From burnt-out residence to ‘working ruin’

From burnt-out residence to ‘working ruin’

31 May 2013

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Australia — The Australian National University (ANU) has won a federal grant to restore the burnt-out director’s residence at Mt Stromlo Observatory in Canberra.

The Federal Government has contributed $522,000 to the project, which will provide safe public access to what remains of the house.

“It’s not going to return this to its former state, but it’s going to return it to a state where people can both see the impact of the fires and get a glimpse of what it was like in its original form,” ANU vice-chancellor Ian Young said.

The heritage-listed building was burnt down in the 2003 Canberra bushfires that also destroyed offices, telescopes and workshops at the observatory.

ANU assistant director of facilities Wayne Ford says the restoration plans submitted to the Government aim to turn the site into a working ruin.

“The first priority is to make it safe and given the range of building products used back in those days, to actually try and remove those building products that are now classed as hazardous,” he said.

“Right now you can’t walk through the site, you can’t walk around the site in close proximity to it.

“The idea in relation to the submission was so you could walk through it, get a sense of the space as we are in right now, get a sense of what happened here and how it was part of the overall community up here at Mt Stromlo.”

Member for Canberra Gai Brodtmann says the grant recognises the local and national significance of the facility.

“It’ll be a working ruin and will remain a monument to 2003 bushfires that were devastating and claimed the lives of four Canberrans,” she said.

Focal point

The house is one of Canberra’s oldest buildings.

It was built in the late 1920s as a home for the first director of the Mt Stromlo Observatory WG Duffield.

The building was designed by Henry Maitland Rolland from the Commonwealth Department of Public Works.

During the years that it was lived in, the home was a focal point for the social life of the facility.

The occupiers held dinner parties to celebrate achievements and entertained dignitaries, including politicians and royalty.

The current acting director of Mt Stromlo Professor Peter McGregor says he was invited to dinner at the residence on several occasions and remembers them as social events, rather than working functions.

He says there are many stories associated with the house and its former residents.

One he recalls was about one of the directors in the early 60s.

Mr McGregor says the director used to look out of the back of the house at the 74 inch telescope nearby to check that the astronomers using it were doing what they were told.

“The observatory was seen as a Southern Hemisphere observatory, so you were meant to look at southern objects. So the director could easily see if you were sneaking in something towards the north, by seeing where the dome was pointing,” he said.

“If you tried to transgress these rules, you got a phone call at 3:00am to remind you about what you were supposed to be doing.”

The federal grant money will also be put towards developing a mobile application to guide visitors through the site.

Photo: The house was built in the late 1920s as a home for the first director of the Mt Stromlo Observatory WG Duffield. (Supplied: National Archives of Australia)


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