After the COVID Lockdown, Armagh Reopens to Community

Thursday, November 26, 2020


In any regular week, this early 20th-century building hums with activity. People come and go through a glass door round the back, marked ‘Office.’ Staff and volunteers climb the short flight of stairs to their work stations. Some head downstairs to the dining or ballroom spaces, where community groups and companies hold meetings. In the front reception rooms, a weekly meditation group may sit in silence, an occasional murmur or rustle the only giveaway of their presence. In the industrial kitchen, cooks from a local non-profit group may be at work assembling food packs. The aroma and sizzle of spices fill the air.

All that changed in March 2020, when the state of Victoria imposed a general lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. Staff worked at home. Community meetings moved online. And Armagh fell silent.

“It was pretty weird,” said Nigel Heywood, one of five in-house residents during the long months of lockdown. “In a sense, we’ve hardly been busier, because so much was taking place online, on the phone, on Zoom. But we couldn’t have people over.”

Wendy Vanderleest, centre manager, saw opportunity in the restrictions. “It was the perfect opportunity to deal with some of the pending maintenance issues,’ she said.

Armagh library with new carpet laid. November 2020.Picture by Nigel Heywood.Plumbing problems had resulted in some bathroom-related floods over the years, which had spilled downstairs, leading to deterioration of Armagh’s reception room carpet. The garden, always a work in progress, had languished under the COVID lockdown, as regular gardeners were unable to come in. And the 1970s-era dining room extension—possibly the most heavily used space in the home—was showing its age.

With the IofC Assets Committee, Wendy began the various jobs to be done. Some rooms were stripped, and their furniture stacked in other rooms. October was a big month, when lockdown restrictions eased in Melbourne. With tradespersons able to come on site at last, the pace ramped up. Quotes were sought for bathroom refurbishments. Painting happened. New carpet was laid.

Outdoors, landscapers began cleaning up, mulching, and replanting, and have installed an irrigation system and timers. Bowerbird Gardens, a social enterprise that works with locally-sourced recycled materials, reconstructed the timber garden steps.

A ‘neighbourhood house’ for the Asia-Pacific regionThe Armagh 'New Dining Room' after refurbishment. November 2020.Picture by Nigel Heywood

Armagh was gifted to Initiatives of Change Australia (IofCA, then known as Moral Re-Armament) in 1956. In the 1960s, individuals in the business community decided to offer practical assistance as a way to support IofCA’s community-building work. They formed the Friends of Armagh group, which fundraised to meet the ongoing needs, such as replacement of worn-out fittings.

The group continues its work to this day. ‘It was Friends of Armagh who made the dining room refurbishment possible,’ Wendy explained. New lights, block-out curtains, and artwork are now being installed. The adjacent courtyard space has had a clean-up, and barbecues are planned for the summer months.

Armagh Guest Bedroom after refurbishment. November 2020.Picture by Nigel HeywoodBefore COVID, Armagh played multiple functions as office space, a venue for community activities, and short-term accommodation for domestic and overseas visitors from IofC’s network. Volunteer exchanges around campaigns and special events have always been a feature of IofC’s work. Most recently in 2019, three young people from India, Indonesia, and Zimbabwe each spent time volunteering at Armagh as partners in IofC’s ‘PeopleCraft’ program, which supports training and exposure visits.

With the benefit of a fresh new look, the small staff team at Armagh plans to rebuild program momentum. Paul Ntoumos, who chairs IofCA’s board, looked forward to welcoming back the community groups and activities that previously operated from the building.

‘We think of Armagh as a neighbourhood house for the Australia-Pacific region,’ he said. ‘And we hope this “house cleaning” makes space for a new vitality.’

  • Depending on COVID rules, in 2021 we anticipate being able to welcome back partners who previously used Armagh. For the latest news on availability, please contact Wendy Vanderleest.