After five years of passion and hard work, the former St Francis of Assisi convent on the ridge top of Dornoch Terrace has been reinstated to its 1868 glory.
The married couple behind the restoration of Toonarbin are true amateurs in the Latin sense of the word amator: meaning that they have restored the three-storey, red-bricked example of early Queensland Separation architecture for love. Their commitment to preserve Australia’s early history and faithfully restore the house of former retired captain of coastal steamships, Henry O’Reilly, has been absolute.
Except for numerous roosting pigeons, Toonarbin had been vacant for 12 years and had been marked for a childcare centre when it was purchased in 2007. Declining to be named in this article, the owners explain: “It is all about the house, not about us.”
Painstaking demolition of the asbestos ceilings and the many internal partitions, used to convert the home to a convent in the 1920s, revealed the 12 original fireplaces (just 10 could be recovered), the internal cedar staircase, and the core of the 19th Century home, which is associated with one of Brisbane’s earliest architects, Benjamin Backhouse.Toonarbin, one of Brisbane’s earliest homes, was named by Backhouse after a manor in Henry Kingsley’s early Australian novel titled The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn.
The house was initially on eight acres which extended to the Brisbane River. The site and the home’s top level have sweeping views north to Mount Coot-tha and south to the river and University of Queensland’s sandstone Forgan Smith Building. Built around the time that Queensland seceded from New South Wales, the house and its European-style 14-inch thick walls and 12-foot ceilings are evidence of a young Australian state forging its identity, albeit with eyes firmly focused overseas.
The restoration has remained as true to the original architecture and design as the modern age has allowed. Where possible, handcrafted work has been favoured over factory-made products, natural materials preferred over anything prefabricated and items that could not be saved have been faithfully reproduced. Original lath and plaster ceilings on all three levels were extensively repaired by hand, with craftsmen from the United Kingdom reinstating cornices and recreating ceiling roses that had been removed. A stonemason completed the cobblestone drive and sandstone stairs that lead to the garden below a balustraded terrazzo. A team of carpenters laboriously restored the wooden stairs and cedar skirting boards by hand.
Concessions to functional contemporary living, such as electrical fittings, airconditioning, and a divine handmade French Molteni stove, have been sympathetically included. Beautiful items from the convent have also been preserved. To this day the former chapel, now home to the owners’ larger artworks, remains a hallowed place. The original stained glass windows have been retained and copied by artisans to recall the symmetry of the house.
The wrought iron gates to the entrance hall were made by a Brisbane blacksmith — inspired by gates the couple found and photographed in an archway in Buenos Aires. The basement, not visible from the street, was once the servants’ quarters and spans the entire area of the house. The street-level second floor hosts the formal sitting room, reading rooms, studies and a marble benchtop kitchen to the rear.
The higher levels are bounded on each side by enclosed verandas, constructed by the church in the 1920s. The top floor alone has 100 windows. Leading off its central hallway are four bedrooms and a luxurious black and white tiled bathroom.
Each of the 21 rooms has been decorated with furnishings from a bygone era. The only items not positioned with purpose when I visited were two Queensland nut husks, lying on the antique French tiles in the entrance, telltale signs of the children who played happily in the home the previous day.