Martindale Hall, pictured above, is considered one of the Architectural jewels of South Australia, located near the town of Mintaro in the Clare Valley, approximately 2 hours from Adelaide. Built for the pastoralist Edmund Bowman in 1879 at great cost, it was the central property of a wool empire that stretched across South Australia. Apparently built to entice a girl he wanted to marry to leave her English family house (supposedly it was a replica), she refused to leave England for the colonies and he eventually married another, settling into his 32 room estate with attendant polo ground, cricket field and extensive stables. Just 20 years later however, a long drought and a drop in wool prices saw his empire fall, and the property was sold at a knock down price to the Mortlock family. They lived in it until the 1950's when it was bequeathed to the University of Adelaide, who in turn handed it over to the State Government of South Australia in 1986. For some years it has been open as a house museum, and up until recently was run as a historic style bed and breakfast with all the attendant comforts you'd expect from a Victorian era house with a lack of modern facilities.... Many readers both here in Australia and overseas will be familiar with the house, as it starred as the school Appleyard College in the hauntingly classic Australian movie "Picnic at Hanging Rock" released in 1976.

Picnic at Hanging Rock

All this preamble is to set the scene of the next act: A proposal has been put forward by two groups regarding the future of Martindale Hall- one a private consortium who approached the government last year to buy the property in order that they could turn it into a luxury resort/ hotel. The counter proposal has come from the National Trust, who are pressuring the Government to gift the property to them, and have put together a 'dynamic plan' to run it as a museum space with festivals in the grounds, a newly created Victorian style garden, gift shop and cafe etc - standard National Trust style stuff.



The current operators of the Hall have enlisted the support of the Actress that played Miranda in the movie to entreat the government not to turn it over to developers and "take it away from the general public" pushing for it to be handed to the Trust. This has, of course, made headlines around the country. Naturally no one wants the greedy luxury hotel developers to take away public access! We are nothing if not egalitarian in Australia. But I have to admit to having mixed feelings about having the house handed over to the Trust. Perhaps, as abhorrent as it might first sound, a luxury hotel is actually a much better idea, on a number of levels.

Still from the movie Picnic at Hanging Rock

Firstly, luxury tourism is big, big business around the world. Australia has a decided lack of it when compared to countries like neighbouring New Zealand and their Luxury Lodge tourism that draws visitors from around the world, and this prevents a coveted segment of the tourism market from coming here with all the flow on benefits that would bring to the area. Developing historic properties into Country House hotels, which have been done so successfully in the UK revitalising and giving them relevancy, would be a major tourist draw here. This property sits right in the middle of one of the best wine regions in the country with a distinct lack of luxury accommodation to draw in a big spending sector of the tourism market. We have beautiful Heritage buildings in South Australia, ironically because we have had such a protectionist view point over them - but finding one to stay in is difficult unless you look at the holiday cottage segment of the tourism market. Everything else is brand new, which is a shame when you consider that South Australia's heritage properties are one of the more recognisable and celebrated features of our State.

Miranda from Picnic at Hanging Rock

Secondly, we have a number of properties already being run by the National Trust around Adelaide and they highlight some of the problems associated with the House- as- Museum concept. If you visit a stately home in the UK, the ones that give the best experiences to the visitor are the ones that still have the family living in them. The ones that are empty, and run purely as a House Museum by the UK branch of the National Trust can feel staid and lifeless, and sometimes be presented in a manner that is a little twee ("Ye Olde Worlde"). Families and people give a house life. It is the layering of changes of fashion, of the quirks of lives lived within it that make it interesting and that tell the narrative of why the house was created and how that relates to us and to the wider world.


Here in Australia our National Trust properties are all long vacant of the families that once lived in these grand houses. I have visited Beaumont House, Ayres House, Carrick Hill and Urrbrae House here in Adelaide, and various properties in Melbourne such as Como House and Ripponlea, and they are slightly dispiriting with an overlay of the Institutional feel to them. Guides are occasionally dressed in fake period costume, partially furnished rooms are set in aspic from a time period determined as 'correct' (but not necessarily the furniture or furnishings that were in that room at that time - they are recreations) can leave me a little cold. The richness that you get from visiting a living, breathing house is not there.

