Heritage Bed and Breakfast and Wedding Venue Queenlsand
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Abbey of the Roses Bed & Breakfast was the old Sister’s of Mercy Convent on Locke Street in Warwick.
Formerly Our Lady of Assumption Convent, ‘Abbey of the Roses’ was built for the Sister’s of Mercy. The foundation stone was laid in August 1891 and competed in 1893 from Freestone. The grandeur of the Convent was testament to the 19th century belief that Warwick was to become one of Queensland’s major inland cities.
The heritage significance of the Old Sister’s of Mercy Convent is incalculable. It formed the ‘heart’ of the extensive Catholic Community in Warwick for almost 100 years, and over that period, thousands of girls passed through its doors and were educated in the 3 R’s by a group of dedicated, selfless women, However, time passed, and the Order was forced to change with the fast moving society. For its last days as a Convent, the grand old sandstone building with a living space of 1486 square metres, including fine reception rooms, library, dormitories, imposing halls, chapel with beautiful stained glass, attic and myriad of nuns cells, had been the home for only three sister’s. The building, nearing its centenary, was also in need of continual and expensive repair, leaving the Order no choice but to sadly relinquish an important part of Warwick’s history.
In September 1994, a private family purchased the building from Sophia College Trust, who had operated a residential university college from the site for the previous four years beginning a new chapter in the history of the ‘Abbey of the Roses’.
Objectives and Philosophy behind the Abbey of the Roses
Having initially ‘fallen in love’ with the building reality soon took hold. It became clear that the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ would not survive as a ‘museum’. They realised that for the building to be preserved for the benefit of future generations, and with only limited funds available, a commercial use had to be made of the building that would allow money to be reinvested for conservation, restoration and renovation, as well as the ongoing maintenance, so necessary on such buildings. It would also allow for as many people as possible to experience such a major part of the history of the Darling Downs area.
Given the previous use the building featured a magnificent Chapel, substantial ‘public rooms’ and numerous ‘Sister’s Cell’ all within the building itself. This led the proprietors to consider operating a Function & Reception Centre, with long term plans for a Guest House. Thus it became the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ goal –
“To be know as the Premier Guest House and Function Centre on the Southern Downs, by providing a superb standard of service overall presentation, food quality and furnishings,
Thus enhancing the heritage nature of the building”.
It became obvious that the project, to convert the building into an operating business, had to be tackled in stages that would enable parts of the business to be operational as soon as possible, whilst allowing time to restore and renovate other parts of the building in a structured and though out manner, namely Chapel, Function Rooms and Accommodation.
Abbey of the Roses 1974
With the help of the National Trust (both Warwick and Toowoomba branches) and the then Department of Environment and Heritage which were of great assistance in setting the initial ‘ground rules’. They indicated that it was essential to conduct a conservation and heritage study of the building.
Interestingly, that despite the great importance to the Warwick community, and the Catholic Church in particular that the Convent had had for over 100 years, no major historical study had been carried out. Hugh and Debbie scoured the Catholic Church archives, the John Oxley Library and conducted and recorded numerous interviews with past students and Sisters. Within a few months an impressive history of the building and the influence that the Order had on the people of the Southern Downs had been compiled.
Member so the Warwick and Toowoomba National Trust assisted with a detailed study of the building’s fabric, discovering, in the process, (and recording via photographs), windows converted to doorways, storage cupboards that had become corridors, bricked in and plastered over fireplaces and the like.
The History and Conservation study were submitted to Heritage and plans for the development of the building were initiated. Peter Dowling, a prominent Brisbane architect was employed to draw up both plans and elevations of the property, none having been found during the search for records. Peter had extensive experience with historic homes, having been responsible for the resurrection of Bulimba House in Brisbane. The plans allowed for the building to remain almost entirely as it was, but for it to gain a new and viable use. With the plans in hand, the internal work commenced.
The restoration of the Chapel was a very rewarding experience. The body of the Chapel is finished in three shades. The dado a warm buff, with lighter tint buff coloured band, finished with a running pattern of oak leaves. The walls over this are a cream tint and the dado in the Chancel a rich dark red. During his research, Hugh was fortunate enough to discover a black and white photograph of a Sister at prayer in the Chapel. The photograph, although undated, was taken prior to the Chapel being ‘modernised’ in the late 1960’s / early 1970’s and showed the original decoration in this room.
One afternoon whilst renovating there was an exciting discovery, namely an original frieze under layer of paint and plaster in the Chapel. Michael, the builder was able to uncover sufficient of this wall frieze to allow him to take a tracing of it and thus cut a stencil so the frieze could be reinstated. The excitement of the find encouraged those involved in the project to look for more and in fact were fortunate enough to rediscover all the original decoration in the Chapel. This was then reproduced via a stencil, using traditional methods or in the case of some delicate foliated work, hand painted.
