Private Upper Hunter property shines after tasteful renovation

The renovation of an old church outside of Denman is bringing tourists to a wilder, less populated part of the Hunter Region.

The three-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-storey space still looks and feels very much like a church, particularly with the serenity and nature around the exterior. Located next to Wollemi National Park, the former church’s surroundings are a powerful introduction to the untouched natural beauty in the area.   

The men behind the vision are Thomas O’Neill and Walter Barda.

“For me it feels very much like a retreat; it’s getting away somewhere beautiful, relaxing and quiet,” O’Neill says.

A dusty drive down an isolated stretch of road leads you to the Baerami Pines Retreat.

Before entering, one might wonder if it is still functioning as a church, but the eclectic interior, complete with a kitchen, massive dining table, lounge room and fireplace puts that idea to rest. However, candles, paintings and arched windows leave visitors feeling very much that they are in a sacred space.  

“The interiors are furnished with an eclectic mix of antiques, quirky accessories and contemporary artworks creating a unique atmosphere of relaxed luxury,” Barda says. “In particular, the softly lit interiors have an atmospheric sense of relaxation come evening time.” 

“It feels like a spiritual sort of place. Most of the people who stay there send an email or message back. They all comment on the peacefulness and quietness [with the birds]. People often spend time in the courtyard,” O’Neill says.

Since he was a child, O’Neill always liked the aesthetic of churches and even thought it would be cool to live in a church.  

O’Neill liked the simple-ness of the church they found in Baerami.

He said that the form provided a great platform to build on.

The Baerami church is sited within a native cypress forest in the Upper Hunter Valley and was completed in 1936 by four local farming families who wanted to extend the parish of Denman outside of town.

For 55 years it was used as a church (only one wedding was held in 1939), and then the numbers dropped down and families moved on. The owners consecrated it, removing the cross and pews, then sold it. It was bought by a man who camped inside and installed a basic kitchen and shower tank.

He sold it in 1999 to a couple from the Central Coast, and they used it as a weekend getaway. Barda and O’Neill bought it in 2005, but waited until 2010 to get started on the renovations. It was converted into a secluded rural retreat in 2012.

“It took exactly five months to get it where you see it now, builders working 7am to 7pm all days a week except weekends,” O’Neill says of therenovation.

Along with owning the church, Barda of Walter Barda Designs is the architect behind the renovations.

“The beautiful church interior with its elegant scissor-trussed roof, steel-framed and pale amber glass windows has been preserved as a generously proportioned living space,” Barda says.

“State of the art kitchen facilities are discretely located so as not to dominate the space. The building was extended to accommodate three double bedrooms each with ensuites, and incorporating recycled fittings and fixtures which lend a seamless transition between the old and the new.”

A cloistered garden with vine-covered pergola and pavilion frame the distant views of Mount Dangar. A separate wisteria covered courtyard is provided for playing bocce.

The formal garden is planted with olive trees, lavender and saltbush, and includes a collection of contemporary sculptures.

“The overall sense of natural peace and privacy of this place make it a perfect weekend escape from city life,” Barda says.

Now they typically rent the space out to people on weekends, although the couple do come up once a month to do some work in the gardens. They’re starting to work on the sculpture garden, more. Over the next few years they’ll build a walkway and a sculpture park.

They’ve now hosted six weddings in the renovated space. 

Barda and O’Neill are happy to report that more guests have been returning to Baerami Pines Retreat. This is a good indicator that they’ve created a little slice of heaven on earth in the Hunter.