Surviving Victorian Era Architecture in Melbourne

Many beautiful homes and estates were demolished and the grounds subdivided in the mid to late 20th Century. But fortunately we still have some superb and magnificent properties still intact, generally with all the features still functional and on display.

The National Trust by the 1980s and 1990s in both Sydney and Melbourne had managed to gain Government’s ear and attention and many beautiful homes were preserved and saved from the demolition hammer. The best known of these was Rippon Lea in Elsternwick.

Before we address this wonderful, iconic property there are two very salient points that in my mind strongly influenced this change of attitude and ultimately the cessation of wholesale, unlimited destruction and demolition.

Firstly, the notorious Builders Labourers Federation introduced Green Bans on what many considered simply untouchable, priceless heritage. In Sydney many of the oldest buildings of the original colony were saved by Jack Mundey in the early 1970s. Mundey was made a life member of the Australian Conservation Foundation in the 1990s. Jack is still an active fighter in preserving such significant buildings and sites of architectural significance.

In Melbourne it is still a little known or remembered fact that BLF Green Bans saved the historical icons such as the Melbourne City Baths, Macs Hotel and the Windsor Hotel.

They refused to allow building on parkland in Carlton and they most certainly saved the Regent Theatre and the Victorian Market from demolition and becoming just another fading memory for Victorians.

Norm Gallager was the ultimate ‘colourful character’ but give him his due – he spent 13 days in gaol over the Carlton parkland issue…

The second factor was actually raised by a poster last week – Whelan the Wrecker. The original wrecking company were placed in Administration at the time of the 1989 Recession. The compnay board were loyal to their staff and suppliers – when ‘attacked’ by their bankers, the family made sure all employees were paid their entitlements and all other creditors covered and payed out. But it was the end of an era. The Whelan team were very competent wreckers. They ran a large yard in Sydney Rd, Brunswick and were fully equipped to do very efficient work. The business was sold to another smaller wrecking company and the yard sold up with its building on Sydney Rd. A large selection of masonry and stone pieces were donated back to the City of Melbourne for display from old buildings that had been demolished. These can be viewed at the Nicholson St Entrance to the Exhibition buildings. Whelans changed direction and began a different business in waste management.

The  Rippon Lea Estate

Consisting of 11 hectares (or 26 acres), the estate was located about 8 kilometres from the CBD of Melbourne, in what was then rural Elsternwick.

It was constructed for Sir Frederick Sargood in 1868. He was a wealthy businessman, a philanthropist and a politician.

Originally it was a two storey, 15 room house with a massive garden (purely for pleasure) as well as vegetable gardens and glasshouses. A large manmade lake supplied water to the extensive grounds and by the late 1870s the property had now been extended to approximately 18 hectares (45 acres).

Sir Frederick Sargood died in 1903. His family lived there until then.

In 1897 the house was extended to the north and a tower was added.

Architect Joseph Reed was influenced by the architecture of the Lombardy region in Northern Italy. The style of the finished house was said to be ‘polychromatic romanesque’!

Lighting was all electric with the house having its own generators. This was extraordinary for the period. A full time electrician maintained the system and it included a bell system to the servants quarters to summon help as required.

On Sargood’s death the house was sold to a consortium of developers who planned to subdivide. The house remained empty for over 6 years. The developers sold off the orchards and ‘paddocks’ during this time. However the head of the consortium Sir Thomas Bent died and the remaining property was put up for sale – again.

This time it was purchased by Ben and Agnes Nathan, owners of the Maples Furniture stores of Melbourne. They lived there to the time of their death in 1935, when daughter Louisa inherited it along with a legacy of 1 million pounds. By now Elsternwick was well and truly a suburb of Melbourne.

Louisa (Mrs Timothy Jones) a leading Melbourne socialite of the 1930s undertook extensive remodelling and renovation. It was for all intents and purposes a ‘Hollywood’ makeover and to a large extent erased many Victorian era features.

She demolished the old Victorian Ballroom, constructed a new ballroom and swimming pool, a lavish new kitchen and closed up the original basement kitchen and service areas. By default this preserved the original wine cellars, cool rooms and basement kitchen with its very large fuel stove.

Part of the property was compulsorily acquired by the ABC in 1956 to establish Television studios there for the 1956 Olympics. After the Government tried to acquire a further section of the property, Mrs Jones eventually agreed that to maintain her full property she would ultimately bequeath the entire estate to the National Trust. The property was conjoined again in 1972 upon her death and was thus forever saved from the Developers and the wreckers hammers.

The property remains a rare example of a 19th Century grand estate – with intact kitchens, ornamental lake, Iron laced fernery, cool stores, cellars and stables. It is well worth a visit or if you are fortunate enough you may get to enjoy the sublime luxury of a grand wedding or event in the 1939 ballroom addition, currently leased by Peter Rowland Catering.

Next week we will visit Rupertswood in Sunbury, Stonnington Mansion in Malvern and D’Estaville in Kew. Oh and Melbourne’s ‘Wailing Wall’. For now ‘au revoir’.

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