It stands as an icon on a straw-coloured slope in the open countryside of New England, a high, tableland area in northern New South Wales; an eastern state of Australia. The city of Armidale is the hub of this area. The region is hot in summer, but cold in winter. The shed is indeed almost worshipped, such is its modest grandeur. This building is located south-east of the small town of Uralla that lies twenty kilometers south of Armidale. It is the Deeargee shearing shed. ‘DRG’ was the original brand marking for Gostwyck Station - ‘Dangar, Gostwyck’: see http://newenglandnorthwest.net.au/experiences-heritage-history/deeargee-woolshed-9167610.seo
The Deeargee holding was once a part of the Gostwyck property, but time and families have enforced a separation. One branch of the family got the chapel and the old homestead; the other the shearing shed.*
The shed’s provenance is uncertain. Like the composer of the traditional Irish song Danny Boy, the name of the architect of this building is now a part of the unknown riches of legend. Rumour has it that John Horbury Hunt might have been involved in the design of this shed. This assumption arises from the unique difference of the concept, and Hunt’s known architectural engineering skills, his commitment to ideas and ideals, and his eccentric enthusiasms.# Apparently a builder from nearby Walcha built this marvelous, idiosyncratic structure. The Armidale tourism brochure records that the woolshed was ‘designed and erected by Alexander Mitchell.’ Mr. Mitchell might have built this shearing shed and could have been involved in the development and implementation of the design, but there is no certainty about the origin of the concept. The book John Horbury Hunt Radical Architect 1838 – 1904 by Peter Reynolds, Lesley Muir and Joy Hughes, published by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales in 2002, attributes this shearing shed to Hunt - see page 150. It makes little sense to assume that a builder might have chosen to erect a shed in this special manner without a guiding hand to encourage the brave move. Country builders do not have a reputation for significant invention or experiment. Theirs is a rational and practical way of thinking and working, of using whatever might be available in the most appropriate manner possible, all without preconceptions. This approach gives some quirky and refreshing outcomes but rarely does it produce fully resolved ideas that create unusual tasks out of ordinary building techniques, especially when it seems that there is no particular function that might require such structural gymnastics beyond the desire to achieve a vision.
Hunt's name also comes to mind because of his work in the region. His wonderful church in Armidale; the grand home Booloominbah; and the adjacent house at what is now the University of New England, (the Vice-Chancellor’s residence); and various churches in the neighbouring regions, like the ones at Murrurundi and Grafton, as well as his school at Fredericktown, all form a memorable part of the work of his private practice in this part of the country. His brick masterpiece in Armidale is indeed a beautiful building, with thoughtful and inventive brick detailing. It presents an integrated whole, standing solidly and confidently on its own civic block of inner-city land comfortably addressing complex matters of scale, place and identity with skill and assurance. Perhaps it is Hunt’s best? His cathedral in Newcastle is much larger, but it is St. Peters that is the gem, considered and complete in every way.
The nearby chapel at Gostwyck that stands at a crossroads on the property at the intersection of the axes of the avenues of grand old elm trees, all within view of the shearing shed, is also suggestive of Hunt's work. The dark brickwork, its detailing, and glazed, rich brown roof tiles of this miniature church make it look like a prototype for his work at Armidale and other places. If this tiny chapel is not Hunt’s work, then one could suggest that it has been 'after Hunt,’ or perhaps that it has followed Hunt's sources, taking inspiration from the work of Phillip Webb, Pugin, et. al. Australia might be remote, but Hunt had a standing order with a London book seller who forwarded books on order by the crate load. It has been suggested that Hunt had the best architectural library in Australia at the time. No one knows what happened to it. He died penniless. There is no reason to assume that others in the colony did not have access to the same publications, or that such sensitivities might not have been ‘in the air.’ The Reynolds, Muir and Hughes book makes no mention of this little religious building, although it does attribute the General Store at Gostwyck to Hunt - see page 151. It seems that Hunt had close ties to the Dangar family, making his involvement with these special buildings a far more likely proposition than might have been otherwise.
