Secrets of bringing the past back to life

IT’S no surprise that New Norfolk is home to a great number of old buildings. Even before 1808, the Valley drew people to its rich soils and fresh water at a time when the new settlement of Hobart to the south had little of either.

Many of the local structures – often in stone and brick – survive today. Most, however, need at least a refurbishing, if not a ground-up renovation. Consider just-sold St Augustines at Bushy Park, a weatherboard church built in 1904, or St. Pauls Uniting Church (1833) on Burnett Street, currently looking for a new owner. Both will require love, attention and courage as well as deep pockets. But in a real estate market that remains buoyant, buyers are prepared to look beyond the conventional to buildings erected for an industrial, agricultural or religious purpose.

Among those are Penelope Ann and David Lander, who’ve brought to New Norfolk experience in selecting and restoring older properties. The pair are currently up stepladders at the Old Colony Inn, which they purchased a year ago. Penelope is the driving force, with about 15 properties under her belt. Together, they’ve completed about six renovations, the most recent three in Tasmania. “Whether it’s sandstone, brick or weatherboard, it’s tempting,” says David. “But there’s always that nagging feeling … am I buying a pig in a poke here? You need to look around for expertise, for specialists. “Our first place together was in Yarraville, close to Melbourne. In those days, it had zero cachet: industrial buildings, gigantic gas containers, typical dockside buildings,” he recalls. “But it had a quaint town centre and a railway station. We found a dentist’s office, and over six years, added a new kitchen, bathroom, studio and garden walls. It really didn’t need a lot of repair.”

A holiday in Tasmania brought a realisation they liked local properties and the lower cost of real estate. Their first project was Edinburgh B&B on Macquarie Street in Hobart, a solicitor’s offices of three stories with a lovely staircase. Converting it to nine guest rooms was a major renovation. “And there were surprises,” David says. “A basement floor that just sat on the dirt, a supporting wall that turned out to be not double but treble brick.” The work was done and it was a great business, but we had no life, adds Penelope. “We decided to look elsewhere, find the satisfaction that comes with restoring an old home, and some land for animals.”

After much looking, they settled on Cleburne Homestead, a 1820s house and barn that had been rescued some 30 years previously, but was ready for a next-level renovation. “What we did was fairly subtle, converting the barn to B&B use, updating the plumbing, working within pretty strict conditions governing heritage architecture,” she says. And sometimes it was more hands-on. “Why were there cracks appearing in some walls? We had to crawl in the ceiling space, attaching steel cross braces. In old buildings, stone and the timbers of the roof and ceiling will separate.”

In June 2021 Penelope and David took over the Old Colony Inn in New Norfolk. Their refurbishment of the 1835 inn means adding bathrooms and a kitchen, rebuilding floors, repairing walls and painting throughout. They intend this to be their ‘forever home.’ “Our intention was to continue with the accommodation side of the business, and the bookings kept coming in. This makes the renovation work tricky but provides some income, at least.”

Penelope finds joy in meeting newcomers. “I love the B&B business, meeting people from around the world. It’s not like a hotel; we have real conversations. People are on holiday, having a great time, they know what to expect, so it’s a pleasant experience all round.”

A few key rules to follow with heritage buildings

Respect: If you’ve got a heritage house. You need to know, respect and maintain that heritage. Expect the Unexpected: Every old house will have problems, some visible, others not.

Essential Expertise: Ask around and find good people. From designers, building contractors, plumbers and electricians, you want people you’re going to like working with. Treat them well.

Choose the Manageable: That acreage looks good, but it’s a lot of work. And that’s before you get to the building itself! Manage your Time: It looks great on ‘Grand Designs’, but think about what else you want to do with your life, aside from renovation.

Submit: Ask the relevant authority, whether that be private expertise, the heritage council or your local council. Be humble, and it will work to your advantage.

Expect the Unexpected, Part Two: Stone buildings were often not cemented together in the way we understand it. If they didn’t have lime mortar (commonly used until 1900 or so) they made do with dirt. Yes, dirt! (Penelope Ann has quietly created her own mixture, using mostly builders’ sand, a little native dirt, ordinary lime and perhaps a few local leaves and sticks. “That’s the way they would have done it back then,” she says.

Note: Experts say that cement-based mortars should not be used with sandstone. Ever.

Money: David stresses that “what you’ve got is not going to last as long as you hoped.” There may, however, be a heritage grant so ask!