THE Hunter Valley is lucky to have a legacy of some grand historic homes. They remind us of a bygone age, often when colonial architects had many wealthy pastoralists as clients and money was frequently no object. How times change, now that Australia no longer ‘rides on the sheep’s back’, as the old adage goes. Today, we’ll look at some striking house examples. Visitors wanting to view them should be reminded they are privately owned and the privacy of the owners should be respected.
The magnificent Belltrees pastoral station and homestead still survive in the Upper Hunter as a great monument to a pioneering past. On Gundy Road, Scone, the Belltrees property has been home to the White family since 1831, although the pastoral dynasty really began in 1853.
Today it remains as one of Australia’s most famous rural properties and home to seven generations of the White family. Sited over fertile river flats, Belltrees homestead was built by pastoralist H.L.White at the peak of the wool production boom. That was in 1907.
The distinctive 53-room homestead was designed by prominent Maitland architect J.W.Pender and is heritage-listed. It is the family home of Dr Judy White, author and historian. From at least 1901 up to 1920, about 100 people worked in the station’s shearing shed where 180,000 sheep were shorn and 3000 bales of wool were exported to England.
By 1912, the Belltrees estate covered 65,000 acres and had more than 3000 kilometres of fencing and 64 houses.
Today Belltrees consists of 9000ha of prime grazing country fronting the Hunter River. The emphasis, however, has shifted from sheep to Black Angus cattle breeding.
Fine horse breeding has long been a tradition on the property, with station horses once exported overseas to the Boer War. In the polo season, matches are an exciting spectacle at the Scone Polo Club at Belltrees.
Today, accommodation on site is available at several self-contained cottages.
This huge 45-room mansion is a true Singleton district landmark. Built between 1875-1877 by Hunter Valley pastoralist Duncan Forbes Mackay, the house sits in the saddle between two mountain ranges. At Whittingham, on the eastern outskirts of Singleton township, it is truly one of the Hunter’s grandest homes.
But beautiful Minimbah House has always needed a lot of tender loving care. One previous owner is reported to have spent $1million to keep the home in good order. The first sight of the mansion is impressive. The facade, which features numerous columns and a long lacework verandah, is the first of many surprises.
Just inside the entry foyer is a grand, ornately carved timber staircase made of Australian red cedar and rosewood and carved in Germany. It is one of the hints of past glories when the house was first built and money was lavished on it.
Cedar joinery is found throughout the house as are stain glass windows.
The two-storey structure, made from cement-rendered sandstone and sandstock bricks, originally stood on 48ha of land at Whittingham, but is not immediately visible on the landscape from the New England highway.
Built in a U-shape design, Minimbah was formerly known as Dulcimah, and is officially described as being a Victorian Italianate mansion.
With the Brokenback Ranges as a backdrop, the house had two architects. The original plans were drawn up for William Dangar, the eldest son of the famous Hunter Valley pioneer and surveyor Henry Dangar, who surveyed Newcastle in 1823.
William Dangar, heart-broken then on the death of his wife, sold the plans to Hunter Valley settler Duncan Forbes Mackay who had them modified.
The design as we know it today is by colonial architect Benjamin Backhouse.
Minimbah House was expensive to build during the high Victorian boom era and it has been estimated to be worth more than $30million in replacement value today.
The Mackay family once also owned Anambah homestead out of Rutherford, near Maitland.
From the mid 1990s until 2007, Minimbah was owned by Bill and Bliss Ryan who carried out extensive restoration work on the homestead and planted a vineyard at the house entry. Bliss Ryan had also been Miss Australia in 1954.
At one stage in its recent history, the mansion, because of its size, was planned to be turned into a retirement home for wealthy women, but the project fell through.
A striking feature of the home is its ornate central tower. It’s said it was erected to keep a watchful eye out for any bushrangers roaming the countryside.
The truth though is far more likely to be that the Mackay family wanted Minimbah House to be more imposing than the Dangar family’s residence at the nearby Baroona mansion below.
Baroona is also one of the Hunter Valley’s most historic houses, having later been built on the Castle Forbes property where a famous convict revolt once occurred.
Sadly, this mansion near Morpeth no longer exists, although it was once extremely
famous in the Hunter Valley so it’s worth recalling it briefly here now. Begun by empire-builder John Eales Snr (1799-1871), the 45-room mansion was completed by his son John Eales Jnr MLC.
The lavish project took 18 years from 1854 and was once the most recognisable symbol of opulence in the Hunter Valley. It was then sold in 1917 and dismantled, its stone creating at least five new Hunter structures, including Mayfield houses and BHP’s pattern store. A new book on the rise and fall of the “Valley King” was only published last year.
Situated just out in rural Maitland, off Aberglasslyn Lane, this is one of the great houses of the Hunter Valley. A massive, square, two-storey sandstone Greek revival style villa with spacious cellars, it dates back to about 1840. After a succession of owners, it was largely derelict by 1977 when new owners began urgent conservation work.
Built originally by cattle breeder George Hobbler, worked suddenly stopped in 1842 due to drought. Hobler was soon bankrupt. Features of the 17-room, heritage-listed home include a stone flagged entrance hall, an impressive winding stone staircase with wrought iron railings, marble fireplaces and rooms some 18ft (5.4m) high.
Overlooking a bend in the Hunter River, it has been described as one of the most important colonial homes in Australia still in a rural setting.
Sitting atop The Hill in Barker Street, above Newcastle CBD, this 1875 mansion became Newcastle’s most expensive property in 2008 when it sold for a record $7million.
Originally built for a Henry Rouse, it was extended by new owner and beer baron John Wood. Legendary architect Frederick Menkens designed the rear buildings while another architect James Henderson designed the building’s tall Italianate tower.
Son John Robert Wood then married popular Shakespearean actress Essie Jenyns in 1888 and the house then became the centre of the district’s social events.
A brother, Joseph Wood, also built the Woodlands mansion in Church St west in 1879 to overlook the town. It later became the Centaur Hospital in World War II, then a boarding house for migrants, before reverting to a private hospital for 24 years until 1979.
Also in Church Street, The Hill, is the yellow brick Italianate style Lance Villa on the corner of Church and Perkins streets overlooking Newcastle Harbour.
Built in 1890 under the direction of famed architect Frederick Menkens, the home may only have had three family owners in its 127-year history. Full of ornate detail, the house forms a bookend to the nearby historic Victorian terraces. And looks are deceptive, the impressive two-storey house is actually four-storeys high.