Standing proudly on a hill overlooking the Yarra River to the North, South Yarra to the West and South and Toorak to the East stands stately Como House.
Como House, situated in the City of Stonnington was constructed in 1847, owned by Sir Edwards Eyre Williams. Sir Edward was a Lawyer, Barrister and ultimately a Supreme Court Judge in the early colony, which at that stage was barely 2 years old. In 1852 it was sold to Frederick Dalgety, a well known investor. He in turn sold it to a Mr John Brown in 1853. Brown was a master builder. He accomplished a great transformation of the property, adding a second storey and creating the spectacular gardens and grounds under the direction of the renowned Landscape Designer and gardener Mr William Sangster. By 1861, Brown was broke, bankrupt and the mortgage foreclosed. Mr Charles Armytage purchased the property in 1864 for £14,000 (pounds). The Armytage family held possession until 1959 – 95 years in total – when it passed to the care of the then recently formed National Trust.
Described by the National Trust as ‘an intriguing mix of Australian Regency and classic Italianate Architecture, the property is one of the area’s, if not Melbourne’s, last surviving relics of the Gold Rush era. The former owners the Armytages were considered the pinnacle of high society for over a century and the property gives an excellent view and insight into their lives of privilege and comfort.
The current dining rooms and receptions still hold the furnishings provided by the Armitage family. With its Historic Ballroom, its fountains and its gardens it remains a popular venue for weddings and events – only 5km from the Melbourne CBD.
The Kitchen wing on the Western side dates back to the 1840s. The Ballroom wing on the East side was constructed in the 1870s, supervised by Architect Arthur Johnson, when extensions were added. Internal woodwork is cedar whilst the floors are teak. Very few changes have occurred since the 1870s so the building is a microcosm of life for the wealthy few of the 19th Century. Not surprisingly, the Armytage family were successful pastoralists. For many years the house was the centre of social activity for Melbourne’s elite. The ballroom floor was one of the first sprung timber floors in the colony, with chains being used as springs to ensure a smooth and pliable dance floor.
Servant’s quarters were set away from the main house.
The house itself is surrounded by verandahs with cast iron balustrading and a parapeted tower at the rear. The ground floor verandah with timber arcading and cast-iron pickets is unusual yet the finished image is that of a most atypical verandah.
Architect Arthur Johnson was a most talented architect, also working on the Melbourne General Post Office, Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the Melbourne Law Courts. He was Charles Armytage’s brother in law. Charles Armytage married Caroline, and they raised their ten children at Como. Charles died in 1909. Daughters Constance, Leila and Laura lived on at Como with Constance and Leila facilitating the sale to the National Trust in 1959. It was the first house purchased by the National Trust and the sisters ensured that the Trust maintained the original integrity of their family seat. All furniture and the complete contents were sold to the Trust including an extensive archive of diaries, letters, journals and photographs. It is this social context and history that brings Como to life.
Caroline Armytage was a pioneering woman who taught her own children along with those of Fulham Station’s (their original property near Geelong) workers and the indigenous children as well. She needed to be independent and an effective manager. In her Forty Forth year, Charles died, aged 52 of Pancreatic cancer leaving her to manage the family’s large portfolio of properties and investments. She also had nine children aged from 9 upwards to raise having lost her youngest to Diptheria in 1872.
This was a grand estate covering 54 acres (21.9 hectares) with a large staff of servants. The property was greatly reduced after Caroline’s death and the settlement of her will.
The estate was subdivided into 64 allotments. The remaining house and garden was purchased by Mr John Buchan on behalf of the three Armytage sisters Ada, Laura and Leila. [The auction took place on the 25th of February 1911]
In 1921, the Armytage family sold 35 acres of Como’s river frontage. Only 5 acres remained of the house and garden. But it is Melbourne’s extremely good fortune that this wonderful property survived the excesses of modernity and was saved by the National Trust.
This time we will let pictures describe the beauty of the building, its grounds, gardens and history.
What is happening now in Victoria is not dissimilar to the vandalism and wanton destruction of the 1950s when the National Trust first came into existence to protect our precious heritage, identifying heritage homes and ensuring their preservation through either purchase or classification..
Its time again now to further refine and strengthen our protections on the architectural heritage and rich history of Melbourne and Greater Victoria. We must guard carefully the remaining treasures.
Balance Architecture fully supports the National Trust and the Heritage Council of Victoria in their endeavours to protect our precious buildings and history.
You can visit Como House from Friday to Sunday between 10am and 3pm or book a tour. [The house is closed this weekend 11/12 November]. Go to the National Trust site and click on Como House for further detail.