The rumblings were felt well beyond No.1 Porter Street suggesting these souls had surely lost their mind. Even their families doubted their sanity; moving from the city to purchase and renovate a derelict pub in Goolwa.
This was 10 years ago. Welcome to the home The Australasian, bought at auction by Juliet Mitchell, and with great friend Deb Smalley renovated in astonishingly good taste and turned into a stunning award-winning accommodation/restaurant.
And now, after completing the major works on this 1858 building, which also faces towards Cadell Street and is one of the finest landmarks across the state when turning into the town’s main street, we are left to ponder what an unsightly mess may have been left had these women with vision not possessed the madness to take on this seemingly surmountable challenge.
Flippant claims of mental fragility lay in Juliet’s admission it that cost her “too many zeroes”, but the satisfaction of completing extraordinary renovations four years ago is immense. Unquestionably, the recognition of achievement as a chef is also delivered by the fact our governor, his Excellency Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, Hollywood producer Denise Di Novi, well-known actors and musicians plus simply those appreciative of fine food and wine have all stayed here.
Not surprisingly, The Australasian was a major award winner at the recent South Australian Tourism awards for hosted accommodation.
Some suggest it is The Australasian’s revived charm and glamorous structure that attracts a niche market, while others find appeal in Juliet’s taste for Asian contemporary and interior decorating, indeed her oriental influence in her cooking, stemming from her previous life as an accomplished jewellery designer and studies in Japan.
Deb, a former graphic designer and psychiatric nurse, developed business skills to offer a professional combination, but above all it was their courage to take on the task of reviving The Australasian that warrants our appreciation.
They proudly talk of The Australasian’s history – our heritage – with Deb noting architect and builder Oliver Willett Willcock as the first licensee from 1858-1879 when our pioneers boarding here (and no doubt consumed copious amount of cleaning ales, as they did at the Corio Hotel next door).
These adjacent hotels were later owned by Emily Evans, who was forced to let the Corio lease lapse during the Great Depression in 1934. Later, her granddaughter, Freda Ogilvy, inherited The Australasian, and lived here until ill health forced her to leave in 2002.
Juliet’s quest to rekindle the spirit in this statesman-like building was not without her own links to Goolwa’s history with her great, great grandfather George Eaton being the mayor of Goolwa from 1875-77, and her great grandfather South Australia’s representative on the River Murray Commission.
The ancestry may have been behind Juliet’s patience – with support from Deb with her persistence – to meet perhaps the biggest challenge with this renovation extravaganza, relating to obtaining the relevant approvals, which took four years.
“We needed to liaise with the liquor licence department, fire department, council and heritage people,” Deb said. “All this just making it work in a commercial sense, plus making it work as a house… this is our home.
“It had to be done before we could open because everything had to be compliant. Those issues were the toughest, especially with tradespeople needing to follow one after the other.
“There was a three-metre deep well underneath the floor, and council made us line and fill it with water to provide a commercial fire system. It makes us the only place in Goolwa with town water supply for a fire system.”
Juliet said they appreciated the need for compliance, especially safety, but it was all just so time consuming. There were also building challenges with the architect needing to get his head around issues like different levels… the old kitchen was a different level to the building.
“The project meant that we had to stop hanging out with friends because we did not have the time to and energy to put into our old life as well as tackle the new,” Juliet said.
“We didn’t watch the news (on television) for four months because we could not cope with the stress in the world as well as cope with our stress doing this house. We were physically and mentally exhausted every day.”
Throughout this near-heroic transformation of The Australasian there were whispers down Porter Street about whether Juliet and Deb had found the secret tunnel, which was supposed to have led to the goods shed towards the wharf.
“No, we didn’t find a tunnel,” Juliet said. “Lots of people have thrown that at us, including one gentleman who was here for dinner and was adamant that as a child that he found the tunnel.
“We looked hard, but there was no tunnel to be found, so the legend lives on. Some people have a ghost, and it was said we have a mystery tunnel, but I cannot say I believe in either.” Just as well; it could lead anyone to madness.