This is an issue that is currently being debated at great length in the UK (see the past few issues of Country Life magazine if you are interested, and I noticed that Ben Pentreath, whose blog is on my side bar also waded into the fray on this topic on his blog a few weeks back). We haven't had a discussion in Australia as to whether these types of experiences are the best use of these properties, because generally we look at our history with a blindly protectionist viewpoint - we have so little of this kind of built Architecture, and what we have is so recent when compared to other countries, that there is a universal favouritism of keeping the old and preserving it at all costs... even when that doesn't make it dynamic or as the best use of that facility.



So, back to Martindale Hall. Some of the things that have been overlooked in the debate are that this house has not had a family living in it for 70 years, which is half the age of the property, rendering it something of a white elephant. Most of the original contents from when it was first built were sold after the Bowmans left the property in a Mortgagee sale, with only a few pieces the Mortlocks purchased still remaining. The remaining furniture in the public viewing rooms are from that Mortlock period of the house's history. Other rooms are re-creations in a Victorian style. There is no reason why a hotel with a publicly accessible aspect to it couldn't co-mingle with the historic element. There is also no reason why this property has to be sold to be developed, rather than being kept by the government. It could be on long term lease, with stringent controls over maintenance, upkeep, approvals and public access. If this were the case, then I would hope a publicly called tender would go forward, and that the selected operator and developer would be the one that would provide the best long term solution for the property, not necessarily just the person that had an idea and approached the State Government first.


Historic properties are a difficult quandary. We can all watch episodes of Downton Abbey to get a meticulously and historically accurate recreation of a period of history and the people that would have lived within that time, with actors dressed, speaking and behaving as they did then. Walking through staid room sets in an empty house being led around by someone in a costume is not necessarily going to give a better or more enriching experience. When you balance that against the drawcard of the tourism component and the revitalisation that could bring, then perhaps a hotel is not such a bad idea. The house has been run as a museum for a long time now and it is not the main reason why people visit the Clare Valley, rather a side trip for those interested in old buildings. Making a destination out of it, with the Clare as the added bonus is an idea worth pursuing. Running the property as a National Trust museum with an adventure playground will likely not see tourism numbers soar in the region.

It's an unfashionable view to put forward. Long term blog readers will know I have a love of History and Architectural History in particular, and I do support the important work of the National Trust. But we do need to question whether these Historic House Museums are a success. Ayers House, a large mansion that is in the centre of the Adelaide CBD is essentially a Wedding venue and House Museum... how many of these types of venues do we need - all stuck circa 1880, all 'teaching' us the same things. Our built history is worth preserving, but we need to do so in a way that will breath life and relevancy to these properties. Sometimes development is not necessarily such a bad thing when it is done with sensitivity, and most importantly, done well.


28 comments:

  1. A great post! Written with thought, intellect and sensitivity. I especially like your point about long-term leases and the best solutions rather than first-come ideas. Thank you, Heidi.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Susan. I have to say I felt some trepidation about pressing publish on this post. I know that this goes very against general public opinion, but I do feel that there are a lot of issues around the matter that haven't been considered by the popular press/ viewpoint.

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  2. So interesting Heidi. Okay I'm going to put it out front that I hope it is developed into a hotel, with proper restoration, gorgeous dining and grounds in keeping with the era... because I would visit the area and stay there. Museum/NT property etc, dull, boring, that's never getting me to Adelaide. The lovely country hotel is exactly the kind of holiday draw that would get my hubs and I on the long flight to see your area of the world.
    I think that we have similarities here in Canada with our precious heritage properties, and I know for certain that a grand old house with a story can become a draw for tourism and create an excitement in a community, for example Langdon Hall which is very near to us in Cambridge Ontario:
    http://www.langdonhall.ca/the-history-of-langdon-hall/
    We visit a couple of times of year and when we do there are people there from all over the world. The property has been restored and expanded with a full nod to its history: the rooms, the grounds, the kitchen gardens etc. Oh please let us know what happens with this property!
    By the way, I remember that movie Picnic on Hanging Rock, gave me nightmares for weeks!
    XOX

