'A labour of love' breathes new life into historic Newcastle building

Before and after.
Before and after.

When Coutts Sailors’ Home was built in the late nineteenth century, such was its significance that school children were given the day off and a marching band celebrated its arrival with a performance down Hunter Street.

But many Novocastrians have probably never seen nor heard of the historic home in Newcastle’s east end, tucked away in Bond Street overlooking Foreshore Park.

It is a piece of the city’s history that could have quite easily been lost if not for Diane and Alastair Kinloch.

Originally built in 1882 to accommodate visiting sailors while their ships were unloaded and loaded, it has had many lives since.

According to the NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage, the site has been associated with a number of individuals of significance to Newcastle, NSW and Australia and is “a site of key importance to the local economy and representative of Newcastle's early history as a penal settlement”. 

Reverend James Coutts was the driving force behind Coutts Sailors’ Home and contributed a portion of his own money towards the project. He wanted to provide safe accommodation for visiting sailors who were overcharged by landlords and often led astray.

It became the Sister Elizabeth Kenny polio hospital in the 1930s and was believed to at one point have been a store for ammunitions.

It had a life as government offices, an education facility and a youth and community centre. It was transferred to the Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council then sold to private owners early this century.

But the existence of one of the city’s oldest buildings was threatened. It was in a deteriorating state after years of neglect and had been the subject of extensive vandalism and damage.

Restoration and renovation works began but it was on the market again in 2013.

That was when it was first discovered by Diane and Alastair. The England-born couple have always had a passion for heritage buildings.

I always wanted to bring some heritage back to life; we always wanted to do a project like that.

Diane Kinloch

Alastair works in Government Affairs in the financial sector. He also has a degree in engineering and a Masters in civic design. Diane was a teacher of science, a lecturer in education, education manager at Questacon and is now a company director.

Both are “past the age of retirement” but not interested in slowing down and had been on the lookout for a restoration project when they came across Coutts Sailors’ Home.

They were excited by the challenge.

“It was getting to the stage where people would’ve said, ‘You’d better knock it down’,” Diane said. “Some people thought we were mad but people who knew us just thought it was us and that we would make it happen.”

When they bought it there were few floors and few ceilings. 

“This one was ideal because although it was mainly a shell with walls and a [new] roof put on by the previous owner, its state with hardly any floors or ceilings meant we could see that the building was structurally very sound,” Diane said.

The previous owners had done some works, removing all of the asbestos in the building and adding the new roof. 

They had demolished the existing two-storey verandah due to safety issues. 

Diane and Alastair paid $1.65 million for the “construction zone”.

They have since spent more than that amount again to restore it to its former glory because to them Coutts Sailors’ Home was worth saving.

“I always wanted to bring some heritage back to life; we always wanted to do a project like that,” Diane said.

“Both Alastair and I are interested in history and architecture. 

“We love antique furniture as well and it provided the chance to have somewhere we could deck out properly with good antiques.”

It has been “a labour of love” with attention to detail paramount.

They wanted to ensure that the building was reinstated to the highest possible standard, as close as possible to the original.

It meant extensive research, finding old photographs and using original materials and craftspeople. 

It also meant there were no shortcuts.

Cedar was used for skirting boards and architraves. Skirting boards were attached in the traditional way, into dowels in the walls as well as being glued in place.

“Every window and doorway is slightly different in size so nothing can be ‘off the shelf’,” Diane said.

There are hand-crafted cedar sash windows to the front, a hand-crafted banister and balustrading for the stairs and landing, iron columns and balustrading to the two-storey verandah, wide floorboards where originals could not be saved and lighting suitable in style for the age and original purpose of the building.

“There were few ceilings and nowhere in the building was there any cornice, so we had to decide what cornice to put in,” Diane said.

“We got the biggest cornice that we could find that wasn’t fancy. 

“To us, while it’s an absolutely fabulous building, it was a sailors DOSS house, so we tried to keep it classic.”

Sandstone pavers have been laid on the front porch and gardens planted.

When security fencing which had surrounded the building for two decades was brought down passers-by began to notice.

It gained most prominence during the Supercars event in November when Bond Street was used to divert foot traffic through the middle of the precinct.

“So many people were saying, ‘We love your house’,” Diane said.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve done to this house because we’ve brought it back. It was just completely derelict, but it’s still important.

“We are are often thanked by Novocastrians for returning it to them - that makes it doubly worthwhile. 

“It's a pleasure to have sparked interest and be given the opportunity to share the history of this prime heritage curtilage.”

To them they are “mere custodians” for a house which has an aura about it.

“You walk in and just relax,” Diane said.