Coming full circle

It was one of the finest function centres in Newcastle for decades, but after a year of painstaking restoration Bella Vista has come full circle to once again be cherished as a family home.

John and Sheryl Nisner never thought they would make Bella Vista their family home. The hospitality and wedding industry stalwarts purchased the landmark Mayfield property in 2001, after it had been operating for more than four years as a function centre, and spent the next 16 years running it as a successful business venture. While they stayed there several times in between selling and buying other homes, the couple never viewed it as somewhere they would end up living on a permanent basis. That was, at least, until they decided to fund their retirement plans by redeveloping part of the site – and found they couldn’t bear to part with the house as well. 

BHP beginnings

Bella Vista is one of Newcastle’s most iconic homes, a grand mansion on the hill in Mayfield that’s played host to generations of royalty, countless company executives and a myriad of marriage ceremonies and receptions. It was built in 1919 for the first manager of the Newcastle BHP steelworks, David Baker, a steelmaker from Pittsburgh who was engaged by the Broken Hill Proprietary Company to establish the feasibility of the Newcastle site. Baker originally lived at Ingall House, located further east in Mayfield, but sent a letter to BHP’s management requesting a move because noise from the steelworks was keeping him awake at night. Consequently, the company purchased a two hectare plot on the corner of Crebert and Church streets where the grand American Federation home was built for Baker and his wife Katherine. Bella Vista was occupied by a number of BHP managers over the years before being used primarily as a VIP residence for visiting executives and dignitaries. Its grand rooms have played host to, and were later named after, a procession of significant guests over the years, including the then Prince of Wales Edward VIII (who later became King and went on to abdicate the throne and marry Wallis Simpson) and his uncle, the Viceroy of India Lord Louis Mountbatten, who visited the home together in 1920. Royalty made a reappearance 34 years later when Queen Elizabeth II visited Bella Vista to “freshen up” during her 1954 visit to Newcastle, with the entire house repainted in her honour, while the Duke of Gloucester visited in 1946 when he was Governor General. The property was sold by BHP in 1988 and was initially used as a reception venue before lying empty for many years.

Restored and repurposed  

Bella Vista changed hands again in 1995 after being purchased by Phil Proctor, who lived there with his wife and four children for two years, extensively restoring and renovating the property before operating it as a function centre. When Proctor and his business partner decided to sell in 2001 they approached the Nisners, who owned another function centre in Broadmeadow, to see if they were interested in taking the reins. “The day we came here (in 2001), I remember saying, ‘Sheryl, I don’t think I’m going to be interested in this place.’” John said. “We came up the driveway and I’m still going, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ Then Phil opened the door and greeted us and all of a sudden my mind changed straightaway. I saw the interior and I thought oh, yes, now I like it.”

Story Michelle Meehan, photography Joshua Hogan   

Read more in the Autumn issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.