It survived the birth of Canberra but it won't survive Mr Fluffy
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It survived the birth of Canberra but it won't survive Mr Fluffy

In 1890, on a grazing plain which spreads across what is now the Gold Creek Golf Course and the growing sprawl of Nicholls, the beautiful homestead "Deasland" was built by Canberra pioneer George Harcourt.

The 125-year-old property has survived the city's development - slowly being hemmed in on all sides by suburbia.

John MacKinnon has lived in Deasland, one of Canberra's oldest houses, for more than 40 years.

John MacKinnon has lived in Deasland, one of Canberra's oldest houses, for more than 40 years.Credit:Jamila Toderas

What the homestead will not survive, however, is the scourge of Mr Fluffy.

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The property is one of 19 heritage homes slated for demolition as part of the ACT Asbestos Response Taskforce's final solution to the ACT's toxic insulation disaster.

It is one of Canberra's oldest houses – and the oldest of the heritage-listed Mr Fluffy homes by some distance.

Despite its age, it has been lovingly maintained and restored by a line of proud owners, most recently John MacKinnon and his family who have lived in and loved the house for more than 40 years.

It will not be easy for Mr MacKinnon to leave. And Canberrans who have driven down the Barton Highway and enjoyed a glimpse of Deasland's gently sloping verandahs and quaint striped roof may also feel the loss.

Mr MacKinnon and his wife Chris raised his three children in the home – proudly bringing their newborn daughter home from hospital just a few months after they moved in.

Now the kids have kids of their own, and Mrs MacKinnon passed away a couple of years ago.

It has taken him some months to make those painful steps to selling his property back to the Government in order that they can demolish the house.

This week he filled the last of the paperwork in – just before the deadline.

Now he is turning his mind to the task of drastically downsizing from his nearly 10,000 square metre property, and leaving Deasland, and a farming life behind.

"I am leaving under terms I do not like and this is not the way I would ever have thought I would leave," he said.

"But I have to accept what has happened and move forward with my life."

Having yet to dip his foot into the property market, Mr MacKinnon said he would doubtless buy a smaller home on the northside.

"Yes I am a northside boy and I do not intend to cross to the dark side at this stage of my life," he joked.

Mr MacKinnon is not sure who installed the Mr Fluffy insulation into his home prior to him accepting a short-term rent to run sheep and cattle on the land in the mid-1970s.

But he knew enough about the dangers of asbestos back then to ask the government to take it out – which they did.

By the time the full scale of the Mr Fluffy disaster was known to the Commonwealth in the mid-1980s, Deasland was once again "cleaned" in the remediation program. The family purchased the property in the 1990s.

Now Mr MacKinnon accepts that no amount of cleaning can rid the homestead of the legacy of amosite – that the home is all but worthless and could not be sold or lived in.

"I understand that demolition is the only way for the ACT to get a clean slate from the Mr Fluffy problem. The issue is as much financial as a health issue as even if there are no visible signs of Mr Fluffy, no one is going to risk buying a property that had Mr Fluffy. The damage is done."

"What has upset me is that I feel cornered and feel that I have had very limited options."

Mr MacKinnon expects that there will be some gap between the money he has been offered to sell the property and the price the block of land will fetch once it has been cleaned of asbestos."When you think about the land value, it could potentially hold 20 other houses, so while I want to retain the first refusal over the block, I don't think I will be able to afford to buy it back."

But his greatest sadness will be the day the the sturdy walls and tin roof come down – reducing 125 years of proud history to a few tonnes of toxic waste.

"That, I don't really want to think about."

Emma Macdonald is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times.