.

“This house would definitely stay, we would see it as the heart of the community.

“In addition, we are interested in exploring what uses the community sees that would attract them to come here if it were to be publicly accessible in the future.”

Lawn and grass surrounding a historic sandstone building.
The farm is surrounded by gardens and mature trees. (ABC News: Simon Beardsell)

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 design process with our local indigenous knowledge holders on how to restore the country through development,” he said.

He said he hoped the process would be a pilot on how to design for climate change, for people, for species and for the country.

“Because we’re taking a design-for-country approach, we start with the trees and then build development around the trees,” he said.

“For us, the trees are one of the key assets and values ​​of the site, so our whole approach is to work around what’s here now and then enhance what’s here now.

“But we 100 percent envision keeping the vibe, the calm, amazing vibe of the parks, that exists here now.”

Ms Gilligan said it was still too early to say how many people would be living on the site, and the long road to planning approval is just beginning.

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