Turning a 1929 Home into a Visitors Paradise

Aussie wildlife and mushroom foragers are among the many visitors to Sue and Tony Johnson’s paradise home in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills.

Cackling kookaburras, koalas and even the odd hopping kangaroo aren’t the only visitors to Sue and Tony Johnson’s property in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills. The couple love to entertain and, as well as hosting milestone birthdays and even a wedding, they recently built what they call a party room, which was Sue’s passion project during the pandemic. “I call it the party room because it was all about the beer fridge and where to put it,” Sue says. “So we had to build a room for it, and we’ve now got a kitchen and a toilet and washbasin in there, so when we do have parties, no one has to come in the house.” But that’s among the many changes the family has made to their visitors paradise home since they purchased it almost 20 years ago.

Homes and Garden

“We saw it and we went, wow!” Sue says as she reminisces on the time she and husband, Tony, first laid eyes on their Mt Lofty home. “I remember driving past the property quite early,” Tony adds. “I thought, ‘Now, there’s a place I really love.’ I still recall the day and I knew we had to have it. We were young and didn’t have much money behind us.”

The couple soon found themselves placing a bid prior to auction and were shocked when it was accepted. It was 1994. Sue was 32, while Tony was 35. Their eldest son, Tom, was two, middle child, Ben, was just a baby and daughter, Kate, was yet to arrive.

Sue and Tony’s own tale goes back a little further when she was 20 and he was 23. “It’s a bit of a story how we met,” Tony says. “Sue worked in the city at a bank and I was, and still am, with a Danish company that manufactures pumps. We were in the city and I was new to the regime of catching a bus home. I asked when’s the next bus to the Adelaide Hills, and this young lady looked up from her book and said it leaves in 10 minutes. We started talking and then met up later that night at the local hotel. I worked very quick. We’ve been together ever since.” “We married probably three years later,” Sue adds, while Tony admits he’s glad someone remembers the date.

Sue and Tony Johnson's Home

Prior to purchasing their property, they were living in a new-build cottage in nearby Bridgewater, but with a growing family, they needed more space — and they had a fire lit under them when Tony’s parents admitted that if he and Sue didn’t buy the Mt Lofty house, they would. So the young couple acted fast.

Built in 1929, the home is constructed of local Mt Lofty stone and was originally on 10 acres (four hectares) of land and surrounded by orchards. The block has since been subdivided and the Johnsons now have one acre (almost half a hectare). Since purchasing the property, they’ve made various changes including building an extra bedroom when daughter Kate arrived — “I’m lucky to have the best room in the house because it used to be a dining room,” she says — as well as adding a sunroom and, of course, the party room out back.

Homes and Interiors

They’ve also made significant changes to the yard, including adding an automatic irrigation system so the lawn and garden are kept watered and easy to maintain, as well as various plantings. In fact, it was while working on the lawns when the family received a little impromptu history lesson about their home. “When we first bought the house, we didn’t have a lawn and it was my job to put the irrigation system in,” Tony says. “I was out front raking one day when this Mercedes turned up. I looked up and this older man gets out of the car, and it turned out that he actually used to own the house back in 1965. We had a chat and he then returned one day with slides and a projector and told us some history about the house. When you look at some of those photos, you can see some of the lovely landmark trees that were still there 70 years ago!”

Some of those include Douglas fir, Himalayan cedar, sequoia, California redwoods, golden elm and Japanese maple. The couple have added to the garden over the years but predict that some of the trees are older than 100. And Sue and Tony say they’ve developed quite green thumbs. “We love the garden and treat it as our enjoyment,” Tony says. “Our daughter once said to me: ‘Dad, why are you always working in the garden, isn’t there more to life?’” It’s our gym.” Sue adds. “We don’t go to the gym, we just go outside and by the time you do all the gardening, it’s good exercise.”

Family Home Garden

However, daughter Kate, 22, who’s currently studying journalism at university and lives in the family home, has a soft spot for the garden herself. “I love it here,” she says. “I describe it as a magical fairy garden because there are paths you can walk through and if you take your time and go slowly, you can imagine fairy dust flowing around. And there are mushrooms.” Tony says the mushrooms are symbiotic with the silver birch tree, a fact he learnt from one of the many passersby who forage in the Johnsons’ front lawn.

While Sue and Tony admit that they’re not gym-goers, they have picked up a hobby other than gardening that keeps them active. “Sue started off in a walking club and now I’ve joined in too,” Tony says. “It’s amazing exploring the area. We’ll walk anywhere from the Cleveland National Park to Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens. We’re seriously spoilt in this part of the world.”

Visitors Paradise Home

And for the Johnsons, there’s even more to love about the region. “We’re on the doorstep of all these lovely wineries in the Adelaide Hills,” Tony beams. And they’re perfectly positioned to visit a range of them, with McLaren Vale, renowned for its Shiraz and other red varieties, only a 40-minute drive, the Barossa Valley about an hour away, and the Clare Valley a 90-minute commute.

But when they’re not out visiting the many attractions of the region, the Johnsons are at home enjoying the lovely space they’ve created and the many visitors they themselves receive on a regular basis — animal or human, invited or not, but always welcome. ac

Photography by Don Brice, styling Bronte Camilleri

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