Who lives in there?

By Peter Barrett
March 27, 2009

Come on a doorknock tour of Melbourne’s crumbling mansions.

Miles Lewis doesn’t drive. “Too dangerous,” says the architectural historian. He is so easily distracted by passing buildings that (for everyone’s sake) he refuses to get behind the wheel. “Public transport isn’t much safer, either,” he says. “I know of at least one academic who was hit by a bus stepping out on the road to take a photograph.” For some years, Lewis, 65, has been researching Melbourne’s mansions for a book. Today we are on the hunt for some of the lesser-known ones, crawling along Punt Road towards Kamesburgh House, a huge two-storey villa owned by Bayside City Council, in Brighton.

No doubt you’re familiar with names such as Como, Rippon Lea, Werribee Mansion and even Labassa. But tucked away in side streets, particularly in Brighton, South Yarra, Kew and Hawthorn, are many more grand homes you’ve probably never heard of. Some, such as Coonac in Clendon Road, Toorak (built in 1867 and bought by Toll Holdings boss Paul Little in 2002 for a reported $16 million) are immaculately kept residences for the wealthy; others look a bit frayed at the edges and are now used as apartments or private boarding houses.

We set off on our tour not quite knowing what will happen. Many of these buildings are now run by schools, institutions and religious orders, but plenty remain in private hands. Will they let us in when we come knocking?

In Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, just down the hill from Scotch College towards Riversdale Road, we wait outside a hulking, red brick mansion. We have just rung the bell. “This is Cestria, built for T. B. Guest, the biscuit manufacturer, from memory,” explains Lewis. “It’s very interesting because it’s one of the first examples of the American Romanesque in Australia. The architect, Kilburn, went on a trip to America, came back and built (the girls’ school) the Priory in St Kilda and then this house in this new style.”

There is a long wait while whoever is inside presumably tramps from one end of the house to the other. We look at the tower. Towers were mostly built to store tanks for increased water pressure, although many were simply status symbol additions. Cestria’s is impressive, but a clump of weeds growing from the guttering beside it hints that it may have seen better days.

Eventually, the heavy wooden door swings open to reveal an extremely tall, tattooed man dressed only in a pair of shorts. “Hello? Can I help you?” Stammered introductions ensue and once it’s clear we’re not trying to sell anything, the man welcomes us inside. We learn that the building is a private boarding house with room for up to 35 people. Our new friend, James Woodford, 34, is the caretaker and is pleased to make the professor’s acquaintance because he has spent the past few weeks wondering about the building’s history. Inside, it’s clear why. Parquetry floors in the entrance are cast in a rainbow of light from the ornate stained-glass window above the stairs. But this is a faded grandeur. Paint is peeling from the ceiling where a bathroom has leaked upstairs and, in Woodford’s office, probably once a drawing room, the walls are darkened by years of smoke and dirt; an old Ford Motor Company flag serves as a curtain and the extravagant wooden fireplace is complemented by televisions, kitchen utensils and a fridge.

After an entertaining tour through the rest of the house, we bid Woodford goodbye and return to our car, headed for a stop at the strikingly beautiful Italianate monster, Mandeville Hall in Toorak.

Melbourne can largely thank the 1880s building boom for our concentration of heritage mansions, although many were built even earlier. “We were the financial capital of Australia,” says Lewis of those times. “The boom was based on the pastoral industry, speculation and, in the case of Victoria, manufacturing because we had protection of native industries. We were sending iron bridges and goodness knows what elsewhere in Australia and overseas. Mining, especially quartz, also played a part in the boom.” The boom eventually went bust in 1891 and a significant depression followed (land speculators had subdivided too much and were overextended with foreign loans). The decade of “Marvellous Melbourne” was over, leaving behind a mansion legacy like no other city in Australia.

Back then, of course, these houses were built by extremely wealthy people when labour was cheap. A typical “modest” mansion would have had a manservant, maid and gardener. At the peak of the boom, Melbourne was flush with cash and at least one (rather bitchy) visitor from England noted that Melburnians seemed to have more money than they knew what to do with. In Richard Twopeny’s 1883 Town Life in Australia, he writes: “When this desire for grandeur has led them to furnish expensively, they are unable to furnish prettily, and usually feel much less comfortable in their drawing-room, in which they never set foot except when there is company, than when their chairs and tables were made by a working carpenter or with their own hands out of a few deal boards.”