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    1. Oh I love that hotel! That's exactly what I was envisaging, and done well it enhances the property, rather than detracts from it. There was a new entrant to the luxury hotel market late last year - Halcyon House - which is in a sleepy surf town. The building itself is nothing special, but it was renovated and done up to within an inch of itself, and it's been named in the top 10 luxury new hotels last year, and has become a real destination in its own right both with people going on weekends away, just for a meal at the restaurant and overseas tourists. Instagrammed to death. It shows what a power a destination hotel is in its own right. This house is so beautiful that done right it would draw people in from around the world, and that is just something the house on its own as it is museum like will never do.
      So funny about Picnic at Hanging Rock. It is haunting! The first time I went to actual Hanging Rock (which is in countryside Victoria, so no where near this house) I was terrified I'd get lost (you can't). It's a very ancient place though, and kind of spooky. xxx

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  3. Hello Heidi, sign me up. I agree totally with the Hotel/lease idea. And put the furniture in storage for 100 yrs while you are at it! I am really not a fan of those ponderously heavy brown Victorian antiques. But I can imagine how chic it could be with classic style furnishings with a modern twist. Bring out your updated William Morris again I say. If you haven't already done it, I hope you will get yourself a role with the National Trust and/or govt advisory board which deals with these things. You'd be a clear thinking assest. Judith

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    1. You're exactly right Judith. Done with modern sensibilities but with the older feel to it it could be a very successful place. But as it is at the moment... well, it's a white elephant in many ways. I think people have also overlooked a few things - there are a lot of people saying it was a gift to the people etc must stay open for all. But really, this house at that time when it was gifted was worthless. It was an enormous Victorian house in the middle of nowhere (essentially), with reduced landholdings so not a working farm with income stream to support it. In the 50's it would have been very, very difficult to sell. They were tearing down houses like that. Gifting it to the University was an easy option out of a difficult sale/ decision. I don't know that the Mortlocks would have envisioned it being used for the public and as a museum... they were gifting it to the University so they could use it for research or something of that kind.
      I've had a lot of dealings with Heritage over the years on minor council levels and major property developer side of things, both National Trust, Heritage Victoria and local council overlays. The issues are always really complex, and it's so dependent as to what the individual you're dealing with is like as to the outcome you end up with. Very subjective. Very tricky on a lot of levels, and I fear that this will end up with the government making an easy and popular decision by gifting it to the Trust to avoid the backlash from privatisation.

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  4. I really appreciate your posts as I learn so much. I can see your point especially as a drawing point for tourists, whether on a national or international scale.
    In France, our kids couldn't get their heads around fact that at one stage we were staying in a chateau built between 12-15th century. They kept trying to work out how many great great great grandparents ago that was. The operators did a magnificent job and everything was in working order. Having said that, Vaucluse House in Sydney is run very well in my view as a living museum. The kids have done some of their holiday cooking courses which are very simple but also effective i.e. How to make butter, lemonade, bread and damper and every so often my dad likes to go and check their vegetable gardens. He loves to check it all out. But having said that, I have no idea how many international visitors they get. Den xx

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    1. I do think there is value for school groups etc with some of these houses. But how many do you really need? Urrbrae House, which takes a lot of school groups is essentially completely unfurnished. It's not remotely how the house would have appeared when the family were living in it. A lot of these houses are just a house - the contents are nothing special. They're not holding a collection of Old Masters or fine 19th Century Colonial furniture and art even. I think most of these houses have areas off limits, so you don't get the full run of the place... so really what is the difference if an aspect of a historic house is open for viewing and the rest is hotel. I think the ability to actually stay in one of these properties is very special, and a much better experience for people. Sure, not everyone would be able to afford a night, but the experience for those that could would be much richer than a quick tour through an empty house.
      Haven't been to Vaucluse House, but have been meaning to do so when in Sydney so I'll make sure I go in the future. xx

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    2. Love love love Vaucluse House. One of my favourite kids' series was partly filmed there.... "My Place" an ABC production based on the well loved book. Vaucluse House offers the best educational programs (can you tell I'm a teacher??) K

