North Park is an extraordinary example of an early Melbourne mansion, a grand property that to this day remains in relatively pristine heritage condition. For those amongst you who may have missed our original posted blog on the property back in April of 2018, we reprint it here…
North Park Mansion is built upon ‘the highest point in Essendon’. The land was purchased in 1887 by Mr Alexander McCracken for the sum of 5000 pounds. Architects Oakden, Addison and Kemp designed the house for Mr McCracken, and Mr D Sinclair built the rather grand home, described as being in the Queen Anne revival style.
Alexander McCracken was described as ‘a brewer and a sportsman’. He had joined the family brewery firm ‘McCrackens’ as a junior partner in 1884.
The crash of the 1890s all but destroyed the company. It did however keep trading, avoiding liquidation. In May 1907 McCrackens and five other brewing firms became a merged company – known as Carlton and United Breweries. Alexander McCracken was made a director.
McCracken was the genial spokesman for the brewing industry from early in his career in 1891 through until his death in 1915. The irony? He died from cirrhosis of the liver.
During his lifetime he was President of the Essendon Football Club and then the first President of the Victorian Football League. He raced horses with some success and indulged in a myriad of other activities in the region of Essendon – all manner of sports, debating and a keen interest in poultry, pigeons and canaries.
In 1915, his widow sold off the remaining North Park Estate lands – only the Mansion and six acres remained. The Mansion was first sold to Mr Harvey Patterson, a BHP executive. In turn Mr Patterson on sold it to its current owners – the Columban Order – a Catholic Church Missionary Order.
The house is built utilising Red Northcote Bricks, Sandstone from Waurn Ponds (near Geelong), Basalt from Malmsbury and roofing tiles imported from Marseilles in France.
As previously mentioned this rather elaborate home was constructed in a Queen Anne Revival Style – red bricks for the walls and timbering with rough cast in the gables, orange terracotta tiles, ornamental barge boards, decorative finials and chimneys and ornate glazing.
It was in fact a riot of architectural styles, a combination of Scottish Baronial, French, Victorian and Tudor. Or perhaps ‘Tudor with modifications’. By all accounts it was truly the home of a big spending, articulate brewer – Alexander McCracken. A spacious ballroom, since converted to be a chapel, was added in the early 20th Century. The Columban Order added a new wing in 1966 and an office building replaced the original stables in 1968. The Coach House is substantially retained. And stranger than fiction – from 1923 onwards, it has been a virtual monastery. The building was added to the Victorian Heritage Register in 1997 – for both the building and its ‘gardenesque style’.
“The former North Park is architecturally important in demonstrating a high degree of creative achievement, being a pioneering example of the Queen Anne Revival domestic architecture in Australia. This style became the dominant expression in Australian domestic architecture in the decades immediately before and after 1900. The house is architecturally important for its use of imported Marseilles terracotta roof tiles in possibly their first application in Australia. Made by the French company, Guichard Carvin de Cie, St Andr, these unique tiles feature the firm’s signature bee imprint. The interior is architecturally important for its rich decoration including multi-coloured pressed metal ceilings, plaster friezes, timber panelling, encaustic tiling and elaborate stained and coloured glass. Other important extant detail includes ornate door knobs and push plates, and gas light hardware. Three ornately carved chairs in the entrance hall dating from the McCracken ownership are important for their continued association with the house.”
“The grounds of North Park are of aesthetic importance as an outstanding example of the gardenesque style and for the unusual three curved terraces, wide drive, garden path remains, and the evergreen trees and large conifers which contribute to the picturesque profile of the overall composition. The circular fish pond (disused) with its central figurine fountain and random rubble base is of unusual design and an important garden element now uncommon in Victoria. The location of this structure opposite the ballroom bay window is an important design feature. The cast iron gates, fence and hand gate supported by dressed bluestone are of an outstanding design, with particularly large spears and large scale iron members. The coach house and gardener’s shed are important contributions to the interpretation of a late nineteenth century large house and garden.” source: vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au
‘North Park’ is an extremely interesting ornate building with cast iron features, ornate stone and brickwork and lavish stained glass windows. It has remained remarkably intact since the Columban Order purchased the property in 1923.
The grounds are particularly unique and herein lies the major problem. The Columban Order has seemingly been given some misinformed advice. Their quest to build 25 townhouses on part of the gardens is at odds with the Victorian Heritage Council’s assessment of the grounds and the gardens.
