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
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
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.
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.
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