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  5. Heidi
    You've convinced me - specially if YOU write up the conditions for the leasing hotel group. Though house museums can be done really well - even where the family have long since left the building. Am thinking of some in the Washington and an amazing one in Milan - but of course the draw there is largely because of all the magnificent artworks collected.
    Some of these overseas places are done with such imagination and flair that they are truly interesting and beautiful. A v special exhibition in Paris a couple of years ago of the old Orient Express train was wonderful. (I know not a building but some similarities.) The original carriages and engine of one of the trains had been restored and were on display in the forecourt of te Insitut du Monde Arabe (there was a lot more inside the museum). You could actually walk through and admire the beautiful grande luxe craftsmanship of the marquery, the glass, wrought iron, other fittings etc. There was a dining room and a kind of club car and different types of cabins. But te major drawcard was the way they'd set it up - imagining a combination of real and fictional characters who'd travelled on this train, eg Agatha Christie and her husband the architect Max Mallowan (I think was his name), other writers plus the fictionals like Poirot and James Bond. In the dining/club rooms there were gorgeous shawls thrown casually across the backs of chairs, men's coats anging up and all knds of things you might imagine were used to pass the time on long train journeys - books,playing cards, gambling chips, whisky and champane bottles and glasses, cigars etc. All of the class and quality that people who rode 1st class would have used but that also fitted the period and, where appropriate looked well used. Also a portable typewriter, reading glasses etc. All beautifully and, it cleverly appeared, artlessly arranged. The sleeping cars were also exquisite, fabulous old luggage, dressing cases, silk negligees, pearls slung casually, a tiny portable record player etc. It was absolutely superbly done - amd was a brilliant example of what imagination and flair can achieve.
    Think sometimes in Oz the staff of the NT can get too hung up on keeping things mummified authentically in a set period.
    It might have been fun to have had special exhibtions at the Hall, eg reinventing some of the rooms as they would have been in "Picnic..". agree about Vacluse House - have always enjoyed visiting. Pammie

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    1. Think you've hit a major point Pammie - the collections in a lot of those House Museums overseas are part of the draw... not just the building itself. This is the problem with the Trust. They don't have the gift of the collections, or the ability to acquire them themselves. So these places are all a little empty and lacklustre. I think the museums you've described sound amazing - and yes, love the idea of all the little details. But unfortunately a lot of the time you're instead here just looking at some very ordinary piece of Victorian furniture (that might sell in a local auction clearing house for $400) with a rope over it and a "do not sit" sign. No flower displays or indoor plants, no ephemera of normal living. Just stiff furniture, displays and bits missing. Music playing or the smell of food in the dining room and a (fake) feast on the table would be a better display of a house. But I think part of the problem is the Trust is underfunded. They took on these houses when they were cheap to buy, but cost a fortune to restore and run. Money for displays just isn't there. THey're not a government institution and they rely heavily on subscriptions and donations... each state has their own autonomous group too. So really, it's not an ideal model for giving a great end result - wealthier states with less built heritage will have more to spend on those properties. Other poorer states, which may not get big donations and grants may have many properties on their books that they can't afford to maintain to a high standard. Just really difficult. xx

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    2. Yes, take your point about funding. Perhaps the NT should also be seeking additional private sector sponsorship and/or donations from appropriate Oz celebs. Maybe they are already? Sport seems to attract huge money, sadly the arts always seem to be Cinderella in Oz. Agree, it must be very difficult for the NT. The French Government is wonderful in the way it funds and supports the arts and French patrimony. Also the amazing house museums here (like the Jacquemart-Andre and the Nissim de Camondo) get large numbers of fee paying people through.
      At one stage when the Oz National Gallery was building its fashion and costume collection but complaining about the costs, I suggested to one of the people responsible that they might consider approaching famous Oz celebrities who have a professional and personal interest in fashion (ie Nicole, Naomi, Cate, Kylie etc) for donations, either in money or in actual fashions, or both. He wasn't interested. But I think it would have been worth trying. After all, what was there to lose! The Gallery does have an amazing collection of Ballets Russes costumes that visionary first director, James M acquired quite cheaply as a job lot of trunks years ago. They needed a lot of restoration but they're now one of the glories of the collection, though seldom displayed. Pammie xx

