Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Restoring the Old Girl

When we told people the story of our house they all seemed so fascinated, I decided to make a blog so everyone could keep track of our process, and we had a detailed diary of our experience too.

Before the beginning
On more than one occasion I have had a dream in which I stumble upon a hidden treasure: furs, jewels, beautiful lamps and furniture, crystal and china.
And what do you know? This year my dream came true.
The beginning
In 2001 my husband and I bought a house in Red Hill, an inner city suburb of Brisbane on Australia's east coast.
The house wasn't really what we wanted, a 1960's brick box, but we got it for a good price and would never have otherwise been able to afford to buy in the area.
Red Hill is famous (or infamous) for its narrow, steep streets.
Little timber houses cling to the hillsides, perched on ridiculously long poles.
Many of the houses in Red Hill, and the adjacent suburb of Paddington, are called Queenslanders. They are traditionally tin-roofed, timber clad boxes (on stilts around our area), surrounded by ornately decorated verandahs. They can be painted all different colours, sometimes five or six colours on the one house.

Anyway, one of these delightful pieces of architecture was not in our hands in 2001. Instead we had a two-storey, double cavity brick eyesore, that was touted by the real estate agent as a 'Tuscan Villa', because it was painted a hideous terracotta colour.
We did our best. We rendered it, gutted it, repainted the roof, put in a new kitchen, two new bathrooms, four new bedrooms, we tiled, landscaped, paved and painted.
When we were done we decided that it was time to relax, and enjoy our family life with the children. matter how hard we tried, we could not resist 'browsing' on But that's all we were doing, just having a look at the market, seeing what our hard work was now worth. Sometimes we had a drive past houses in the name of research, and a couple of times we were accidentally shown through houses by real estate agents, who we didn't actually mean to call.
Okay, we eventually admitted to each other that we wanted to sell our house, and buy the house we'd always wanted. We wanted a big, rambling Queenslander on a block big enough for the children to have room to run around.
The problem was we didn't want to leave Red Hill. We love it. But we weren't sure if we'd be able to find what we wanted within our price range.

Right under our noses
We looked for our house, boy did we look. We looked further afield near my husband's work, we looked at the bayside area which is closer to my in-laws. We looked at semi-rural areas, and ones even closer to the city. We looked at houses we couldn't afford, and we looked at dumps we didn't even want to put a foot into.
We investigated some more. I spent my days driving around streets randomly, hoping I would find our new home, but it didn't show up.
One day in January this year, I parked my car at our back gate, instead of in the front driveway. The back gate is in another street, a dead end, which finishes at the rear of our block.
I got out and looked up and in front of me was the house I'd been looking for!
For eight years we had walked out of our back gate in the early evening (during cocktail hour usually), and looked up at the old house next door. It had obviously been a beautiful house in its day, but it's day had long past.
Years ago, when my first child was a little baby I had been walking past the house, and chatted briefly to the old woman who lived there. She had been collecting her mail, and I stopped and showed her the baby.
She said her name was Gwen, and she proudly told me how she'd been born in the house and had lived there her whole life. We chatted a bit more, and I walked off back through our gate.
Anyway, it occured to me that I hadn't seen Gwen in years, we had been busy with children, and we'd seen nurses visit from time to time, but even they had stopped.
I shut my car door and went inside. I sent my friend Jane an email and asked her if she could use RP Data to find out who owned the house.
She called me straight back & gave me an initial and a sirname. 'That's all I've got. It hasn't been sold in a long time.".
I looked up whitepages on line but I didn't even have a city. This person could live in London, Barcelona, Sydney, Bangkok, who knew? I put in Brisbane, the obvious, with the sirname and....nothing. I played around a bit more putting in specific suburb names. Up came the sirname, with the correct initials, in St Lucia, a suburb about 15 minutes away.
I wrote the number down, had a quick pace around the house and dialled.
A frail sounding voice answered the phone after only a few rings. I introduced myself, said why I was calling and waited to hear the reply. Let's call him Mr Baby.
I tried to delicately communicate the fact that I wasn't sure where Gwen was, and if she wasn't with us anymore, I didn't want to sound like a vulture.
In fact Mr Baby said that he was Gwen's brother, and she had passed away a few months ago. Mr Baby had been planning on putting the house on the market in January (just as I called) but he had been unwell. He also didn't relish the idea of dealing with real estate agents, and he wasn't so sure about how to go about keeping it out of the hands of demon developers, who would no doubt split the block and squeeze in another house.
He said it wasn't in very good condition, but I was welcome to have a look. He had recently had it valued, and he told me what the valuation had been. I was surprised, it wasn't nearly as much as I was expecting, but it was a bank valuation, which are always less than market value.
He and Mrs Baby dropped into the house almost every Sunday morning around 8am to check all was fine, and he'd let me know the next time they were there.
He didn't.
Time marches on

We didn't hear from Mr Baby. I knew it was too good to be true. By early March we decided to put our house on the market, and rent for a while until we found the right home for us.

