Saving Heathcote’s oldest building

November 25, 2023 BY

Restored: Heathcote’s oldest surviving building now houses award-winning restaurant Chauncy. Photo: BARBARA SUNGAILA

HEATHCOTE’S oldest building has been fully-restored and is now home to critically-acclaimed restaurant Chauncy.

But when Jasper Hill Winery proprietors Ron and Elva Laughton purchased the run-down former survey office at 178 High Street in 2007, they were faced with the daunting task of bringing it back to life.

The 14-year project journey started with a trip to the newsagent and a conversation with Barbara Walker Donnelly who was launching her real estate career at the time.

“I went to buy the paper to read over Christmas,” Mr Laughton said. “But within five minutes of talking to Barb I was on the property.

“The hidden Georgian architecture and local stone enthralled me and right then I had this grand idea of restoring the building and turning it into a destination restaurant.

“My wife thought it was a bloody stupid idea, but then she went along with me.”

Ms Laughton reflected on the speed of the decision.

“We bought it incredibly fast,” she said. “I’ve often said it was a bit like John Lennon and his lost weekend when he went off without Yoko.

“Ron went off to buy the paper and came back with a house.”

Ms Walker-Donnelly said it was an ongoing joke between them.

“Even the day Chauncy opened, Ron gave a speech and pointed at me saying, ‘It’s her fault’,” she said.

For the Laughtons the restoration has been all about making a lasting contribution to the district.

“Heathcote has been so good to me and my wife,” Mr Laughton said. “We’ve been here for over 40 years and I wanted to give back to Heathcote by giving back the oldest existing building.”

Ms Laughton said she was particularly proud of three things they had done in the region.

“It feels a bit pompous to say this,” she said, “but we kickstarted and helped promote the Heathcote wine industry.

“We brought in Chapoutier, the French wine company, and then the third is obviously Chauncy.

“There’s a charm to Heathcote and having Chauncy as a destination restaurant will only enhance it,” Ms Laughton said.

When it opened in 2021, it was the culmination of years of dedicated work bound by stringent heritage constraints.

Although the structure had been overlooked in the City of Greater Bendigo’s McIvor and Strathfieldsaye study in 2009, it was placed on the Victorian Heritage Register in 2010.

“I was very happy it was listed though,” Mr Laughton said. “It’s a very important building.”

At this point it comprised a sandstone core built in 1853/54 with a crumbling late 19th century weatherboard addition.

The sandstone section was one of ten survey offices built by the fledgling Colony of Victoria in the early 1850s, and is one of five that remain standing today.

It was initially home to Philip Chauncy who was district surveyor for Heathcote until 1861.

In 1872 Frederick John Spinks, a partner in Christie, Moore and Spinks store and mill, purchased the building as a residence and called it Helenslee in honour of his wife.

The family sold it to Dr Esler in 1896 and he renamed it Rathlin.

He was the first of a succession of doctors who lived and worked there, the last being Doctor Speed who retired in 1968.

The now-demolished weatherboard tower contained a dentist’s chair for many years. Photo: JT COLLINS/STATE LIBRARY OF VICTORIA

It was then a private home for several years.

The Laughtons had originally wanted to save the weatherboard extension as well as the sandstone section, but its condition made this impossible.

Mr Laughton said Heritage Victoria did not want a reproduction built and, in any case, the listing related only to the original part of the building.

“The timber structure was built in several stages dating from about 1875 to 1890,” he said. “We haven’t been able to pinpoint that exactly.

“It hasn’t really worried me that much because it was rotten.

“The timber building was dissolving, it was sinking into the soil and there was no floor, it had been eaten out.”

The former survey office was listed on the Victorian Heritage Register in 2010. Photo: BARBARA SUNGAILA