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  6. Such an interesting post Heidi, I think the small hotel would be the best outcome for this building. I agree that the National Trust does a phenomenal job but sometimes buildings need more, as you said they need to be a living building, its size and location are perfect for the small, intimate boutique hotels that are so readily available in Europe.
    It is not difficult to put caveats on the developers to ensure the integrity of such an iconic South Australian building.

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    1. I think, unfortunately, that no one has any confidence in the Government being able to do something to the benefit of the state's long term interests and this has driven a lot of the slightly irrational debate around it. If it were done properly it could be such an asset to the state, and really boost tourism. I don't think the unsolicited proposal from the developers is quite right as it is, but it's a starting point, and certainly the concept would be far more dynamic than the current situation. If only someone with a little vision were running the project within government it could be such a great outcome...

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  7. Such a thought provoking post on an interesting subject, at least to me it is. I think I'm in your camp on this one, as long as the historic aspect of the hotel is somehow preserved. Then again, that might be difficult to accomplish when a house is turned into a hotel. Obviously, with careful and sympathetic choices of decor, I can see this being a very successful venture.

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    1. The historic part would have to be preserved because it has State level Heritage listings on it, which are pretty onerous I think CD. The current proposal weirdly has ignored all of that and wants to make bridal suites etc upstairs knocking through walls etc. Which would never be allowed! But I think if they could build an annex to the main house with most of the hotel rooms, and use the main house for sitting/ lounge/ dining etc that would be a great compromise.

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  8. I have no real opinion except to say that I do not find Victoriana appealing.

    Such an interesting topic. x

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    1. Thank you for the giggle FF! xxx

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  9. I love this post Heidi and think your argument for privatisation is perfect. It makes so much sense - the NT is spread too thin and the lack of resiurces often results in that dreadful depressing deserted feeling. New Zealand has an incredible boutique market which has made a very valuable contribution to the burgeoning economy. Kind Regards. Ali

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    1. Thanks for your comment Ali, and I think that without the life in the house they don't make for great attractions/ reflections of life in the past. Sadly the funding hasn't been there to really make these places sing.

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  10. Very interesting!!! My first reaction was to say : keep it under Gov ownership. However, the location of the estate do raise some issues. many historic properties here in Sydney remain vibrant as they are located within the metropolitan region. Lively arts programs and importantly, educational programs are run frequently, and this means that the sites are well frequented. However, this very lovely Martindale Hall is beyond a day commute from the city, so "visitor traffic" might be reduced. Pun intended. As The Clare Valley is a lifestyle destination, I think a luxury hotel might be just the ticket. However, I think a long-term leasing arrangement would be suitable. Great post Heidi. Am currently thinking a lot about Britain's exit from EU. Uncharted waters ahead. K x

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    1. I think visitor traffic will be very dependent during the week on overseas tourists/ school groups (local). So not so many people visiting. Weekends it's still a fair drive, so it's something that people aren't going to flock to multiple times in a year to visit, even for festivals etc, but it would get the people away for the weekend, or willing to do the Sunday drive thing every now and again... but really a hotel would be a boon for the area. Arguments have been about it benefiting only a few, whereas I think it would benefit many more - employment, money to the local area from visiting other things, international profile of the region etc etc. Yes, Brexit has certainly caused an interesting week on the markets, and with our own election this weekend it's all felt quite uncertain in general. xx

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  11. My knee jerk reaction is always to keep things equitable but you are a master (mistress) of gentle persuasion. I'd visit a luxury hotel like that....Perhaps they could do wine tours from the hotel?