Today, it’s another story. Keeping a mansion up and running is a labour of love that requires deep pockets, constant work and, above all, a burning passion for heritage. Werribee Mansion, completed in 1877 and now managed by Parks Victoria in partnership with the Accor management group, has an annual works budget of $80,000. It cost $25,000 to fix a leak in the building’s three-tiered tower in 2006 and $50,000 to replace 101 metres of the mansion’s original grand staircase carpet. For the past 18 years, the National Trust has been making a loss on Como House in South Yarra. Last year it was $134,286, which was actually an improvement on previous years.

In Brighton, architect Darren Overend, 64, and his wife Jennifer, 62, have slowly been restoring their 1881 Victorian mansion Chevy Chase, which is named after an old English ballad about a 14th-century battle between the Scots and the English (not after the American comedian). It originally cost $360,000 in 1979; Overend grew up in the same street and when they moved into the “house on the hill” they took on restoring a 24-room home that had been partly renovated and altered by previous owners and redecorated once.

Showing me around, Overend explains how he set about returning it, room by room, to its original condition, while living there with his large family (which at that time included his wife and three children, his mother and his former nanny). Thirty years later, he is still working on it. “You get to the point where rooms you have done need doing again,” he says of the handprinted wallpaper that was hung in the breakfast room 20 years ago. It cost $11,000; the wallpaper came from England. “It’s a bit like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge.”

Since he took over the two-storey house (on about 4000 square metres of land), he has had to make significant repairs to the roof twice (each slate tile costs $5 today), done a major rebuild of the completely rotten 45-metre, two-storey, cast-iron and timber veranda ($300,000, excluding Overend’s time for architectural plans) and more recently, has drilled 28 ventilation holes through the bluestone foundations to stem rampant rising damp. “I’ve got fantastic rising damp here,” he jokes, crouched down in the entrance hall by some decaying wallpaper.

Some owners go to extraordinary lengths. Anne and Michael Williams bought Shrublands in Canterbury for $3.6 million in 2003. The 1863-built, 42-room private house-turned-Anglican boys’ home was in a parlous state: ceilings had fallen in, the roof leaked and only one original marble fireplace remained.

Since then, the Williams family has lovingly restored the home. “I just absolutely love this house,” says Anne. When things go wrong – a new pipe leaks and damages a recently installed plaster ceiling, perhaps – she says it’s hard not to be affected emotionally. And financially. One ceiling alone cost $30,000 and, while basic painting cost $150,000 for the entire house, fine detailing and gold-leaf painting cost an additional $100,000. “I love history,” says Anne. “You can’t make this any more. Where would you get the bluestone? What about the columns?”

Warwick Forge, 67, has been more conservative with his 1888-built Hawthorn home, Friesia. The single-storey mansion was designed for the German consul, William Brahe, by architect John August Bernard Koch, who later designed the National Trust-owned Labassa in North Caulfield. Friesia was decorated in a way befitting a man of Brahe’s standing: German generals scowled down from the octagonal domed entrance hall and fine wallpapers adorned each room. During World War I, anti-German sentiments led to vandalism and looting – the generals’ faces were erased and eagles stolen from the parapets.

When Forge bought it for $49,000 with his first wife in 1970, the house had definitely seen better days. “It was totally derelict,” he says. “There was no electricity, no hot water, no internal toilet and you could see the sky through most rooms. We camped here the first night with candles.”

But Forge, a publisher and the director of the Australian Landscape Conference, a bi-annual landscape and garden design conference, says the house is structurally solid and costs have been surprisingly modest. He fixed the roof, rewired the electricity and performed other basic repairs. Indeed, the first thing some people say to Forge when they walk in is, “Gee, you’ve got your work cut out for you.” Forge doesn’t see it that way. There’s some peeling paint on the veranda and the palm out front is a bit wonky, but he loves the character that brings. “It’s a bit like people. Do you grow old gracefully or do you spend your life getting facelifts? It’s an old building. Why not enjoy it?”

Despite devoting a significant proportion of his 45-year career at the University of Melbourne to researching Melbourne mansions, Miles Lewis would not choose to live in one. “Mainly because I prefer simple modern architecture,” he says. “But I’m very glad that other people are prepared to spend their time and money in preserving (mansions) for my delectation.” Lewis is happy with his relatively modern Fitzroy house, explaining that the gaudy 1980s renovation on the street-front, done by previous owners, helps keeps the rates down.

Dressed in a dark shirt, red bow tie and beige-coloured pants, Lewis is polite and businesslike. You get the sense he doesn’t suffer fools easily and ticks me off when, for the second time, I make the mistake of attributing Melbourne’s mansion boom to the 1851 gold rush. His words tumble out in a slightly clipped English accent, slurring at the edges in the rush to more quickly express a thought. Lewis is a busy man. The week after our tour, he will host a conference on ties between Australian, American and Pacific architecture and soon he flies to Germany to deliver a paper on an obscure building technique, lehmwickel.

