CARING FOR STATE HERITAGE
37 LOWER FORT STREET 2019–21
Caring for State Heritage in Millers Point since 2014 has included campaigning to save the community recorded in the State Heritage significance of this area, working to save the Sirius building and its residents, and helping to keep alive the histories of the people and places in the neighbourhood, stretching back to the dialogue between William Dawes and Patyegarang, and more recently to The Rocks Green Bans led by Jack Mundey and Nita McCrae.
We are also caring for our own State Heritage listed home, with its own stories, histories and significant fabric, which we had been repairing and returning to a residence since it was purchased in 2009. In 2019 it was time to tackle the outside of our home, which was in a dilapidated state:
- the non-original front verandah was barely standing;
- the roof was rusty and sagging;
- the original front windows were fragile and parts of the frames and sashes were in need of replacement;
- the back windows had been replaced in the 1970s and were at the end of their useful lives;
- the back verandah was on the verge of collapsing;
- the exterior paint had failed completely; and
- the brick boundary fence was leaning precariously.
We had described our home as a Regency Ruin. Now it is simply the Workhouse. Had we bitten off more than we could chew? Well and truly.
Repairing and restoring the interior of the house for a decade, we had learned that heritage restoration is hugely more expensive and slower than renovating. Even if we tackled a lot of the work ourselves, it looked like we would need something like $100,000 to fund the exterior restoration. Where would the money come from? If we extended our mortgage another $60,000, could we hope for a $40,000 grant from NSW Heritage?
We put together a program of works and submitted an application for a NSW Heritage Grant. It surprised us that we were successful, and work was allowed to commence in July 2019.
With all enthusiasm we headed forward, hoping to employ good people, plan well, and complete all exterior work before the completion deadline of May 2021.
You can follow progress and setbacks, starting with…
Before work on the front facade could begin, the iron fence was carefully removed for restoration. On close inspection, we discovered most of the iron fence was not as old as we had expected, and what was meant to be its stone base wall was mostly cement and brick.
David Gwynne has taken the iron sections to his Forgeries workshop to see what can be saved and what needs to be reconstructed.
Meanwhile, interior timber restoration continued, with Nick our joiner scarfing new Australian cedar into the damaged door frames on the first floor, making them ready for the new cedar doors he has made to replace the old fire doors.
Joseph, Rodney and Luka demolished the front and back verandahs. Their use of props and levers simplified the work and made the process safe, but now the house looks stripped bare and there are great gashes where the top of the verandah roof was attached to the front wall of the house. Here also was a sprinkler system left over from the commercial use of the building.
Word was out that Margaret was French polishing the first-floor windows and panels beneath them, plus the skirtings and architraves. Neighbours asked could she show them how? Friends and neighbours were invited to a workshop titled Filling, Faking and French Polishing.
Meanwhile, out the back an old air-con plant room and its suspended concrete roof were demolished ahead of pouring the foundations for the new verandah. Engineer Hari specified a concrete raft slab to avoid excavation and thereby ensure no relics are uncovered.
Site preparation for the raft slab began when Jeremy arrived with a small and remarkably agile excavator. He demolished part of the broken rear wall to get it on site. A compliance check by a Council officer confirmed all was in order, and following further council checks, the pouring of the concrete proceeded We were thankful that we had chosen Matt Glazenberg for our concreting as it had been more complicated than anticipated, but Matt and Jimmy sorted all problems and by afternoon the concrete was curing and the rear lane returned to normal.
A few days later Saxon and his team erected the scaffold on the new concrete slab, where it will stay for the next twelve weeks while we attend to the roof which is sagging and rusty; the walls that have missing brickwork and render; and the paint which is poor condition and needs to be removed before repainting.
On the rear walls we tested two similar paint removal systems, Peel Away and Heritage Strip. Both work OK and remove the majority of paint, but scraping removes more, so this becomes the method for most of the paint removal, with Peel Away as a final coating.
When most of the original brick wall is revealed, so too are the red-brick arches above each window and doorway, and there had been repointing of the brickwork which was in OK condition in parts, but appeared to be too brittle and was cracking. It was apparent the wall at some stage had been unpainted brickwork.
In an 1889 watercolour by George Collingridge it appears number 37 was painted by this time, but perhaps number 35 was still unpainted – it looks to be about the colour of the bricks of these houses. In any case, an interesting image showing the warehouses and stables that lined Parbury Lane as it led down to the wharves of Edwards & Hunter, the partners who built our house in 1833 and conducted most of the China trade at that time.
If number 37 and others in the row were unpainted originally, or at an early date, should they be unpainted again? Or should they have a breathable paint application, and possibly one that is transparent. Our neighbour and heritage architect Anne is encouraging us to head in this direction, and a visit to Murobond confirms their mineral silicate paint would be a great solution if we can remove a little more paint.