The estate grounds retain much of its original form, with a sweeping drive from the front gates on Woodland Street and the front of the house overlooking three curved terraces which are symmetrical about a central axis with the main towered entrance. The planting is a fine example of the Gardenesque style developed by John Claudius Loudon (1783 – 1843) in the early Nineteenth Century to display plants for their individual beauty. The grounds contain many mature trees which were planted when “North Park” was first constructed including; a pair of Himalayan Cedars, cypress trees, palm trees (almost as tall as the house itself) and a huge Moreton Bay Fig. All are surrounded by beds full of perennials which border a number of terraced lawns.
The Property is now under threat. From The Age dated August 25th…
Catholic mission faces fight over plan to ‘carve up’ Essendon mansion
A residents’ group is opposing a Catholic mission’s multimillion-dollar plan to sell off its 19th century Essendon mansion and build a home for old priests in the grounds.
The St Columban’s Mission Society has applied to Heritage Victoria and Moonee Valley Council for permits to subdivide the grounds of North Park mansion.
Proceeds from the sale of the heritage-listed 132-year-old mansion and most of its grounds will fund a $10 million office and apartments for Catholic priests.
The society plans to sell 90 per cent of the 20,000-square metre property, including the mansion.
It is seeking planning approval for 25 townhouses on some of that land.
On the 2000 square metres the society will retain, it plans to build a three-storey building to house its offices, and 16 apartments for elderly priests to live in.
The society’s regional bursar Michael Mooney said more than $10 million of the (estimated before the COVID-19 pandemic) $18 million proceeds of the mansion and land sales would fund construction of the new office and apartment building for priests.
The remainder would go towards the society’s work with disadvantaged people in 15 countries including Peru, Myanmar and the Philippines.
But a local residents’ group, Save North Park, objects to the site being ”carved up” and wants governments to buy the site for community use.
Spokesman Michael Whelan said it could be a cultural hub like Abbotsford Convent.
He called on the community “to rally as one and object to the proposed plans and for the community to have an active role in the future of this property”.
A Saint Columbans Mission Property Association report, which is part of the application to the council, described the mansion as “not suitable for Columbans in retirement”.
The priests’ current mansion rooms were “boarding house style” with single bedrooms, not all with ensuite, and meals taken in a common dining area.
However each flat in the new building would have two bedrooms, a bathroom, living area, and kitchen.
They would enable residents to entertain and have family over.
“This has become the norm elsewhere, for example, for retiring Catholic priests,” the report says.
The Save North Park group, however, proposes either a reduction in what it calls “excessive development” of the site, or “ideally for the entire site to be purchased by government to make it a place for all to enjoy”.
“We do not want to see this valuable asset carved up, obscured and diminished,” the group said in a statement.
The group opposes the proposed removal of 97 trees, which sustain animals such as possums, bats and magpies.
The mansion, built in 1888 for brewer and inaugural VFL president Alexander McCracken, has been owned by the St Columbans order since 1923.
The Victorian Heritage Register listing describes a “large, two-storey, picturesque residence” in the Queen Anne Revival style, set on Essendon’s highest point.
Members of the public can make submissions to Moonee Valley council [LINNK: https://mvcc.vic.gov.au/my-council/major-developments/45-69-woodland-street/%5D, however a date has not been set for deliberation on the matter.
The property must remain intact and complete. For its north western location, it’s right up there with some of Melbourne’s other grand old mansions such as Werribee Park and Banyule House – It’s an intricate piece of the city’s Architectural history and as such must be preserved.
For this reason, Balance Architecture supports the ‘Save North Park’ Group and will strive to assist them in their endeavours to preserve the full property as an intact entity
There have been numerous occasions over the last 120 years where Church bodies have simply destroyed beautiful heritage homes without consequence. In recent years, the St Vincent’s Orphanage development in South Melbourne and the St Vincent’s Hospital Development project in Fitzroy are two prime examples of this.
In this case, with the North Park Mansion to be sold, it would seem that with the financial return envisaged, there is little or no reason the 25 planned townhouses could not be built elsewhere to accommodate the needs of the priests.
The Heritage Listing is quite clear so it would appear most unlikely that the proposed development of a 3 storey impediment to the panoramic view of Melbourne’s skyline and the inherent destruction of the ‘Gardenesque’ grounds admired in the listing have any chance of successfully being challenged by the Colomban Society for a waiver of the Heritage Listing or its intent.
But stay tuned for further updates. This will likely be a battle, unless common sense prevails. No doubt the building will appeal to many possible suitors. However, will they respect the heritage? It’s a difficult situation.
(Footnote: The author’s father restored the gardens at North Park in the late 1950s and early 1960s)