Woodend icon restored

Islay House owners Tarni James and Clive Warner.

Woodend’s iconic Islay House holds many stories as well as a place in hearts of local residents. Now it has undergone a renovation to return to its roots, offering luxury colonial-style accommodation. 

Established in 1860 as the British American Hotel, Islay House was a coaching inn offering accommodation to miners travelling to Bendigo goldfields in the 1860s. 

New owners Tarni James and Clive Warner were keen to build on the historical character in their renovations that have spanned 16 months. 

Previous owners had undertaken major infrastructure work. The next step was attention to some of the finer details. 

Reviving history 

Clive’s background is in English traditional canal boat building and furniture making, and he completed much of the renovation himself with the help of a builder friend. Tarni’s background is as a journalist, television producer and project manager with a special interest in furniture restoration. 

Along the way, they have unearthed all kinds of hints to the past, including large horse shoes from the adjacent old blacksmith. They have also found bricks from the forge, bottles, china, cartwheels and worn steps that indicate old doorways. 

“We have decorated with a real eye for history because we want to honour this iconic building in Woodend. The community has a real attachment to it, which we love,” Tarni said. 

“We found out Islay House was once advertised as having ‘eight rooms and a ballroom’ – and now you can stay in what was the old ballroom thanks to the Historical Society records! 

“The bar was located in the front room and the rail along the bar is now the balustrade up the stairs, so we know how long the bar was. 

“We love knowing the stories of what was originally here to share with our guests.” 

And the stories didn’t stop there. Once the community discovered the much-loved building had new owners, many were eager to share what they knew. 

Community connection 

The couple discovered the community’s attachment to the building early their renovations. 

Clive had temporarily removed the iconic Islay House sign to re-touch the front door and was quickly reminded of its importance. 

“A lady asked, “Where’s the sign?”. It gave me that pressure to really do the right thing by the local residents, and I like that,” he said. 

Passers-by have also enquired about the garden, people have enjoyed tours, wedding photographs have been captured out front, and local historians have helped the new owners understand the building’s history. 

A primary school student even braved the newcomers to tell them her school loved the house and students were working on a project about it. 

One local visitor had grown up in the house and influenced some of the design decisions. 

“Briget showed us where original walls and doors were and gave us a map of how she remembered the house,” Tarni said. 

It may have set them back another month, but the couple were determined to restore some of those past features. 

“The front room was made better because of her memory of what it used to be,” Clive said. 

“And we invite people in to come in and have a look if they have expressed an interest because we want their opinion too.” 

“We really enjoy sharing the property. We feel extremely lucky that we’ve been able to find it and work on it, and now it’s time for us to open the door and say come and share what we’ve got,” Tarni said. 

Clive and Tarni purchased the property in June 2022, selling their Port Melbourne home to start a new life in the country town. 

Immediately enchanted 

“The motivation for moving is quite an unusual one,” Tarni said. 

“When my mum passed away she had a beautiful dance studio in the back garden of her home in Melbourne, which the new owners were about to demolish and I couldn’t bear it.” 

Tarni negotiated with the new owners of her mother’s home to deconstruct the dance studio to rebuild it somewhere else. 

“It’s a brick building that looks like an old stable and we pulled it down brick by brick, slate by slate, all the windows and the flooring. It had to be saved,” she said. 

“We looked around everywhere trying to find a piece of bushland to put the studio on. We thought about making it a weekender, but we spied this place, and were so enchanted by it straight away.” 

The studio will be rebuilt at the rear of Islay House and the couple hope the community will share that too. 

Community open day 

Now, just opened, Islay House will offer AirBnb accommodation. 

Clive and Tarni will also host a community open day of Islay House on Saturday, February 17, from 11am to 1pm. Anyone wishing to view the building is welcome to attend. Islay House is located at 123 High Street, Woodend.