Calthorpe house: the way we were

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HOMEOWNERS are usually there to welcome visitors, but when you pop into Calthorpes’ House, on Mugga Way, you’ll find the family’s long gone, eerily leaving all their possessions behind.

Calthorpes House-2743Furniture, art, toys, rugs, photos, appliances and telephones remain pretty much as they were in the late 1920s, as a snapshot of family life in the early days of Canberra.

“Coming to the house is almost an intrusion – it must be a funny feeling for Dawn Waterhouse to have her childhood home on display,” says volunteer guide Bev Finlayson. “But wonderful for us today.”

Owned by Harry and Della Calthorpe, the house was built in 1927 as one of the first in Canberra. It’s been open to the public since 1986.

Everything inside is perfectly preserved, down to the collection of badges in Dawn’s bedroom, clothes still hanging in the wardrobes, scales and scrubbing brushes in the kitchen cabinets and household bills in the pantry.

Calthorpes House-2765

With built-in cupboards in convenient places, such as Harry’s boot-cleaning spot by the back door, and cleaning supplies hidden under the bath, the home is well-designed and practical – if a little dark.

“The fashion was for several layers of blinds, net curtains and heavy drapes at the windows,” Bev says. “It meant the sun didn’t fade the furniture and it kept the warmth in during winter and the summer heat out.”

Calthorpes House-2733

The idea behind the conservation of the house is to preserve things as they are, not restore them to original condition, says Bev, so what you see when you walk through the home (wearing protective booties) is the actual soft furnishings that were chosen by Mrs Calthorpe.

Calthorpes House-2730From Harry’s razor strop hanging on the bathroom door to personal photos of young girls Del and Dawn on the walls, there are touches of personal family life everywhere.

“The home is a blend of city and country, which Canberra was then, and reflects what was fashionable and stylish at the time,” says Bev.

“Mrs Calthorpe bought everything in one go from Beard Watson & Co in Sydney, and was so careful with her possessions that nothing ever needed to be replaced.

“She did feel the home was getting a bit shabby as the years went on though, and having decided not to renovate, as was popular in the 1950s, she chose to entertain out of the house instead. It’s fortunate for us now that it didn’t get updated.”

Calthorpes’ House, 24 Mugga Way, Red Hill, open on weekends, 1pm-4pm, $7 adults, $15 family. More information at

All photos by Silas Brown.


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Kathryn Vukovljak
Kathryn Vukovljak is a "CityNews" journalist with a particular interest in homes and gardens.

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