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The old school house

“It was beyond TLC – it was more an intensive care unit job.”

When you walk into Monique Berger and Charlie Tutty’s Balhannah home, you’re greeted by an old wooden school desk beneath a row of flat caps hanging from hooks on the wall.

On the opposite side of the room black and white framed photos point back to a bygone era.

They’re among the first clues to the building’s past life as the school house that served Balhannah’s families in the 1800s.

Through the late 1900s and into the 2000s the property was a private residence, evolving into a maze of rooms and doorways.

But over the past few years, Charlie and Monique have painstakingly restored it in keeping with its history.

The couple was living in Sydney when they bought the heritage-listed property in 2021 without setting foot inside, because Covid-19 made crossing state borders challenging.

“We had friends down in South Australia, so we had visited quite a few times from Sydney and we were looking in the area and saw the lifestyle and thought we might think about that for semi-retirement down the track,” Monique says.

“Then at six o’clock one morning, this came on the market and all I saw were the Gothic windows and that was it for me.”

“It was incredibly dilapidated,” Charlie adds.

“It was beyond TLC – it was more an intensive care unit job.”

The bones of the 163-year-old building were solid, so the couple’s first task was to begin removing all of the parts of the house that weren’t original – all while working with State Heritage to make sure the process was compliant.

“Once we got approval we took everything that wasn’t original out – asbestos first – and then took down the non-original walls,” Monique says.

“… Every single one of these walls have had their plaster replaced, more or less.

“Then we thought we didn’t have to do much work to the floor and we would just be able to polish the old floorboards, but when it came to it we had to remove the joists.

“The process was just painstakingly step by step undoing the things that weren’t working for the house and then redoing it in the heritage way.”

The layout of the schoolhouse and attached schoolmaster’s residence is now largely restored to the original design.

What was once the large school room, is a great room incorporating an open-plan kitchen, dining and living room, with the lofty original ceiling line returned.

Jarrah from the original floor has been repurposed in the kitchen as benchtops and a square of ceiling has been removed to reveal original wooden shingles found under the roof during restoration.

The Gothic windows that drew Monique to the home have been painstakingly refurbished, while the original stone of one wall and the brick of a chimney have been exposed, forming a striking contrast with a modern staircase, which is the centrepiece of the room.

“We wanted the stairs to be the main feature and that really tied in nicely with the original black metal features in the school house,” Monique says.

“… The black metal then informed the black Gothic windows and we wanted the old and the new to be very starkly different.”

At the top of the stairs is a mezzanine over the kitchen, including a luxurious bathroom, complete with a claw-foot bath, and a light, airy bedroom.

The rest of the original school house and school master’s residence has been renovated to include a sitting room – the perfect spot for an evening glass of wine – a bright sunroom, second kitchen and a master suite.

“We designed it so it would be two one-bedroom apartments with the entryway being the common area,” Monique says.

“And we did it that way because even though it looks small from the outside, it’s quite a big space and we thought that with the history and the great position it would be great to be able to open the house up and do Airbnb or a short-term rental platform.

“… It’s really lovely to be able to share the space and see people excited about the history, but also the reuse of the building.”

The school was built in 1858 in response to petitions from families from both the Balhannah and Oakbank areas, but it closed in 1938 when the nearby Oakbank Area School was opened.

“It’s very common to speak to locals whose relatives have come to the school and, generally speaking as far as we can tell, the children were happy here,” Monique says.

“In 1938, the school children from Balhannah marched down the street to Oakbank and this is a memory that we have been told that the students who went here still had – they remember marching down to go to the new school at Oakbank.”

The school house still holds a significant place in the hearts of many members of the Balhannah community, but for Monique and Charlie it’s a “beautiful” place to live and one that has well and truly entrenched them in the Adelaide Hills community.

“Balhannah’s a lovely welcoming community,” Monique says.

“And just the fact that we’ve done the renovation means we’ve been able to make a few friends that are doing the same thing.

“We’re in touch with other people in the Hills who are doing buildings up and it’s quite lovely to share that experience too.”

theoldschoolhousebalhannah.com

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