We went beserk getting our house ready for sale. We wanted to get the absolute best price (of course) to put towards our new house. For a brick box, it came up alright.
Only a few days after we put our house on the market I decided to call Mr Baby again. It was a Sunday. He answered, I re-introduced myself, he interrupted, 'Aah, I tried to call you a few Sundays ago to let you know I was going to be at the house, but there was no answer.' Damn it!

He said he would probably be there the following Sunday, so he'd try me again. More waiting!
The following Saturday we had our second open house. The real estate agent called afterwards to say there was one couple very interested, and he thought they may make an offer later in the day.

He called back at 8.30pm on Saturday night, and told us the offer. It was generous, considering the market. We were chuffed.

The next morning, Sunday morning, the phone rang at 7.50am. My husband says I flew from one end of the house to the other (vampire style) and landed on the phone on the second ring. It was him, Mr Baby, he was at the house right now and we could come up and have a look.

Bestill, my beating heart. Fortuntely, and very optimistically, I had us all in our Sunday best and ready to walk out the door at 8am sharp.
We wandered through the gate for the first time and along the narrow path which led down the top side of the house. Mr Baby was waiting for us on the back lawn, under the Hills hoist. He was a wiry man, well in his eighties probably. He couldn't see very well, but he knew the house so well he led us up the back stairs. Mrs Baby followed. I loved her immediately. She giggled like a girl, despite being 88.
The house was dark inside and an absolute mess. It had been vacant for about six months, but the mess inside had obviously been accumulating for decades.

Immediately inside the back door was a huge room with coloured glass windows on the two external walls, and the other two walls were weatherboard, like external walls. Mr Baby said the room had been a later addition. On one wall was a huge oak or silky oak sideboard that must have stood 6"5 tall.
Off this large room were two smaller ones, one being the kitchen, and the other the bathroom. The bathroom still had the original clawfoot bath, but it was piled high with boxes of laundry soap and rolls of toilet paper.

The kitchen had an old dresser in it, filled with china and food. Plates and dishes, opened boxes of Uncle Toby's oats and other clutter filled the kitched table.
As Mr Baby led us through the house I tried really, really hard not to look at the furniture. 'Just look at the house itself' I told myself. We were only interested in the house.
Darkness, clutter, a gorgeous marble top washstand, the best I've seen. Stop it! I looked up at the 12 foot ceilings. Down again at an adorable old bookshelf with glass doors.
Mr Baby told us how the house had been built for his family. It had been architectually designed, and built by a builder who rejected more timber than he used.
We walked down the hallway, through a beautiful timber arch and up to the gorgeous green front door which had etched, coloured glass surrounds that were cracked. We went out onto the front verandah, which was also dark because of the drawn timber blinds. It still had it's original wrought iron lace, but it had been lined with fibro (asbestos). I saw a miner's couch with a matching single chair, and a footstool, and I couldn't help imagining it fully restored. I really had to focus on the house structure rather than the furniture.....oooh a hallstand!
We went into the sleepout, which Mr Baby said, had been his room when he was a boy. There on an old pale pink meat safe was an exquisite pink glass gasoline lamp. I forced myself to look away, and my eyes landed on an old pipe organ, dark and intricately carved. I hoped my husband was being more sensible.

We walked back through the house, and down the steps again. We stood in the garden. Through Secret Squirrel messages between me and my husband, made with our eyes only, we decided to tell Mr Baby we'd like to make an offer. He said we didn't have to do it then and there, and we should go home and give him a call later. We said the phone would be ringing when he walked in his front door, and for some reason he thought we were joking?
Before we left I mentioned to Mr Baby that we'd be very interested in buying a couple of pieces of the furniture to keep in the house if he would sell them to us.

'Oh no' he said, shaking his head. 'No, I'm not doing anything, I'm not cleaning
the house out. You take the house as it is, everything.'

I thought my legs were going to give way.


  1. I started reading from the top and couldn't stop till the end. Great blog and I will be reading it again. All the best with your adventures.

  2. I saw the article in the weekend newspaper and couldn't wait to read your blog. How exciting! I am so glad that you are sharing your adventure via this blog. I look forward to reading more about your journey. I lived in an old Queenslander which our family had owned for 70 years so I can relate to all I am reading. It is wonderful to think that the 'old girl,' has gone to a family who will love it as much as the original owners.

  3. Have just stumbled upon your blog and I love it. We too have a love story about a 100 year old Queenslander that needs a little updating, not that I really know where to begin or how much it will cost.