Lewis likens his job to that of a forensic investigator. He is interested in how buildings were made, who made them and the materials they used. So, as well as researching in libraries, you’ll find him out in the field, scraping paint off walls to examine under the microscope, trawling through old journals searching for tenders and scrambling over demolition sites to save scraps of wallpaper. His office at the university is lined with books and files, which he retrieves with remarkable energy and speed as we talk. Beside a desk crammed with scrolls of architectural plans and picture slides is a stack of what look like galvanised-iron sheets (they are iron tiles used in roofing, he corrects, having just published a paper in England on the subject).

He is the author of several books on architecture and building, including Don John of Balaclava, The Essential Maldon and the intriguingly titled Two Hundred Years of Concrete in Australia. His upcoming book on Melbourne’s mansions is a spin-off from research that began 15 years ago, when he received Australian Research Council funding to assemble a database on the subject. He now has collected information on “some hundreds” of mansions.

Lewis hopes to paint a picture of life at the height of Melbourne’s mansion boom: when tennis courts and ballrooms became popular, when there were protocols about accommodating servants, and books were written on how to build a house to protect silverware and wine and keep men separate from women.

Opposite Richard Pratt’s Raheen in Kew, the professor signals me to pull over and gestures to a stately building. “This was designed by Henry Kemp for Gibson of Foy & Gibson (the department store in Smith Street, Collingwood) and built in 1906. It’s called Dalswraith. This style is Old English. The stone section in the middle is quite unusual because stone private houses are pretty uncommon – I think it’s oamaru, a New Zealand stone. See the terracotta tiles on the roof? They’re Marseilles pattern tiles. And this has some very nice stained glass and a wonderful staircase, too.”

We ring the doorbell. Eventually, Father Lawrence Leonard welcomes us inside. The entrance hall is breathtaking, dominated by the elaborate blackwood staircase with its intricately carved griffins and a domed ceiling that is built internally into the pitched roof. Four windows are marked with a “G”, presumably a reference to the building’s original owner. The building became known as Campion Hall, operating first as a boarding house for nearby Xavier College and, more recently, a spiritual retreat and place of residence for elderly Jesuit fathers. Father Lawrence has a booklet that explains some of the history of the building and lets us get on with the job of poking around.

“Come on people, move along, move along. No gossip, Janet. Phyllis, stop talking.” A week later, the professor is back at Cestria in Hawthorn, hurriedly showing a busload of camera-snapping conference-goers around (he is already behind on a very tight schedule). Caretaker James Woodford is now dressed in a suit. Later, we find out he is concerned because the house is for sale. “It has to stay a community-based entity,” says Woodford, whose own house burnt down a few months ago. “It can take 35 tenants, so why not keep it that way?”

Will someone like Michael and Anne Williams come along and restore it? Or will it remain a boarding house, perhaps with a fresh lick of paint and a few repairs?

Cestria’s future, like many of these grand old homes, is uncertain, particularly given that Melbourne looks set to endure a bust similar to that in the 1890s. The mansion, at 521 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn, is set for a mortgagee auction in early April. Any takers? Only passionate heritage buffs need apply. (m)

Three mansions to visit

2 Manor Grove, Caulfield North
An extraordinarily lavish high Victorian masterpiece with Second Empire and Italianate influences. The struggle to maintain this unique house has been ongoing – it has faced subdivisions, conversions and was even boxed in by flats in the 1960s. The National Trust bought the property in 1980.
Open 10.30am to 4.30pm on the third Sunday of each month. Phone 9527 6295 or 9509 6596

Como House
corner Williams Road and Lechlade Avenue, South Yarra
Perhaps Victoria’s most intact example of a 19th-century estate mansion. The main facade remains largely unaltered and the lamp on the carriageway serves as a reminder that Como was one of the first houses in Melbourne to use gas and electricity.

In 1956, developers wanted to demolish the mansion and subdivide the park. The threat spurred Sir Daryl Lindsay, then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, architect Robin Boyd and others to found the National Trust and raise the #110,000 needed to save Como in 1959.
Open Daily 10am to 5pm. Phone 9827 2500

Rippon Lea
192 Hotham Street, Elsternwick
The successful politician and merchant Frederick Sargood named the mansion after his mother, Emma Rippon. As Sargood’s family grew and he prospered, Rippon Lea was extended to include 33 rooms. The property is significant for the extensive 19th-century basement kitchen complex, the range of bathrooms and the comprehensive 1930s entertainment complex, ornamental lake and a shade house that is the largest known in Australia. Open Daily 10am to 5pm. Phone 9523 6095

© Peter Barrett