The shearing shed stands in the background of this small chapel that claims its location with such calm certainty. The walls are all romantically covered in ivy that is brown and bald in winter; fresh lime green in spring; a mature, deep green in summer; and a glorious, glowing red in autumn. This variation enriches the chapel with its own mellow, seasonal meanings. The interior is classic Hunt: brick and timber; restrained but rigorous. It is used for weddings, such is its quaint identity - idyllic; romantic. It makes the perfect backdrop for all of the mandatory photographs. Rather awkwardly for its own poise, the building stands in a flood plain; but it seems to have survived the repeated traumas of inundation with a remarkable resistance and resilience; vigour and composure. There is an evacuation routine in place when a threat arises. All of the polished timber furnishings and fittings are moved to higher and drier ground, an arrangement that seems to have worked well. One cannot see any indication that water has been in the building. But in spite of this hardiness, this little place has been given a face-lift. The beautiful old clear, diamond glass windows that once displayed the colours of nature, have progressively been replaced with modern decorated stained glass. Only one original window remains. It is still the best. The new work seems to try too hard to be arty with its overworked style, exaggerated forms and colour, and naïve interpretations of meaningful matters. They impose just too much. The original window looks more honest and in keeping with the raw simplicity of the initial concept that holds a Gothic integrity. It is true ‘arts and crafts’ in its ambitions.
Original leadlight window on the right
There is no stylish problem like this with the shearing shed. It stands pure and simple in much the same manner as when it was first erected. The building remains a shearing shed even today. Located behind the trees that surround the chapel and on the far side of a classic, white wooden bridge, safely higher up on a slope away from the creek, this building will never flood or suffer the pangs of renewal under the hands of well-meaning artists. It remains a working building, with a heritage listing. Its beautiful geometry shapes it as a classic solid, a crystal form with the rigour of a tetrahedron, with its octagonal, stepped pyramidal roof on top of a low octagonal prism resting in the landscape on stubby brick pillars. The logic in its shaping is immediately obvious. Sheep are led into the shed and distributed around edges that disperse the sheared sheep back into the fields - or so it seems. The large roof of the octagonal building is purposely stepped to allow both light and ventilation into this large, open workspace. Its presence is stunning, so much so that it has become a drawcard for those who love good buildings. The ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY KEEP OUT’ sign shows the frequency of the nuisance of visitors wanting to see this building. These repeated interruptions to the running of a 3000 acre merino sheep property must have become a real problem for reasonable and friendly country folk to have to resort to such blunt instructions. Rudeness seems to best managed by rudeness. Some of the stories about demanding travellers border on the extreme of poor behaviour. Necessity has its own demands. Only two people work this property now, assisted by five shearers during the season, and sundry others when needed. Any distraction caused by inquisitive tourists means that work on the property is being interrupted. Folk seem to forget that this is not a heritage display or an historical museum.
Both the chapel and the shed have always been able to be seen by visitors. One could drive right up to the locked chapel, but was always kept at a distance from the shed that could be seen at its closest only from the dirt road leading to Walcha. Telephoto lenses helped capture the images for the record. To see the interior was something that one entertained only as a hopeful dream. So there was some excitement when it was discovered that the programme of the Rotary ‘tag-along’ trip - the Pittsworth, Nimbin, Armidale, Mudgee, Dubbo, Pittsworth loop - included a stop at Gostwyck to inspect both the chapel and the shearing shed - on Day 2. The interiors of both of these buildings were to be opened up for the group. One had to go on this trip. The opportunity could not be missed.
After camping overnight in a freezing Armidale, (it was late September), following the first day’s journey from Nimbin, through Grafton and Ebor, with a stop at the beautiful Ebor Falls, the cars drove out past the Armidale Hunt church down towards the university, and turned left onto the Uralla road. Uralla is only a twenty-minute drive south. The little town was waking up this sunny morning. The shops were slowly opening: newsagents and bakers first; tourist outlets next; then the others, including a good bookshop. Sadly the pottery opened up later. Still, one could stroll along the footpaths and enjoy the details of the old buildings. These wonderful shop fronts displayed pressed metal soffits, patterned tile entries and leadlight infills above the glass display panels that were finely framed in delicate timber mouldings. The details were all a delight to behold. They varied in time from the mid-nineteenth century through to Art Deco. They fitted nicely into this strip of street that was the main highway south, the New England Highway, passing through Thunderbolt’s country on its way to Tamworth, Scone and Sydney. The rising sun threw long, interesting shadows across the pavement and surprised with their unexpected forms and patterns. Then the call was made: we had to move on, to Gostwyck.
