Step inside Brisbane’s historic Hanworth House

Age and fire might have hinted at disaster for the historic Hanworth House, but a devoted team ensured it lives on in splendour.

It’s always a question just what you’ll find in a 150-year old, heritage listed home. Will it be something from the pages of a Jane Austen novel, with gilded walls and ornate cornices? Or will it be neglected, stuck in the past without its majesty? At Hanworth house, owner Marisa Vecchio has taken the house firmly into the 21st century, yet with nods to the home’s colourful past that give it a definite old-world character.

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Hanworth’s history begins in 1864 with George Heath, Brisbane’s first portmaster. This prestigious family home epitomised the finest in 1860s architecture, designed by famed architect James Colishaw. It was later tenanted until 1913, when it was sold to Mary Weinholt. She repurposed Hanworth as a home for ‘impecunious gentlewomen’ before bequeathing it to the Theosophical Society, who passed the reins to the Anglican Church.

Over time, Hanworth became overgrown and hidden from all who walked past. There was no emotional connection for Marisa when she purchased the home in 2012, despite buying it in memory of her mother, Romana, who had passed away earlier that year. “It was more rational than anything else,” she explains. “A 19 bedroom house – what might I do with that?”

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Austruct was the natural choice as the builder for this project, having worked with Marisa on various commercial projects and a small renovation. The team decided early on to use Hanworth’s longstanding elements to create a luxe take on a boarding house that would suit both its owner and its occupants equally.

Only two weeks from opening, however, the home was struck by an arsonist. Engulfed in flames, 70-80% of Hanworth was severely damaged, destroying almost everything in the fire-damaged rooms. Fireplaces melted, furnishings turned to ash, and the next six months were “dark and lonely days”. The longer the home went without being restored to its former glory, the more it disintegrated, a source of major concern for the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

Despite this adversity, Marisa, Robin Spencer Architects and the rest of the team rallied together to work on the home once more, and Hanworth’s character was given a chance to shine once more.

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Walking through the home now, after its 150th anniversary (celebrated with an onsite ball in the epitome of old-world luxe), it’s almost impossible to imagine the home being rubble and ash. The main ballroom features silver and white striped wallpaper, offset with a feature wall surrounding the marble fireplace in Resene Sensual Red (Marisa’s contemporary take on heritage red). Antique furniture from Botticelli House – including 1920s French parlour chairs in blue velvet – ties the home firmly to its age-old roots. Continuing the touches of antique glamour meeting modern charm, a monogrammed New Zealand wool rug takes centre stage in the ballroom, featuring the official Hanworth crest. This, and two other rugs (soon to be a third) have been custom-made by Gilles and Franck.

Although the home’s boarding house days saw it boasting 19 bedrooms, Marisa has added an additional wing, including 8 extra bedrooms. Each has been decorated simply, paying homage to the hospice roots through darling Incy beds in mint green, pink and yellow. Accessories from Botticelli House add a cosy touch of home.

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Upstairs, this wing houses Marisa’s office, decorated in sumptuous purple and white for a room that’s certainly befitting the lady of Hanworth House. Although the room itself is a dream – windows looking out over Hanworth’s new galvanised steel roofs, paired with sloping ceilings – it’s Austruct’s post-fire discovery that really steals the show.

Hidden away in the ceiling, so seamlessly you almost don’t notice it, is an opening that houses a ladder leading to the roof and stunning views of the city. At one time, there would have been views which stretched along the Brisbane River as it snakes down to Norman Park. “We were perplexed about where Captain Heath watched the ships on the river,” Marisa says. “We realised he must have watched them there.”

Bi-fold doors lead to the verandah wrapping around the home, the perfect vantage point for garden views. A&R Evergreen, who provided the landscaping solutions, created gardens with plenty of charm that harken back to the country gardens of Heath’s English homeland. Purple camellias and hydrangeas signify the international colour for women, while roses offer a sentimental touch (“my mother’s favourite,” Marisa says). Trawling through the history books led to the discovery of a citrus grove and grapefruit tree adorning the backyard, so these, too, were planted. You can already imagine the bursts of colour which will provide a stunning view when glancing out the frameless glass windows, provided by Queensland Sashless Windows.

Although it may seem as though Hanworth has changed significantly, its heart remains the same, a fact which Marisa is proud of. “I’m proud to say it is what it always was,” she says. “It’s just up a notch.”

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Words by Natasha Pavez. Photography by John Downs. 

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