January 29, 2020

Premium SAHomes: Historic Willunga cottage transformed

An early 1800s cottage in Adelaide’s southern vales lay derelict until it was thrown a lifeline by a couple who recognised its hidden beauty.

It was a real estate agent’s worst nightmare. Willunga’s 32 Matthews Street had been unoccupied for some years and the ancient, dilapidated cottage and extension had fallen into complete disrepair, inundated by overgrowth on a block of 2750 square metres.

At the base of the driveway of the derelict property, so completely overgrown that it was impossible to walk across the block from one side to the other, a for-sale sign posed the question: “Are you up for the challenge?”

That was about eight years ago. It was the only time the property had ever been listed on the market, having been handed down by descendants of the Rielly family — Irish labourers who built the cottage by hand in about 1847.

When it was listed for sale there were plenty of interested buyers, but all were scared off as soon as they took a look under the hood of this colossal fixer-upper.

That was until Kerstin and Jay Holata came along, looking for a site to build their ideal family home in which to raise their three sons.

“We had a hard time finding something we liked, and when we came across this block we really just fell in love with the views. But it was completely derelict; we walked into the cottage and it was almost scary,” Kerstin says.

“I saw this old fireplace in the kitchen and I thought that underneath all of this there has to be a gem.”

Today, after years of hard work, the now-immaculate historic cottage sits at the heart of a beautiful, contemporary new home. The couple are selling the completed masterpiece, which they had intended to live in long-term.

“Our families are all based in Germany and the US, our careers have recently expanded significantly — we just want to downsize so we can spend extended periods overseas,” Kerstin says. “I love the garden, but I’m not here enough to enjoy it, so my priorities have shifted. We love it down here so we’ll probably stay in the area.”

An expert in technology commercialisation, Kerstin works in the biotechnology industry, bringing cutting edge research to market, including in her role as CEO at Adelaide’s Rezolve Scientific. As part of her work, she travels extensively interstate and internationally.

“Very few blocks like this come up in Willunga. It was a great opportunity to restore a heritage building — you just can’t buy that, and it’s not something you can create from scratch.”

Originally from Germany, Kerstin completed a PhD in biophysics at Flinders University, before undertaking a postdoctoral fellowship in Chicago where she met her now-husband Jay — a supply chain expert.

“We’ve both lived in a few places around the world, but throughout my career I somehow kept coming back to Adelaide. Being in this location, but so close to the city, is a bit of a luxury.”

For Kerstin and Jay, Willunga is an unspoilt gem. Walks to the markets, main street cafes and shops, as well as the rural lifestyle, are all unique attributes. “It’s still an untouristed, beautiful part of the world,” she says. “There aren’t many places like it and it has such a great community. We love it here,” Kerstin says.

At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, 32 Matthews Street is the perfect four bedroom family home. Upstairs is a parents’ retreat, with a master bedroom that offers views through a large picture window and timber doors opening to the deck, with an earthy en suite built with travertine stone.

“You wake up in the morning to beautiful views out of those big windows,” she says. From the en suite spa bath, there is a sublime outlook to the gum trees lining the other side of the property. The views from the decked outdoor dining space are spectacular — a realisation of the couple’s vision when they bought the property.

The boys enjoy their own downstairs territory, with an enormous lounge space, two bedrooms and a bathroom, with the option to create a fifth bedroom in a space designed for this.

“Everybody who visits says they want to touch everything because the materials are very earthy and natural. Even though it’s a big house, it feels warm and welcoming,” Kerstin says.

The pristine block has been well landscaped with dozens of mature fruit trees and a large chicken enclosure at the base of the hill. The couple re-used materials they found on the property to build raised garden beds and stone walling.

The cottage was originally built from stone found at the site, and the thick walls maintain comfortable temperatures year-round. During the renovation, patches of the stone wall were left bare to show what lies beneath the lime render. “It’s fascinating that they built the structure with their bare hands,” Kerstin says.

The cottage floors were stripped to reveal the original slate, and the walls were chipped back to the bare stone. “We took the cottage back to bare bones and re-rendered with some French lime while keeping everything as original and authentic as we possibly could.

“You’ve now got a cottage that has modern electrical wiring and plumbing, but is still in the exact same condition it would have been when it was originally built.”

The restoration was like an archaeological dig. So completely overrun by the dense foliage, a stone shed was discovered, and has since been restored into a charming structure with double-opening timber doors.

They discovered old pots, tools and bottles, including items likely to have come from Ireland in the 1800s. On permanent loan from the National Trust, the owners have a photo of Patrick Lawrence Rielly on display, believed to be one of the original family members to build the cottage.

“We’ve tried to be honest about everything we’ve done. It was a place that other people would have just torn down – nobody wanted it and it had been on the market forever.”


“I would like it to be an example of what’s possible. We should preserve more of these buildings and actually integrate them into a comfortable, modern lifestyle and not give up on them,” Kerstin says.

Back in 2012, the real estate advertisement read: “The address is great and so is the challenge, but the potential outcome could be truly inspirational” — and so it is.

The sale is being handled by Jacqui Ilicic of Sotheby’s International Realty.

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