The convoy drove up the road, turned right over the rail line and drove down the dirt track to the property just eleven kilometres away. We had been on this road many times before over the years when staying at the New England National Park, just to admire the buildings we were now going to visit - the chapel and the shearing shed. The avenue of elms appeared first, establishing a strict, deep green, shady order in the ad hoc array of magnificent grey-green gum trees. Then, at the end of the long curved axis, the memorable chapel appeared in the shadows of the trees. Over the timber bridge, up to the right, stood the shearing shed, looking like an ancient part of the landsacpe. It was a surprise to see the new foliage on the chapel all green and growing, bursting as buds do. I had forgotten this feature that becomes a rich, russet red in the autumn.
The familiar form of this little church did indeed remind one of Hunt’s intrepid, solid brick buildings. Inside, the tiny chapel space displayed a less formidable presence. Indeed, the interior was somewhat ordinary with its plain, lighter brick walls, nice arches, exposed timber framing, stepped floor, polished timber furnishings, communion table, and twee coloured windows. I preferred the exterior with its chunky, more cohesive identity: its quiet bravado; its integral rigour. The interior appeared to be uncertain, seeming to wonder if it should it be quiet or bold; quaint, quirky; or just ordinarily plain. The history of the place was given by the supervisor who welcomed the group. After this presentation, the chapel was inspected again for the last time. One can only admire something for so long: then the call was made to move on to the shearing shed.
The line of vehicles trailed up the hill and mustered at the open space in front of the shed. Strangely the complex had a formal brick facade. Was this always so? The history of the building was given by the owner who addressed the assembly. He spoke about the place as being intimately involved with generations of his family. He was a direct descendant of the original settler who had held huge land holdings in the region. This descendant stood squarely on two feet, legs slightly apart as he faced the group. Thick arms and shoulders moved measuredly as he repeated the history bluntly but clearly, with the honesty of country folk - their ordinary forthrightness. His leaving handshake was firm and solid too. Once the brash anonymity of sunglasses had been removed, his eyes could be seen to be a soft blue. Sunglasses make bold stars of us all. They turn ordinary folk into cliché fashion statements even when such an outcome has not been sought. As he spoke, he was still, apart from the habitual tug at the belt and the flick at the crutch. He had addressed visitors before. He was confident, self-assured and proud of his heritage. He was the fifth generation that had looked after this place and obviously enjoyed working this property by himself with an assistant, and occasional workers as seasons demanded. Earlier generations needed many more workers than this to manage the property. Times had indeed changed. As he explained, shearers have changed too. No longer were they transient rogues, heavy drinkers and smokers who played just as hard as they worked. The new breed of shearer was a professional in everything he did; efficient too.
The story was simple but revealing. The original shed had been the octagon with an entry defined by two large brick piers that could still be seen inside. As it became clear that more storage was needed, a timber gabled extension was added, very sensitively too. Then, as more fireproof storage was required, the gable form was extended as a brick structure to create the unexpected formal façade we saw on arrival. All the bricks had been made on site, just over the hill. The location was still evident from the scars in the land. As times changed, a motor room was added on the east. The motor propelled the shaft for the shearers using mechanized clippers. We would enter the shed through this side space. With change continuing over the years, leading to today's circumstances, five electrically-driven stands along the east wall of the timber gable are all that is now needed to shear the Deeargee sheep: 1000 a day!
The surprise was that the edge spaces were so low; intimate. They reached only to the standard height of a domestic door. Here, one could feel the true size of the place while standing so close to its structure as it stretched off high into a wonder of tensile framing that had been beautifully extruded into a gable expansion. Why can't all extensions be so sensitive? One came to realize how unlike a country builder’s work this place appeared. The difference was that here was no centre pole. Would a local builder really work so hard to provide a column-free space when one was not really needed? The octagonal area was divided up into a maze of cleverly interconnected pens with timbers richly impregnated with lanolin. The clutter was so intense that numerous columns would have made no difference to the operation of the area. It looked like an idea just had to be built. The owner commented that he was unsure of the need for high light and ventilation, but it was there: glass for light, timber louvres for ventilation both in the roof and around the perimeter of the lower walls. The functions were simple and explicit. There was no pretence here.
The timbers reminded one of a Japanese temple, all smooth, worn and polished with lanolin. The patina of the surfaces were magnificent: innocent, with a nonchalant sheen from ordinary wear and tear: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/on-wear-and-tear.html There was nothing contrived or artful here. The floors were made of surprisingly fine boards with wide gaps for droppings to pass through. None was broken. Sadly only a short length of wall in the timber gable extension near the motor room was now used for shearing. A canvas sheet has been stretched under the corrugated iron roof sheeting, apparently for cooling. One thought of Wright’s Taliesin West, its studio with the translucent canvas roof, that, so the story goes, had to be hosed down in summer to provide some relief from the harsh desert heat. The shed at Deeargee enthralled.
