Welcome to Byron: iconic homestead dying of neglect

The Higgins Homestead in Ewingsdale, at the Gateway to Byron Bay. Photo Jeff Dawson

Simon Alderton

Do you believe in love at first sight? Many people love Byron, but at first sight turning onto Ewingsdale Road you pass The Farm, the hospital and then lot 101 – an abandoned homestead on a beautiful elevated piece of land with a few grazing cows. You can’t miss this house, it stands out for miles as you drive the main road into town and looks most ‘unloved’.

Driving past every day I often imagined this historic homestead in all its glory. What a stunning entry into one of the most unique, character filled towns in Australia. Then, I wondered how on earth this amazing property was allowed to fall into such disarray?

My curiously led me to ask questions about the Higgins Homestead on the Byron Facebook page and an avalanche of responses followed. Stories going back into Byron’s history, music videos showing the pop group ‘Dope Lemon’ dancing around the quintessentially Australian verandah and of course, lots of angst from local residents about the sad tale of its contemporary demise.

Many locals know that this property is currently owned by Belbeck Investments, part of the majority Chinese owned McDonalds beef empire with an interest in property. In 2013 they sought rezoning of the 15-hectare precinct for a proposed 200 or so unit retirement village on the site; the Higgins Homestead was to be restored, but lost in amongst the urban sprawl.

Council deemed the development ‘inappropriate’ and knocked it back and the house has been left to the elements ever since. The doors and windows disappeared and internal features vandalised.

It is understood that Belbeck currently has the heritage listed house on the market and are currently in negotiations with a potential buyer with the hope that the property will be going under contract soon. It is interesting that the real estate agent advertised the property as ‘a development site’, yet the house and farm are still zoned as rural.

Happier days

In happier days before investors held the title deeds, this house was inhabited by the Higgins family until 1967 and then the Grisell Family until 1993, when the homestead was last inhabited.

Edward Higgins bought the property from Sir Thomas Ewing in 1910. Many members the Higgins and Grisell families still live in the shire and speaking to a few I learnt lots of fascinating stories. Vicki Moerig of Byron Bay is the granddaughter of Norman and Gladys Higgins and spent the first few years of her life in this house. She remembers the homestead being surrounded by a fenced garden alive with poppies and azaleas. The homestead is the last one in the district with a separate kitchen and Vicki remembers the family spent most of their time in the kitchen and at night the children would run back to the main house through the breezeway in the dark.

Another local, Leeanne Hall, of the Grisell family, also remembers the house fondly. She tells me that, as the house was the first building people saw coming into Byron Bay, they would often stop and look around. Her mother was very proud to live in such a well-known house and would welcome people who wanted to view this iconic country Australian homestead. At Christmas time, the family would sit on the verandah and wave to locals driving by into the town. Like many people, Leeanne is saddened by the current state of the property every time she drives by and can’t believe the owners let it fall into such an awful state.

The Higgins Homestead was built in 1900 during the era when dairy was king in Byron Bay. The property once had 180 acres from McGettigans Lane to the old Pacific Highway with cows and draught horses roaming the land and the Higgins family selling sweet potatoes to the town from their market garden.

Heritage listed

The weatherboard homestead was heritage listed in 2006 with the help of Ewingsdale residents, particularly Fae Flick. Despite years of neglect the house retains many of its redeeming features, chimneys, outhouses, tall ceilings and the landmark Moreton Bay fig. Councils heritage report describes the house as ‘displaying a fine example of local timber construction and craftsmanship’. Sadly the French doors and some decorative wall features have been destroyed by vandals. However, the Higgins Homestead remains a local landmark and has stood the testament to time.

After many years of neglect, the fate of the Higgins Homestead looks perilous.

It is clear from listening to locals, that many people don’t subscribe to the ‘greed is good’ philosophy that would consign this property to the dustbin of history. The only people who gain from putting a ‘use by date’ to our heritage are developers. Imagine Sydney without the Queen Victoria Building, Vaucluse House or The Rocks? At one stage of their life’s these treasures were threatened in the name of ‘progress’ as well. Instead, communities banded together and fought to save them, thus retaining some soul and character for a city dominated by office blocks.

Too often is our local heritage, whether European or indigenous, is disregarded and lost. Future generations can only wonder what came before them. If this grand old house of Byron Bay is lost, we all lose, not only aesthetically but our vibe as a community and town.

The fate of the Higgins Homestead represents the fate of Byron itself. Do we want a bland housing estate to welcome people to our unique corner of the world? Or do we want to preserve our history and character? Let’s hope that the new owners of this stunning property at the gateway to Byron can resurrect this treasure and reverse the damage done by years of neglect. For Byron Bay, love at first sight begins where it’s always been: in Ewingsdale on the main road into town!


16 responses to “Welcome to Byron: iconic homestead dying of neglect”

  1. Not A Weirdo says:

    The problem is that someone tried to do something to make it viable, and it was knocked back. You want to keep the heritage, put your money where your mouth is.

  2. Mr Roger Corben says:

    Surely any owner allowing a heritage listed building get into this state should be prosecuted and made to restore it to the state it was in when first listed??

  3. Ron Barnes says:

    A sad ending for such a Beautiful homestead

  4. Ken Çorbitt says:

    Excellent story. Let’s save the Homestead…

  5. Jill keogh says:

    As the Higgins homestead is heritage listed, is it not eligible for a heritage grant to help maintain it. Was it listed as Local Heritage or NSW Heritage?

  6. Jared says:

    Well done Simon for digging into the history of this problem. Every time I drive past it I wonder why it’s in such a state – I thought it was perhaps part of the hospitals land and had just been left to fall apart. I’m shocked to hear that this is a registered historic home left to crumble and fall apart so a developer can eventually claim there is no historical value worth retaining.

  7. Sonny Singh says:

    I stayed a few nights there as a child when I used to muster cattle with the Grissells.
    Leanne Grissell told me it was haunted and I used to get really scared at night.
    Now I drive past it everyday going to work and remember those days.

  8. Jen Woodforde says:

    Oh please protect this beautiful place.

  9. Lorraine Ward says:

    “It is interesting that the real estate agent advertised the property as ‘a development site’, yet the house and farm are still zoned as rural.”-Simon Alderton
    How sad that this is the prevailing attitude to Byron. It’s where can we develop next? Where can we make a buck. Forgetting the community that lives here all year round actually loves this land and especially it’s grand ol ladies like this once beautiful home. We truly hope that the new owners will get to hear how much this house means to us and restore it to it’s former glory!

  10. Susan Tsicalas says:

    Outside Mullumbimby on the Wilsos Creek road was the old Bower house which has also been left to deteriorate which is very sad

  11. Andy says:

    I would love to see this house and land plot preserved and restored like many other people.

    However, I went into this house just before the hospital was built to satisfy my curiosity. Every door, window, piece of molding and architrave has been ripped out and what that revealed was that every exposed timber was riddled with wood borer. It looks okay on the surface but underneath it seems very bad.

    Some one had tried to rip the stained glass front door off it’s hinges and the door had parted top to bottom leaving a piece 15cm wide still attached by it’s hinges, even the front door remnant was riddled with borer.

    I’m not an expert but due to what appears to be extensive structural damage by wood borer and humans, I’d guess the house is most likely beyond saving despite it’s attractive appearance from the road and special location.

  12. Peter Irvine says:

    How much do they want for it? Under the Robertson land Act, it probably was 1 pound an acre originally.

  13. Peter says:

    Knock it down, you shouldn’t stop progress or wealth.

  14. Jemima says:

    You hit the nail on the head Jared, it is exactly what someone is waiting for…it is the way apperently of the north coast! Like vultures these developers, they wait and swoop!

  15. Mandi says:

    Byron Bay is not heritage site as far as i am concerned just a tourism sess pit that has spread like a disease on the North Coast and Northern Rivers NSW. Dirty filthy place over run by tourism, holiday and short term letting. Greed has displace local communities and Byron Bay Council could of stopped it years ago.

  16. Trude Helm says:

    Interesting to hear why that house is so neglected. It is a pity a place can be bought and left to rot by new owners. Mullumbimby has its own sad beauty… Pulpit Hill on Wilson’s Creek Road. I’ve admired it for years. I think its been vacant and crumbling since the 70s. A shame.

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