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    1. Ha! I should've been on the debating team at school (I wasn't). I'm not sure that the Mortlocks would've wanted it to be some sort of permanent museum/ run down shrine to them - they may have even found it slightly embarrassing. It was donated to the University with the idea it could be used by staff/ students for agricultural research etc on the property. So it wasn't really ever supposed to be open to the people like it has been.
      Wine tours would be fab from the hotel, and I do think it would polish up well and be such an asset to the state. xx

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  12. Hi Heidi - I love martindale house and have actually stayed there twice about 16 - 17 years ago. The first time was as a "bed and breakfast" and the second was as a dinner party stay with 10 other guests. The first couple who were running it at the time were a huge asset and the reason I wanted to go back. - It was a mistake to watch a bit of the movie prior though as it added a spooky element, and as my partner and I were the only ones in the building It wasnt the most restful nights sleep. (It also wasnt luxurious as the bathrooms attached to the main bedrooms dont function, so its a trip down the hall.) I knew this though and love old houses so it didnt really worry me. We were taken down into the cellars and store, through the servant stairs, played the billiard table leafed through the library and had dinner in the formal lounge with an open fire. In the morning we had breakfast in the kitchen. The second stay while fun to share with a group, was really let down by the hosts. Overall though the experience of staying in the house makes me think the house itself wouldnt really suit accomodation purposes -without a lot of change to the building however having beautiful accomodation on the property and then the use of the house may be a compromise that could be reached. - Your posts are always a pleasure to read, and so thoughtfully written. Rebecca

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    1. Thanks for your comment Rebecca, and I'm so interested to hear from someone who has actually stayed... twice!
      It does indeed sound very spooky to stay in the house on your own. My parents stayed a long time ago at the house as well, and echo what you said about it not being very comfortable with the Victorian era plumbing/ bedrooms...
      I do think what you mentioned about the second hosts has also struck me with the current campaign/ the non renewal of lease for accommodation/ the way the house is presented in general.
      Also think you're right about the accommodation. I think if newer purpose built suites and bathrooms were done in a separate annex, and the house used as more the dining/ lounge area it would work well. Although having seen what has been successfully done in the UK with country houses, it could be done well I think. Thanks for your comment - such an interesting slant you have to add to the debate.

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  13. I know of an American developer with funky hair that could come in and gild that lily, slap his name on the front, and make Mexico pay for it.

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  14. Hello - perhaps I am coming into this commentary late in the day - but then again, the 'debate' over the future of Martindale Hall is not over yet ! I did so enjoy your commentary - and the ensuing comments - and thought what a waste just to leave it all on these pages - people who are the decision makers need to be reading this ! As if "the public, the people, the government, the council" have the monopoly on what is best for these old buildings and properties - not least the money, coz that is what it takes to restore and run these places left over from another era - if we the people want them in our midst in the future. The latest chapter in Martindale's history reminds me of the debate that happened when the ruins of the Governor's summer mansion at Marble Hill desperately needed a new owner - and all the too haa that went with that … today it is being lovingly, realistically and carefully restored by its new owners - at huge(repeat huge) expense - that no government could justify spending the public's money on today. And it is still open to the public with the owners engaging with the community, with a myriad of uses, (i.e. it ain't just the 'rich people' who get inside these places once they are in private ownership.) I have stayed at Martindale Hall a couple of times - and I gotta tellya, it is not where I would want to stay today ! It's a tired old dump with a flash facade and imposing entrance hall ! Quite apart from emotion and memories, it is now building codes and regulations, occupational health and safety, fire regulations, et al, that have the final say how these buildings and properties can now be used and inhabited. I have stayed in a lot of these type of wonderful old places, privately restored and put to good modern day use - e.g. the paradores of Spain, Italian and French villas and farmhouses (agriturismo) - and the heritage inns of America. It is wonderful to see them beautifully restored, and most importantly - lived in and loved …. just like Martindale Hall could be - another example of the adage - 'use it or lose it'. If and when someone does invest a lot of blood sweat, tears and dollars in making Martindale Hall come alive again - I am sure the SA Tourism would love them for it.

    p.s. these old piles that were bequeathed to institutions like the university, etc just become millstones around their neck in another era - like the world has moved on, so have the days when it might have seemed like a good idea for Martindale Hall to be used by the university for agricultural pursuits - it is just now surplus to their requirements and a liability, not an asset …

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