Congratulations to Matt for winning FCTA – Building Careers Apprentice of the year award. Matt is an outstanding apprentice stonemason and bricklayer who works with his employer on large stonemasonry projects. Our trainer went onsite to give Matt his award, and these are some of the amazing photographs from his current restoration project, the former State Governors residence at Marble Hill. [More information about the project continues after the photos]…
The Advertiser ran this story about the Marble Hill restoration project, providing some background on this incredible building:
IT was Friday, January 2, the 60th anniversary of Black Sunday, and a great pillar of bushfire smoke filled the air. Perched up high at the burnt out ruin of Marble Hill, we had a commanding view of the Sampson Flat fire that was gradually taking hold.
The fire was a timely reminder and a harbinger of the destruction that comes periodically to the Adelaide Hills.
About a hundred locals were there for the private launch by former State Governor Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce of a book on SA’s former vice regal summer residence. The hot, 44C day had brought a promise from the local Norton Summit CFS to be in attendance in case of fire, but they were now busy over at Sampson Flat.
On Sunday, January 2, 1955, the fire had been incredibly swift and destructive. It raced up the slopes to Marble Hill, taking hold so fast that the governor Sir Robert George and his wife and family had to flee with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. The two-storey, 23-room mansion with its four-storey lookout tower was quickly reduced to a ruin and its gracious gardens and outhouses destroyed.
For nearly all those 60 years since, Marble Hill has mouldered away. Successive state governments, starting with premier and local resident Tom Playford, have argued over restoration, preservation or demolition, and at various times tried all three.
Finally in 2009, as the task of caring for the place challenged volunteer organisations and vandalism became a constant issue, it was sold, despite a tide of public disquiet, to Ed and Patricia Michell, and started a new life as a privately owned ruin.
“It came at a time in our lives when our children had completed their education and we had the time and resources to undertake an interesting project such as Marble Hill,” said Patricia.
The purchase might have appeared to be a whim of a well-off Adelaide couple, but there is so much substance and history behind the acquisition that it was easy to sense that something was afoot.
The Michells bring together two distinguished and pioneering Adelaide families. Ed is an heir of the wool scouring GH Michell and Son company that dominates wool processing nationally.
Patricia is a Bishop, a sister to Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie, and a well-known hills GP. In the Adelaide Hills the Bishops are long time cherry growers and dyed-in-the-wool Liberals who have had a longstanding interest in the mansion “up the hill”.
In 1955, when the bushfires overwhelmed Marble Hill, they were also reducing the Bishop’s orchards in the valley below to ash. One of the Bishop aunts, Charles’s mother Jean, who turns 93 this year, remembers standing in a cistern in water up to her waist clutching a six-month-old in one arm and a 2½-year-old in the other. Eventually her husband Murray said “you can come out now, there’s nothing left to burn”.
It had been incredibly quick. The fires started at One Tree Hill and burned all the way to Strathalbyn, killing two and destroying many homes. It had crossed the Torrens Valley that morning and headed south towards Marble Hill in the afternoon. It had fizzled by 5pm, doused by a cool change and heavy rainfall.
It would be 25 years before the Bishops felt they had finally recovered from the disaster. On this particular January 2, in 2015, members of the family and other anxious local orchardists kept a weather eye on the Sampson Flat fire, and gave a running commentary on the meaning of the changing colours of its smoke.
The Bishops, and all the other local families had always considered Marble Hill a part of their community. Julie and Patricia’s (and MaryLou’s) late mother Isabel had called for Marble Hill to be rebuilt back in 1993, when she was mayor of East Torrens.
In its heyday the caretakers were all locals, and would have their friends and families visit when the governors were not in residence. The locals remember when the Governor-General, Sir Day Bosanquet and SA Governor, Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven, played cricket against the local side, or had the visiting local schoolchildren from Cherryville, Montacute, Ashton and Norton Summit to morning tea.
At the book launch Kevin Scarce reminded his audience that the State Governor’s job had become much more demanding since the days of Governor Lieutenant General Sir William Jervois, who had built Marble Hill with a £21,000 grant from State Government in 1880.
“He used to have one appointment each week, of two hours,” he said.
“Then his doorman decided it was too much, and cut it down to one hour.
“I think all future governors wouldn’t mind that regime.
“This is my first visit to Marble Hill.
“I’m in awe of Ed and Patricia and what they intend to do. It’s an enormous undertaking.”
Since 2009 there have been signs the Michells are going about the restoration of the Marble Hill estate in a way never contemplated by the State Government.
Patricia says they first repaired the gatehouse and then built a “barn”, which actually includes a substantial two-storey house of recycled local sandstone and brick. It was constructed in place of the original caretaker’s cottage, burned in 1955 and later demolished. At the front it looks across Adelaide and Gulf St Vincent to Yorke Peninsula. “We considered this to be a practice run for rebuilding the main residence,” says Patricia.
Next door, the stables are now being rebuilt for the second time. In 1974 the burnt-out building was restored as tearooms to earn revenue for the National Trust. Now the big, long building is being adapted anew as a cafe and event venue.
The Michells secured a bore water supply for fire-proofing and the future restoration of the mansion’s gardens by buying an adjoining vineyard irrigated by bore. When they called in the Henschkes of Hill of Grace fame, they were told the vines had great potential. They are now making wines, branded Marble Hill, naturally.
A pine forest near the house has been cut down, and a full-time groundsman keeps the approaches clear of fire risks, and is gradually uncovering and restoring the original gardens.
The latest development in the restoration has been the publication of a book,Marble Hill: A Grand and Glorious View. Like so many parts of this enterprise, it is a family affair, written by two Bishop cousins, Charles Bishop, a historian, and Patricia, with photographs from Ed Michell and archival photos and illustrations. It has been published privately by them.
The book covers the history of Marble Hill but is also devoted to architect William McMinn, who designed Adelaide landmark buildings, from grand mansions to the Adelaide GPO and Prince Alfred College.
It has many photographs of the residence in its vice-regal era, including the magical image — facing this page — after a winter snowfall in 1905. Charles Bishop tracked down and included McMinn’s plans of the house and surrounds. He tells of the life of its occupants, visits by royalty, and how the governors fitted in with communities.
Finally there is the original house itself, burned out, roofless, with bare stone walls showing signs of weathering, vandalism and decay. The tower sports a nest of scaffolding as it is upgraded to meet modern structural standards while its exterior stone is repaired and restored.
Patricia says they considered turning Marble Hill into a hotel, museum or conference centre but decided such plans would ruin the building. “We came the full circle,” she says. “Marble Hill was built as a private family retreat and we believe it should be rebuilt for the same purpose.”
A gothic revival architect from Grieve Gillett has been called in to guide the design and ensure the exterior of the house is restored to its pre-1955 appearance to meet its heritage requirements. Inside, the house will have modern amenities.
Under the heritage agreement with State Government, the Michells will continue to make Marble Hill available for open days for a minimum of seven days a year on a not for profit basis. One day visitors can expect to see a restored house exterior, renewed (and fire resistant) gardens, and a sense of what life was like for governors on their summer retreat.