Continuing our series on Melbourne’s fabulous past, this week we look at two wonderful and extravagant Mansions, their estates and history. Stonnington Mansion and Labassa Mansion – both quite different. And then there was the Wailing Wall.
The Wailing Wall is approximately 220m long rising up to 5.5m in its centre. Located on Flinders St Extension it was constructed in 1890. It represented the end of the Spencer St Railway’s Goods Yards. The wall of red, yellow and brown Hawthorn bricks stretches from the Flinders St Railway Viaduct near Spencer St, to a high point at the South end of Batemans Hill falling to the West and the entrance to the Spencer St Railway Yards and Goods Shed No. 2, which is still standing, preserved and used for Sunday markets. However the original entrance has gone, as has a portion of the wall.
To work on the wharves between 1900 and the 1940s, Labourers would line up on the South side of Flinders St, twice a day outside of the Stevedoring offices. Labourers were chosen on brute strength, and often compliance. Miss out and you were not permitted to mill around and often those missing out were forcibly moved on by the Police.
As a response, labourers walked across to the other side of the road to stand beneath the wall – the Wailing Wall – to wait for the next shift. No work meant no food, no rent, with many men driven to despair – hence the name ‘the Wailing Wall’, for these were indeed tough times.
But for the more successful members of the population at the time there was a life of rich reward. Take for example the partners who owned Cobb and Co Coaches in the late 19th Century – Alexander William Robertson (Labassa) and John Wagner (Stonnington). Both purchased and fully developed these beautiful mansions to live in and raise their families. Both men originally hailed from Canada. With Cobb and Co holding a virtual monopoly in Victoria on mailruns and staying one step ahead of the expanding Rail systems, the partners commanded significant fortunes. John Wagner also held major shareholdings in the Mt Morgan Gold Mining Company. Robertson held a large portfolio of Pastoral interests with the Goldsborough family which he married into. Robertson, a VRC committeeman, travelled extensively and was known to enjoy the finer things in life. His mansion in Caulfield ‘Labassa’ was certainly an expression of his expansive and extravagant taste and lifestyle.
Originally named Sylliot Hill, Robertson renamed it ‘Ontario’ when he purchased it in the 1880s. Formerly a modest country house, it was built for Melbourne judge Richard Billing in 1862.
Robertson had big plans. He commissioned the German born Architect John A B Koch to remodel the house into a 35 room mansion sitting on a 6 hectare site. It was to feature gilt embossed wallpapers, ornate and finely detailed stained glass feature windows and a unique and rare ‘trompe l’oeil’ ceiling (painted 3 dimensional mural). Robertson installed massive Caste Iron Gates, probably the equal of an English palace.
When he died the house was purchased by John Boyd Watson II, the heir to a Bendigo Mining fortune, a man of leisure who did not work. Watson died in 1920 and his wife sold the property and the beautiful home steadily deteriorated for the next 60 years. It became a virtual commune in the 1970s with its hippy tenants paying homage to Bohemia and ‘the age of free love’.
It was purchased by the National Trust in 1980 and has been faithfully restored with its magnificent verandahs, corinthian arches meeting the vision of Architect John Koch in its ‘French Second Empire’ style, its ornate plasters restored and grand staircases and trompe l’oeil ceiling in pride of place for all to see. Labassa is open every third Sunday of the month from 10.30am to 4.30pm except in December and January. Follow the link for more info: http://www.nationaltrust.org.au/places/labassa/
Labassa is of genuine architectural significance in that it is the most prominent example of a small number of houses built in Australia in what is known as the French Renaissance style. It is the most important surviving work of German Architect John A B Koch who also drew upon Hellenistic sources from his German training and background.
Located at 336 Glenferrie Rd Malvern, this house was actually built by Robertson’s Cobb and Co business partner John Wagner. Wagner engaged well known architect of the time Charles D’Ebro. Wagner lived there until his death in 1901 having built the house in 1890.
At the time of Federation, Parliament sat at the Victorian Parliament House (It did so until 1927). The Governor General of Australia was housed at Victoria’s Government House. The Victorian Governor General was housed at Stonnington from 1928 until 1931. It hosted many famous guests – Dame Nellie Melba, the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and Lady Baden Powell, Lord Kitchener, Sir John Monash, Keith Murdoch and Ernest Shackleton.
The Victorian Government had purchased the property in 1928. It leased it to St Margaret’s School from 1931 to 1938. In 1938 the Victorian Health Department used it as a polio hospital for children and during the Second World War, it was shared with the Red Cross who used it to assist the war wounded convalesce.
In 1957 it became the Toorak Teachers College. From 1962, the mansion was used only for administration. A new wing was completed in 1968. In 1991 the campus became part of Deakin University.
By 2006 the mansion and the attached campus were put up for sale. By 2007 the Mansion and its gatehouse and 3 acres were sold to Art Dealer Rodney Menzies for a reported $18 million for his use as a private residence. The final 17 hectare garden site was sold to Sydney developers in 2008. The former Stables, used as an Art Gallery were sold to the same Developers in 2009 for $4 million.
And so another grand and extraordinary building passed into a soft oblivion. Surrounded by units, townhouses and high density living.