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Historic Stromlo Cottage has a new community use nine years after eviction

Megan Doherty

Published: December 8 2017 - 9:35AM

Among the rising apartments of the new suburbs of Molonglo, a remnant of old Canberra still remains, now a community asset but originally slated for demolition by the ACT Government.

The 1926-built Stromlo Cottage,in what is now called Coombs, was originally the home of the caretaker of the then Weston Creek sewerage works, Charles Gibbs.

The Gibbs family lived in the cottage on Cotter Road from 1927 to 1940, followed by the Vest family (1941 to 1975) and the Farrell family from 1982 to 2008.

Deputy Chief Minister Yvette Berry on Thursday officially opened the refurbished Stromlo Cottage to be used as a community facility as part of the Suburban Land Agency's Mingle community development program.

It will be used for community meetings, workshops and events, with a dad's playgroup next week becoming the first group to use it. A book club, gardening group and another playgroup were also on the cards.

The cottage will be managed by the Suburban Land Agency for three years for the Mingle program, spokeswoman Jody Gleeson saying a use beyond that yet to be decided.

But Ms Gleeson said the cottage, refurbished by the government at a cost of $350,000 and owned by the Property Group, was heritage-listed so could not be demolished. It is one of the "few remaining examples of tied housing, housing provided for a holder of a particular occupation and attached to or close by their workplace".

The bonhomie of Wednesday's event was a long way from the fractious times of 2008 when Jenni and Peter Farrell were controversially evicted from the cottage, their home of 26 years. The government evicted them to make way for infrastructure works associated with the development of Molonglo.

The cottage was slated for demolition but saved after a successful campaign led by the Farrells, who nominated it with the ACT Heritage Council.

Time has since marched on with Ms Berry on Wednesday publicly praising Mrs Farrell for putting her life at risk to save the cottage from destruction by the 2003 bushfires.

Nine years after being evicted from her home, Mrs Farrell said on Wednesday she was thrilled to be part of the re-opening of the cottage.

"It's just wonderful," she said. "We could have just gone and let it all go."

Ms Gleeson said the Farrells were part of the history of the cottage and it was "very special" to have them represented at the opening.

"Putting the eviction and everything behind us, we're moving forward," she said.

At the opening, Robyn Gowing (nee Vest), gave an entertaining account of growing up in the cottage during the 1940s and 1950s with her parents and four siblings, the building then a remote outpost, where "town" was Kingston, a place her mother would visit two or three times a year for provisions, the store JB Young's making deliveries to the home in between.

"I can still hear Tom McGrath coming through the gate calling, 'Groceries'," she said.

Mrs Gowing also remembered there was a sawmill where the RSPCA is now, chooks and lambs in the yard, a chip heater in the bathroom powered by pine cones and many happy times playing under the nearby pines.

Back in 2008, the Farrells had hoped to remain caretakers of the cottage until a community use could be found. Instead, the government evicted them and spent thousands of dollars on security for the building.

When asked on Wednesday why it had taken nine years to find a use for the cottage, Ms Gleeson said there were several things that had to be achieved first.

"We had to go through a heritage assessment, a conservation management plan, we had to build a sewer because the septic was non-functioning so we had to go through the standard building processes of a DA and building approvals. We had to make the cottage accessible. We had to go through all the hazardous materials checks so it was safe for a public facility. And then going through the heritage and restoration process. So a lot of these gardens have been restored. We also ran a six-month work for the dole program with 76 participants for the gardens and built a new path out of old Canberra bricks," she said.

"So it's taken that time, rather than just getting it opened and not having it functional. It's got to a safe place the community can now make their own."

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