Grand homestead . . . Rocklands was built on a large Springfield Rd site for the Totara Lime Kiln Company owner Sophia McDonald in the late 1800s. PHOTO: SALLY BROOKER

A historic homestead near Oamaru has been rescued from ruin.

Two years ago, local couple Phil and Sally Cleland bought the eight-bedroom Rocklands mansion that had sat empty for many years.

The scale of the renovation project ahead of them would have daunted most people, but Mrs Cleland said it was ‘‘too delicious’’ to pass up.

Research into the house’s background led the Clelands to become admirers of its first owner, a pioneering woman called Sophia McDonald.

Flourishing . . . The garden has been tamed to complement the charming historic house. PHOTO: SALLY BROOKER

One of five children of Scottish lime-burner James McDonald, she used her business acumen to save the family finances after the move to North Otago, then owned and developed the Totara Lime Kiln Company with the support of her sister Mary Ann. They employed their brother James as the foreman.

Timber for the homestead was laid out to dry for two years before building began in the late 1800s.

The house was originally singlestoreyed, set in a large garden landscaped by the nationally renowned Alfred Buxton.

The McDonald sisters had a housekeeper and a maid, two gardeners, a uniformed chauffeur, and a farm manager.

The Reid family owned the homestead after the McDonalds, but by 1976 the whole Rocklands site was abandoned.

In the late 1970s the Rowley family bought and extensively restored the house, although they were unable to salvage the servants’ quarters.

The Rowleys added a second storey, designed by an architect to blend with the old villa.

Mrs Cleland credits the Rowleys for the ‘‘beautiful job’’ they made of the homestead. Some of their William Morris wallpapers and curtains are still in place.

Victorian details . . . The main downstairs hallway features heritage flourishes. PHOTO: SALLY BROOKER

However, being unoccupied had not done the house any favours, and extensive repairs were needed once the Clelands had bought it.

One of the biggest projects was restoring the stone steps leading to the front door. Oamaru specialists Dooleys Masonry spent months painstakingly recreating them to the original specifications.

The stonemasons said they had worked on only two such sets of steps in the past, and none that big.

Inside, the Clelands are gradually redecorating the rooms. Mrs Cleland has done the wallpapering and painting herself.

Modern bathroom fittings have been installed upstairs and several skylights have let natural light and warmth flood in.

Spacious . . . The high timber-panelled ceilings allow for generous-sized furnishings. PHOTO: SALLY BROOKER

More interior refurbishments will have to wait until after summer — Mrs Cleland loves spending time outside in the warmer weather, tending the plantings that form many welcoming and relaxing areas between the house and the vast lawns.

The limestone quarry behind the house combines with Buxton’s now-mature specimen trees to provide plenty of shelter from the elements.

The Clelands met an 80-year member of the Reid family in Cromwell recently. She was born at Rocklands and asked if the trees either side of the driveway met overhead yet.

They do.

She will be visiting Rocklands soon to see how the Clelands have brought it back from the brink.

Hidden gem . . . The Clelands found trees growing out of an old swimming pool in the garden. They have turned into this summer oasis. PHOTO: SALLY BROOKER
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