After enjoying the space, it was time to move on. Reluctantly one moved out, only to discover the brick floor of the motor house that had not been previously noticed; and to confirm the trim form of the exterior massing. It looked so small; self-contained as an item in the landscape. After one more glimpse over the shoulder, like Lot’s wife, we drove off drown the track to Walcha, away from the little chapel in the shady avenues, the remarkable ‘genius loci’ - the ancient Roman protective spirit of place - standing between the shed and the homestead. There was more to do this afternoon. This woolshed was irresistibly beautiful. There was a feeling of satisfaction and a sense of the satisfactory on leaving this place. It was a joy to behold: simply remarkable in a very simple, ordinary manner. The buildings made some pieces of architecture today look like complex, self-interested, indulgent shambles. Here was an example of good work; not only of good building, but also of good extensions to these building works too. Those involved in adding to the first stage of the shed, and then to the second stage too, were careful and modest enough to build with sensitivity and respect, without trying to make a new ‘statement’ or to change the expression to exhibit a different and unique self-referential cleverness. The shearing shed at Deeargee is an exemplar for us all. It is truly ‘sustainable’ architecture in every sense including sustainable quality. It would be a good, an impressive building if built exactly the same today; and so would the chapel be too: if we only could - care.
Roger Scruton, in Green Philosophy How to think seriously about the planet, Atlantic Books, London, 2012, explains his understanding of the failure of modernism as being the failure to do what these buildings do so well: they are neighbourly, even though they stand distant and alone; unpretentious, not seeking to establish their own unique identity as ‘great works of architecture,’ just as good work: c.f. E. F. Schumacher Good Work, Harper & Row, New York, 1979. In this way both buildings acknowledge even the landscape they stand in. They improve it. It is for this reason that Gostwyck/Deeargee is sought out by visitors: The place offers a rare experience of ordinary significance; special importance.
There are great works of architecture and often, like the churches of Mansard and Borromini, they are the work of a single person. But most works of architecture are not great and should not aspire to be so, any more than ordinary people should lay claim to the privileges of genius when conversing with their neighbours. What matters in architecture is the emergence of a learnable vernacular style - a common language that enables buildings to stand side by side without offending each other.
Roger Scruton page 275 - 276
For more on Australian shearing sheds - see
Andrew Chapman, Woolsheds, The Five Mile Press, Scoresby, Victoria, 2011; and
Andrew Chapman, Around The Sheds, The Five Mile Press, Scoresby, Victoria, 2012.
* For more on the Deeargee Pastoral Company Pty. Ltd., see: http://www.newenglandmerino.com.au/studs/deeargee-pastoral-company-pty-ltd.php
# To learn more of Hunt, read:
J. M. Freeland, Architect Extraordinary The life and work of John Horbury Hunt: 1838 – 1904, Cassell, Australia, 1970;
Peter Reynolds, Lesley Muir and Joy Hughes, John Horbury Hunt Radical Architect 1838 – 1904, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales in 2002.
Originally part of Gostwyck Station, Deeargee Station and its unique octagonal woolshed gained their name from the old Gostwyck wool brand, DRG, which stood for “Dangar, Gostwyck”. The woolshed was built in 1872 replacing an earlier shearing shed that had been destroyed by fire. Designed and erected by Alexander Mitchell, who also built McCrossin’s Mill in Uralla, the woolshed is erected on brick pillars with successive roofs of galvanized iron. The side walls contain larg amounts of glass. The woolshed has all facilities required for shearing, pressing, bailing, sorting and other operations. It even has a lightning conductor.
The Deeargee Woolshed is still in use today and, although not open to visitors, it is easily viewed from the roadside.
Today the Gostwyck and Deeargee properties are known for producing some of Australia’s finest wool. Both are 11 kilometres from Uralla on the Gostwyck Road.
13 February 2017
There is an interesting parallel in form in the shearing shed at Penshurst in Victoria. This bluestone building was constructed in 1868. It has an octagonal core with rectangular appendages either side:
13 February 2017
There is an interesting parallel in form in the shearing shed at Penshurst in Victoria. This bluestone building was constructed in 1868. It has an octagonal core with rectangular appendages either side: