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.
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.
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!