October 15 a week away is when Matt and his team from MLR Slating are due to begin work on the roof, installing a new slate roof at the front and iron at the back. Meanwhile Joseph has investigated the structure beneath the existing iron sheets and it appears sound but sagging. Hari our engineer believes there is no reason the timbers should not support the new slate and iron roofing if they are not damaged, so we plan to add sister rafters ahead of Matt’s roofing next week, and before that we must plan for sarking, insulation, guttering, downpipes and lead flashings.
7 am Wednesday Joseph and his team begin removing roof sheets and installing the first of the LVLs. It is good to see how Paddy, Luka and xxx work efficiently together and everything runs smoothly. By the end of the day two LVLs are attached to provide the levels for the rear roof and the iron sheets are replaced. We are ready to strip the rear roof and attach the LVLs as soon as new iron sheets are ready.
Wednesday is also when Nicole from Heritage NSW visits to see what progress we are making, and how we are spending the Heritage Grant we received. Great to meet her and good she arrives wearing safety boots. We are able to demonstrate that the grant has helped push us along at a rapid rate, and it is making possible much of the exterior work.
Nicole is able to shed some light on why our application was successful. She said Heritage had allocated a portion of grants to private heritage house owners and most of the successful applications in this category were from owners who demonstrated how they met the assessment criteria, had a clear budget and scope, a strong understanding and commitment to the site, and would produce valuable heritage outcomes.
Next door is Major House, built at the same time and probably designed by the same architect as number 37. It appears renovations are about to begin. A building team arrives on site and we are able to discuss some of the ways we might work together on issues that occur with houses that join one another.
On the same day, somehow we miss Ali who comes to check on progress of Peel Away, but he turns up the next day and we see Peel Away 1 has removed a little more of the remaining paint at the back, but after six days, neither 1 nor 8 is able to remove all layers of paint at the front. Both have removed a few layers of acrylic paint and number 1 has removed more than half the thickness of what we think is oil-based paint. In the same area over the next few days I am testing further coats of 1 and 8. If one of these is successful, Ali thinks the entire paint removal will take two to three weeks, and I think this is for just one man working, but in any case the cost is beyond our budget as we expected work to take four days at most. Perhaps we will work alongside Ali as well as looking for other ways to reduce the cost of this stage. When this preparation is complete, we are hoping to continue working with Shahidi Painting as Bill and his team come highly recommended for mineral silicate paint application.
Thursday is also the day Matt from MLR Slating comes to look at the condition of the roof structure and how we might deal with flashings, guttering, skylights and so on, and finally he meets with Joseph and they are able to plan how to work together. It looks like sheeting the rear roof might not begin next week. and so Joseph and his team will wait a few more days before they level the roof structure.
Roofers are hard to tie down regarding removal of the old roofing and installation of the new iron at the back and slate at the front.
We are informed that slate from Penrhyn Quarry in Wales is in short supply and more or less unavailable and we are encouraged to use another Welsh slate which we are assured is of similar quality and approved by heritage office. Does it matter which Welsh slate we use, especially if the slate from the two quarries is almost indistinguishable? We are on the verge of agreeing to this alternative slate but still want to see a sample before proceeding. When a sample does finally arrive, we do not agree to use it and we are stuck. We are told if we want Penrhyn slate, which is only being supplied into Australia in minute quantities, then we must pay for it in advance and wait for six to twelve months for it to be supplied.
At this stage and luckily we had decided to begin roof works by replacing the rear roof with iron, and the old front roof is still intact. Progress on the back roof continues while we mull over what to do at the front. We are told the quoted price for the Penryhn slate is to be revised upwards even though none is available. We are feeling our renovation plan is falling into a hole and we cannot see a way out.
The next week our roofer comes up with some Penrhyn slate, but the size of each slate is barely half the size of normal roofing slates, and there is an extra $1000 or more to pay as these slates do not have the holes for attaching them to the battens, and we will be responsible for the cost of making these holes in the slates. Our roofer assures us that these slates are more like the size of the slates that would have been on our house originally, and we go to a site where some of these small slates have been installed.
Meanwhile, work on the back roof is interrupted by wild winds that shred the tarpaulin that is over the uncovered roof. The ten-by-ten-metre tarpaulin is still able to billow like a giant sail above the roof, and the timbers through which the roofers attached it to the building are flying dangerously into the air. The roofers have kept away during the wild weather so with the assistance of an electrician working on a neighbour’s house, we remove the flying timbers and tie down the tarpaulin.
The winds die down and the roofers return to complete the iron roof at the back. Around the same time enough 500 x 300 mm heather blue Penrhyn slate for the front roof becomes available, although the price is a little higher. Other roof slaters have suggested similar slate might be available through them as well, but supply though anyone seems anything but certain. We agree to the higher price and to preparing the roof structure ready for the slate team.
Joseph returns with his team of carpenters, strips the old iron from the roof and attaches LVLs to straighten the front roof just as his team had done for the back. Stripping the old iron roof and removing it were included in the quote for roofing, but the work had to be carried out by Joseph and his team, and they do a fantastic job.
