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Signals from the past

Photos: Joe Grey Photography

Signals from the past

Photos: Joe Grey Photography
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Nuanced and thoughtfully composed, this Tasmanian restoration/extension project shines a light on a fascinating slice of Australian history.

Gabrielle Chariton

Author

Contributor to Housing

Before the internet, SMS and email, before faxes and telexes, even before telegrams, messages were transmitted across land via a system called semaphore signalling. This system used flags or moveable arms mounted on tall masts or posts. In 1811, a semaphore network was established in Tasmania, to communicate with incoming ships and relay messages about escaped convicts and other happenings across the settlement. This manual distance communication method was eventually superseded with the introduction of the telegraph in 1880.

The Signalman’s Quarters, located at Battery Point on the shores of the River Derwent, is a relic of this small chapter in Australia’s history. The stone cottage was built in 1853 to house the signalman tasked with operating the Mulgrave Battery semaphore mast. Originally comprising just two rooms, the cottage was extended in the 1870s; a Victorian-style verandah was added in 1906; and a garage and laundry were tacked on in the 1980s.

The revitalised Signalman’s Quarters in Battery Point, Tasmania
HIA member Bruce Clements of Delpero & Clements Builders oversaw the complex project

Its current owners bought the cottage in 2008 and spent the next decade planning what was to become a highly sympathetic yet progressive restoration and extension, which celebrates the home’s storied past while introducing 21st-century sensibilities. The project was designed – within the framework of heritage requirements – by 1+2 Architecture. And although the new extension is highly contemporary, it quietly references long-gone sheds and lean-tos that once sat in the space it now occupies, through the judicious use of asymmetrical form, timber and masonry.

HIA member Bruce Clements, co-owner of Hobart-based Delpero & Clements Builders, oversaw the seven-month construction. First order of business: demolition of the 1980s addition. Then the team set about carefully restoring the oldest parts of the house to their former glory – stripping layers of paint and render to let the stone breathe again; replacing rotted timbers; polishing and painting.

The building team spent hours rescuing the delicate fretwork
The team set about carefully restoring the oldest parts of the house to their former glory

While it was basically structurally sound, Bruce says working with old buildings requires a certain degree of flexibility and a delicate touch. ‘Especially something that’s been mucked around with so much,’ he says. ‘Every time you cut into or alter something, you really are reducing its structural integrity a bit.

The old verandah, with its detailed Huon Pine fretwork and original glazed sections, ‘is what everybody seemed to be most excited about’, Bruce says. Inspection revealed that it was decaying from the ground up – with the base of the posts and parts of the floor rotting away, although the roof frame was still in good shape. Working with painstaking care, so as not to break any glass, Bruce and his team spent hours rescuing the delicate fretwork, replacing sections as needed. To preserve as much of the posts as possible, he cut the rotted sections out from the base of each one, used a stirrup to attach it back to the new timber floor frame, then covered the stirrup with skirting. The glass was re-paned and the flooring replaced.

As works started on the extension, which takes in a new open-plan kitchen/living area, the discovery that the original building was built on the ground, without any footings, scuppered plans to dig downwards in order to create the majestically high ceilings specified by the client.

Bruce credits the success of the project to the shared vision of everyone involved.
‘There’s actually quite a distinct difference between old and new. The architects didn’t try to mask it.’

‘The floor level of the new extension ended up being too low. So it actually was undermining the old house,’ Bruce explains. The architect and engineers resolved the issue by raising the floor level within the envelope, thus maintaining the heritage-mandated roof height.

Despite this compromise, the scale and volume of this interior space is incredibly impressive: the living room sits beneath a vaulted ceiling, meticulously clad in battens of Tasmanian Oak. Flooded with natural light, the extension is as crisp and spare as the original home is ornate. ‘There’s actually quite a distinct difference between old and new. The architects didn’t try to mask it.’

The two ends of the home’s exterior also sit in sharp relief. The original front entrance (now the rear of the home) is a picture of colonial charm with sandstone walls and that beguiling verandah.

The scale and volume of this interior space is incredibly impressive
The project celebrates the home’s storied past while introducing 21st-century sensibilities

The extension, which faces the street, is a windowless edifice, its singularity of form emphasised in vertical planks of Tasmanian Oak. The concrete chimney is a monumental reminder of the semaphore mast that once stood nearby. Six metres tall and weighing 4.5 tonnes, the chimney was precast offsite and tested everyone’s nerves when painstakingly craned into place. Part work of art, part feat of engineering, it is imprinted with a series of semaphore signals that spell out
‘Bushrangers are here’

The builders’ and architect’s respect for this home’s unusual heritage is evident at every turn – in the crisply defined junctions between plaster and the exposed ancient sandstone in the bathroom; the jewel-like glazed insert showcasing the doorway the signalman would have used to access the semaphore mast; in the ‘time-bridge’ hallway that serves to link old and new.

After 10 years' planning, the owners now live in the home of their dreams
The concrete chimney is a monumental reminder of the semaphore mast that once stood nearby

Bruce credits the overall success of the project to the shared vision and determination of everyone involved. ‘As a team, us, the engineers and the architect, we all work very well together, so it just makes it seamless and easy. If there’s a problem, we sort it out quickly,’ he says.

And the owners? After 10 long years planning the evolution of the Signalman’s Quarters, they’re finally living in the home of their dreams: ‘The renovation has changed our life and exceeded all expectations,’ they said. ‘We are delighted and now settled for life.

Signalman’s Quarters at a glance

Architect

1+2 Architecture

Builder

Delpero & Clements Builders

Location

Battery Point, Tasmania

Materials:

  • Limestone pavers to courtyard
  • Exterior cladding: Tasmanian Oak
  • Restored Huon Pine fretwork to verandah
  • Restored stonework
  • Ceiling and interior joinery: Tasmanian Oak
  • Chimney: precast concrete.

First published on 15 March 2023

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