The first building on the Ormiston estate was a slab hut erected in the early 1850’s to provide accommodation and kitchen for the workers. The slab hut remains today as the house’s only kitchen. The gaps in its rough timber slabs are covered by metal strips and fastened with hand wrought nails. A cedar ceiling and verandah were added at a later date and rooms for maids were later built beside the hut.
Work on the main house commenced in 1862, using craftsman and materials from Britain. These were believed to have been transported to Australia aboard the famous clipper ship, Flying Cloud. The same architect who assisted Hope with the building of Kilcoy House also designed Ormiston house.
The house was built in three stages. The first section running north to south, the second (containing the drawing room, dining room, butler’s pantry) running east to west, and the third (the nursery, Mrs Hope’s morning Room and the Office Annex) behind the first section.
Ormiston House displays the simplicity yet elegance of early colonial architecture. The wide verandahs, huge doors, fireplaces, security shutters, French lights and highly decorative ceilings combine to make this one of the finest remaining examples of colonial architecture in Queensland.
The bricks were baked locally, the name of the foreman Cowan being marked on some bricks. The roof, originally shingled, was replaced early on with corrugated iron (heritage gauge and heritage length) and restored by Colorbond in the same gauge and length in 1993. Shutters, architraves, door frames are of solid cedar and the door panels are mahogany. The door knobs are of oxidised brass in the beehive design. The cypress floors have been extensively restored. The verandahs were originally of cobblestones, replaced in the 1970’s by sandstone from Helidon .
Twin Doric columns supporting the wide verandah roof were cut from local cypress and pine and shipped to England to be turned.
The ceilings in the first section of the house were originally of calico and in the second stage, lathe and plaster. It is believed the magnificent metal zinc ceilings were installed circa 1917 during the ownership by the Macartney family. The designs were by Wunderlich’s top designer of the time, Samuel Rowe, who used small hearts as his signature in the designs.
The development of Ormiston House is detailed graphically in the diary of Claudius Whish (sea captain and sugar pioneer) in the Oxley Library: ‘The first stage was completed in 1862. At that time approximately 800 acres were fenced, there was a splendid garden and 20 acres had just been planted in sugar. There were salt pans, wells, waterholes, a small brick house, the slab hut, a house for the overseer, barn, stockyards and milking yards. It was a beautiful site for a house fronting Raby Bay; a garden stocked with oranges, vines, bananas, arrowroot’.
In a later entry in 1865 Whish writes that he found great changes at Hope’s, ‘a beautiful house and grounds’, alluding to the skilled workmanship in the main section of the house to the east and north.
Ormiston House was one of the first houses in Queensland to have a flushing toilet. It also boasted gas lighting, although the carbide gas pipes and water tanks were later vandalised. Remains of the old pipes can be seen in the drawing room, study and pantry.
After Hope’s departure from Ormiston, the property was tenanted for several years. It was purchased by John Arthur Macartney F.R.G.S. in 1913.
Macartney was an explorer and prominent pioneer pastoralist in Central Queensland and the Northern Territory. Although he was an extensive landowner, he was renowned more for exploration and in recognition of his achievements he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geological Society in 1880. He made many improvements to the house, notably the pressed metal ceilings. After he died in 1917 it was left in the care of his unmarried daughter Flora and her widowed sister. Flora struggled to maintain the house and grounds and although she resisted modern conveniences such as electricity, it was eventually installed.
After Flora died in 1955 other members of the family tried for a few years to make a living from the property, but by 1959 they were desperate to sell. Despite its historical importance the Historical Society was unable to help, the Queensland Government wasn’t interested, and the property was sold by auction to the Carmelite Order.