With the frieze reinstated the electricals became the next focus. Due to the age of the building, initial illumination was afforded by gas lights and as electricity came to Warwick so it came to the Convent. Unfortunately, wiring was “done on the cheap’ and conduit ran in all directions. Although his was part of the history of the building, safety factors took over and new wiring was installed and ‘hidden’ within the plaster work. Unfortunately, no original light fittings, either gas or electrical, were left to give a guide to appropriate styles, having all been replaced by fluorescent tubes in the “college days’. Compromised had to be made between what would have been originally there and commercial reality but the results are appropriate and certainly enhance the building’s interior.
The research had shown that the Chapel was originally lined with cedar “Sister’s stalls”, long since removed (location unknown). Their removal had left no skirting boards in the Chapel. Michael’s skills came to the fore as he was able to reproduce the skirting boards as used at the back of the Chapel and reposition them into the Chapel where the stalls were, thus enhancing the continuity between the back of the Chapel and the fronty and also protecting walls from potential damage.
Although the original altar and “sister’s stall” have long gone (their whereabouts unknown, despite considerable detective work), the Chapel is today used as an intimate venue for couples to exchange their vows, a breakfast room and also a function room. What greater way is there to celebrate the heritage of a region that this?
Front Entrance Hall
The front entrance hall was a magnificent cedar panelled room. Restoration of the roof above the entrance was undertaken to prevent further deterioration of the plater work within the entrance. This was followed by replastering and repainting, maintaining similar colour schemes as originally in place. The front doors were a major project during the restoration with eight layers of paint having to be removed to reveal the cedar timbers. The doors have now been oiled and French polished to restore them to their former glory. The entry hall is beautifully appointed by a dado of ribbed cedar placed around the wall and a Gothic cedar screen which divides the hall from the corridor. Fortunately the timber work within the entrance hall and main staircase was in good condition despite its age and the decision was therefore taken to leave it in its original condition.
Hallways were then undertaken using similar techniques and colour but with the addition of a smaller version of the Chapel frieze to replace the original “institutional black stripe” at chair rail height.
Another exciting “find” was made beside the main staircase. All the wall corners were reinforced by marble, even though they had been painted since the building was open. This was regarded as a significant architectural feature and thus one of the corners has been left unpainted so that visitors can appreciate the superb skills that were employed during construction.
During this period, plans for the interior colour schemes, lighting and soft furnishing were submitted to the Department of Environment and Heritage for their perusal and approval which was readily given along with encouragement for the work carried out so far.
Carpeting was selected to protect the flooring, as well as to enhance the interior cedar timber work. The colour of cherry red with navy blue boarders was enhanced in the entrance hall by the inlay of a ‘fleur de lis’, one of the symbols of the Sisters of Mercy Order, the design being taken from the stained glass above the main staircase.
Approval was sough from Heritage to incorporate the original girl’s dining room and study into one large Function Room (western wing 0 ground floor) to allow the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ to hold functions of 80 – 120 guests. This was achieved by removing a portion of the interior rendered brickwork having delicately removed the moldings that surrounded the original doorway between the two rooms, and installing a pair of concertina doors. Michael was able to reproduce moldings so that the result looks as if there were always two interconnected rooms. In keeping with all such activity, photographs have been taken “before, during and after” so that researchers in years to come will have documented evidence of the work that has been carried out.
The vinyl floor covering and underlying masonite which covered these rooms was removed to reveal a crow’s ash floor in perfect condition. A delightful find and the floor has subsequently been sanded and polished and is now used as a dance floor.
The Function Room is now an elegant dining room with mahogany chairs and furnished with beautiful antiques.
In order to operate successfully (and legally), it was necessary to erect an amenities block adjacent to the main function room. It was originally planned to establish the amenities block on the western verandah as there was not internal plumbing. However it was decided that the verandahs in this part of the building played a significant role in keeping this section of the building shaded and hence reduce the need for cooling in the adjacent function room. Thus the plan was modified to a free standing building in keeping with the general appearance of the
main building. Although this has been achieved at increased cost many visitors ask about the original use of this part of the building.
Our Lady’s Dormitory added in 1904 has been restored and now an ideal venue for craft and trade displays. An interesting feature of this room is the verandah which was enclosed in 1942 to accommodate the evacuation of the girls from Brisbane.
On the first floor five Sister’s Cells, the Infirmary and the Sister’s Superior rooms have been restored along with 3 bathrooms. It is noted that many people nowadays prefer ensuited bedrooms however the basic fabric of the building would have had to be greatly modified to accommodate the plumbing and this did not seem appropriate. The result is that there are a mixture of shared, private and ensuited rooms, with some of the bathrooms positioned across the hallways from the bedrooms and the ‘original feel’ of the floor has been retained. The former Sister’s community room which was originally a dormitory has been made into a beautiful Bridal Suite complete with antiques and a mahogany four poster bed.
