When Debra Coughlan met the previous owner of Henry Caselli’s imposing red brick mansion, she was a little taken aback.
She was greeted at the front door by a woman reputed to dress in Victorian period costume, who despite having listed the property for sale, had a reputation for vetting prospective buyers for their suitability.
‘‘She wouldn’t give the keys to the real estate agents and she interviewed us to make sure we were serious,” Ms Coughlan said at the time.
‘‘She only let through three people to see the house, and we actually walked away because it was so difficult.’’
It wasn’t until Debra brought her young daughter Alexandra to negotiations that the eccentric Sheila O’Keefe relented.
‘‘She took Alexandra by the hand and walked her through the house,” said Ms Coughlan.
‘‘She showed her one of the rooms on the second level and said, ‘This is will be your room, and I will leave you all this furniture.’’’
At the handover document signing, O’Keefe exclaimed “I’m virtually giving you my house for free!”
“I wish she had,” says Ms Coughlan.
“I could have torn up the deposit cheque.”
Notable Ballarat architect Henry Richards Caselli built the house for himself and his family 152 years ago. He called it Kent Villa.
Born in 1816, Falmouth, Cornwall, Caselli served an apprenticeship with large shipbuilding yard Ferguson & Co. for around 30 years, where he studied naval architecture.
He emigrated to Australia on the Gazelle arriving in Geelong in late 1853, where he accepted the position of Lloyd's Shipping Company surveyor for Corio Bay Harbour.
Shortly afterwards he was attracted by news of gold and travelled to Ballarat where he witnessed the Eureka riots. After working as a gold miner at Pennyweight Flat, Dalton's Flat, Eureka, and elsewhere, Caselli decided to move into house architecture.
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He became one of the city’s most renowned architects, responsible for the Town Hall and Ballarat East Fire Station among many other buildings.
His home was built in two periods, constructed in 1865 and then extended around 1900. It’s famous for its rooftop ‘widow’s walk’ that gives an uninterrupted panorama of Ballarat.
After Caselli’s death (at home) in 1885, the house changed hands several times.
It became the residence for the Reverend Doctor Cairns, moderator-general of the Presbyterian Church.
He (somewhat immodestly) renamed the house Cairnshurst, his wife’s maiden name being Hurst.
Over time the extensive grounds and orchards, stables and tennis court of the house have been sold off for development.
During the 1940s the house had also been converted into six flats, each with their own stove and flue cut through the ceiling. Many of the verandahs were built in to make extra rooms.
“It’s a miracle the house never burned down,” says Debra Coughlan.
Sadly Ms O’Keefe did little to maintain the beautiful home, and after a major hailstorm in the late 1990s, much of the slate roof was destroyed and water damage ruined a number of the rooms on the upper levels.
The Coughlans have undertaken the massive task of restoring and modernising the home while retaining its historic features.
There are cellars, larders and servants’ quarters underneath the home, which has 27 main rooms.
Debra Coughlan thinks because Caselli had a naval background, the layout of the house has a ship-like quality, with storages at the front of and below the house, much like a sailing ship.
The kitchen – where Ms O’Keefe would mix her preserves and jams while wearing crinoline – has been expanded, and a covered outdoor living area has been incorporated.