Open to Talent

House proud again

Domain House has been showing her age – all 165 years – but now the old beauty is getting a full makeover to restore her charms

Domain House
Stately: Domain House in its early glory days

By Peter Cochrane

After 165 years, an architectural beauty has received some much-needed TLC. For a landmark building variously described by colonial commentators as having "some pretensions to architectural beauty" and as an "architectural attraction yet to be equalled in this hemisphere", Domain House has endured much neglect.

As noted by conservation architect Paul Johnston during a lecture at the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, very little money was spent on its maintenance during its 165 years. The response too often, he said, had been to simply cover up damage and deterioration. That is, until the site was returned to the University of Tasmania by the State Government in 2011.

Paul Johnston Architects, working with Cumulus Studio and Peter Freeman, has been given the task of arresting the decay and stabilising the building fabric. Structural problems, both within Domain House and in later additions to the site, and crude adaptations over time have added to the challenge. The project will also deliver policy on a future use of the building considering disability access, servicing and energy management.

Domain House decaying wall
Evidence of the decay
that has taken its toll

The first stage of a two-stage conservation process is almost complete. A team of masons, joined recently by plasterers, has been working on-site for eight months, both teams using, where possible, traditional methods. Poultice is being employed to extract salt from the stone walls before the application of a three-coat plastering process using lime. Concessions to modern technology include the use of chemical damp-proofing.

Domain House was built in 1848 as Hobart's first high school, a Protestant response to the establishment by the Church of England of The Hutchins School in Macquarie St. Alexander Dawson's design was "Gothic intent, with peculiar Tudor-esque elements," Mr Johnston explained.

When Domain House became the home of Christ's College in 1885, it was in decay. It became the first home of the University in 1892 and Mr Johnston said the mounting maintenance costs may have been behind the University's early decision to sell the building's bell for five shillings (whereabouts unknown). One structure that will not be restored is the "remarkable" toilet block, which Mr Johnston suspects is one of the oldest in the country. It will become an interpretation site.

The cesspit is yet to be investigated but should add to a very rich collection of archaeological discoveries. They include the uncovering of an intricate doorbell system; an external entrance to a long-demolished dormitory building which once accommodated up to 64 students; and minutiae such as pen nibs, buttons, brushes, toys, marbles, Latin and Greek exercise books, and "lots and lots of letters".