When finally the roofers were up to installing the slate roof, this was a relatively minor task since the roof structure was prepared so well. The French and British roofers are excellent tradesmen and every detail of the front roof and its flashings seem finished to a high standard. The roof looks beautiful. It is a very prominent element of the front face of the house and we think it was worthwhile to do. The outcome is as good as we imagined it could be, but the emotional and financial cost has taken a toll.
How should we restore the back wall of the house? If we apply mineral silicate paint the wall will be able to breathe, but it could never be returned to an unpainted state because the mineral silicate paint would combine chemically with the brickwork.
We asked neighbours, an HHA forum and Heritage NSW what we should do and the consensus so far is to leave the back wall unpainted, to restore the brickwork and the arches over the openings in the brickwork.
First task was to clean the brickwork even more. Then all cement patching and recent brick infill to be replaced with bricks similar to the bricks of the original building. Next week the wall is to be repointed with lime mortar before deciding whether or not to apply matt clear mineral silicate paint. The issue is whether the mineral silicate paint will protect the wall. Click here to link to the Murobond data sheet on matt clear mineral silicate paint.
FEBRUARY TO DECEMBER 2020
Bricks are replaced, the hard and cracked pointing removed and new, lime-based pointing reinstated. Pointing takes six weeks, with Dom working flat out, and Hugo and me preparing areas in front of him.
Meanwhile our book business seems to be running down. Fewer orders. Then we are ousted from where our books are stored as the site is earmarked for residential units.
Next comes Covid, and we are battling to empty a warehouse of books before what looks like a looming lockdown.
Book business falls off a cliff, and we survive on JobKeeper.
HISTORY – 37 LOWER FORT STREET
Number 37 was built as a merchant house and residence for Thomas Dyer Edwards and Matthew Dysart Hunter. Thomas had been an orphan at the age of twelve in the southern English port town of Shoreham when he sailed off for a life of adventure as a seaman, but later wrote ‘I took to the sea but the sea did not take to me.’ Instead he worked briefly on a Jamaican sugar plantation, which was not to his liking, then headed to China.
In 1833, slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the East India Company lost its trading monopoly over China, and Edwards and Hunter traveled to Sydney from Canton to set up their trading company which soon controlled most of the China trade. They built Dawesleigh as their residence and headquarters and continued to enjoy a close relationship with the famous China trading company Jardine, Matheson and Co. A decade later, Edwards had returned with his family to England and Hunter was rebuilding the family home in Scotland, but Edwards retained part ownership of number 37 up to 1855 when it was sold to the Campbell family. In 1858 it was rented to the Reverend Alexander Salmon who famously built a prefabricated iron church in Macquarie Street; in 1861 it was rented to the merchant Edward Frank; and in 1890 the tenants are wool sorter Philip Lee and newsagent W. B. Lee.
An outbreak of the Plague in 1903 provided an opportunity for the government to resume the houses of Lower Fort Street and indeed the whole of Dawes Point, Millers Point and The Rocks. There were plans for new wharves and bond stores to the west of Lower Fort Street and a harbour crossing to the east. Some houses were demolished, flats were built for workers on some of the now-vacant land, and the houses that remained were rented out. Initially number 37 was rented to John Haroldson, and by 1910 to Alfred S. Carpenter.
From soon after the end of World War I number 37 became a ‘residential’ run by a succession of landladies who included Ethel Wilson (1925), Rose Shackel (1936), Florence Ann Dee (1956) and France Barwyck from 1957 to 1975, when it was extensively remodelled for the Royal Australasian College of Radiologists. The Radiologists left in the early 1990s and squatters moved in. The house was almost derelict when the government chose to sell rather than repair it. The current owners purchased it in 2009 and have restoring it since.
RESTORING 37 LOWER FORT STREET 2010–16
During 2010–16 restoration has been underway at 37 Lower Fort Street. At the time it was expected work would conclude in 2017. Similar work has been undertaken throughout Dawes Point and Millers Point, as new owners repair the heritage houses that had been neglected for decades. Below is some of the work completed at number 37.
The entrance hall includes two original cedar fanlights. Both had suffered extensive damage, especially to the delicate glazing bars which are only 12mm wide. These are as fine as any made in the 19th century, and restoration was a slow and careful process.
The serpentine staircase on the ground floor had partially collapsed and needed major repairs to its supporting structure. Many of the treads and other details had been replaced with pine and even plywood. The original materials were reinstated and the staircase was put back together following traditional techniques.
In the basement, bulkheads covered air conditioning ducts, cement render covered half the walls, and a cement topping covered what was hoped were the original flagstones. Removing these recent renovations to the house filled the backyard several times over.
There were flagstones under the cement floor of the basement, but most needed redressing before being reinstated in their original positions. The cement render on the walls was removed, the bulkheads and the ducting were taken out, and the stone walls were repaired before being repointed with soft lime mortar. Now these preliminary works are complete, the rooms are ready to be fitted out.