The colour combinations for walls, carpets, curtains and bedspreads were all carefully selected to create a “country house” feel with an emphasis on comfort. The Hamiltons have been fortunate enough to purchase pieces of furniture that suit the building and ware what people expect to find inside such as establishment.
Formerly known as the ‘Infirmary’ (sick beds for the Nuns) is now complete with an open fire place, king size bed and also is the only bedrooms that opens up to the verandah off the kitchenette.
A small kitchenette has been installed in one of the service rooms with the original hoop pine floor revealed and polished for all to admire.
Enlarging the Sister’s cells or installing ensuites or air-conditioning would have allowed for a maximum return from the rooms but something very important would have lost. As it is the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ can provide a unique experience giving guests a ‘feel’ for how life was 100 years ago at the Warwick Convent and not merely providing a 21st century bedroom within the wall of a 19th century building.
To further enhance the magnificent building special attention has been paid to the gardens. A long term goal is to eventually have the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ included in the Open Gardens activity. In the meantime work has been pushing ahead with the implementation of the garden plan. There has been extensive planing on the northern side of the building, along with the development of a new pathway to the front entrance, new hedge planting, a sprinkler system and lighting of the exterior of the building. Boundary planting has taken place along the southern boundary of the property to improve its general appearance, as well as providing a much needed wind break. The ’Grotto’ has been replanted so that it can be truly appreciated. All of this has certainly improved the overall presentation of the property and of course there is nothing better than bunches of ‘home grown’ roses filling each room.
The ‘Abbey of the Roses’ is part of the National Estate and register on both the National and State Heritage Register. However in 1994 the fate of the Old Sister’s of Mercy Convent was very much up in the air. The building, although much loved by the locals, was empty, and because no maintenance was being carried out, was slowly deteriorating. Its prior use, as a University Campus, meant that only a restricted number of [people could have access to the unique nature of the building.
The purchase of the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ by the Hamiltons gave the building a new lease of life with their commitment to stop any further deterioration, and to slowly restore the magnificent structure for the benefit of this and future generations. The restoration work was carried out in such a way that the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ was awarded the 1998 Queensland National Trust Award for Excellence in Restoration. The awarding of that prize shows that, firstly, an extensive study of the building was carried out in order to more fully understand its history, methods of construction, previous decorative schemes and previous uses for various rooms and areas. Secondly, whilst bearing in mind the commercial side of the business it had been sympathetic to that study and have endeavoured to adhere to the principles set out in the Burra Charter. Thirdly, that the current use of the building means that access to all its ‘delights’ are made available to as many people possible, and finally the opportunity has been set in place for future generations to appreciate the culture of past eras, and the importance that the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ played in the history and development of the southern Darling Downs.
Today when people enter the building via the huge cedar doors, they are immediately carried back to the days when the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ was first built. From the heat and glare of a Queensland summer, visitors are instantly transported to the quiet, calm, cool and shaded atmosphere of the entrance hall, where voices are instantly hushed “in case Mother Superior is in residence”. There is an immediate understanding of the atmosphere that would have prevailed at the time, and although the black and white habits have gone, it does not take much imagination to be in their midst. These types of experiences are now rare. It has not been the intention for the building to take on the look and feel of a Convent but the remnants of its previous use do remain for those interested in a more detailed study of the religious aspects of the building. The former Priest’s Vestry as been set aside to display historic photographs showing the development o f the ‘Abbey of the Roses’ over the years and ‘finds’ such as the proverbial coaster oil bottle, tooth powder containers and old cane shave become great treasures stored in the Morning Room bookcase for all to see.
The ‘Abbey of the Roses’ is very much a labour of love and probably will always be. By the many words of encouragement received and the sheer delight on visitor’s faces. A visit to the ‘Abbey of the Roses’, even for a short stay such as morning or afternoon tea in not complete without a tour of the building and all it offers.
The Grand Obsession as it has become has been sympathetic to the previous use of the building whilst opening up a new chapter in the page of one of Warwick’s finest sandstone buildings and setting a pattern for future work.
There have been a couple of private owners with the latest owners purchasing the Abbey in May 2010 and doing some more restoration and renovating to bring back a sparkle to this wonderful heritage building.
In 2011 the Abbey was honored to be nominated a finalist in the Qld ABIA arwards for Best Reception Venue and also the Queensland Toursim award and being voted #1 of the Top Ten Places to tie the Knot in Queensland
There are currently 11 rooms available for accommodation purposes, wedding receptions, wedding ceremonies or functions on nearly every week, bus book for tours and lunch and special events through out the year including Christmas in July and Murder Mystery nights.