Mansions in Transition – Art at Burnham Beeches

Last week’s article provoked considerable discussion as to the financial viability of some of the stately old homes that to some extent have been permitted to become somewhat derelict and rundown. Abandoned as habitable homes, the effect of the elements and time take an exacting revenge on such buildings.

In comments last week we suggested that such buildings need ‘big ideas’ and well devised business plans and strategies. Without doubt, most would qualify for some form of assistance via the Heritage Fund, but equally it’s no point simply focussing on the restoration, without a sensible usage plan upon completion.

In England, many stately homes have been restored and have been ‘put to purpose’. Many become art galleries, five star hotels or are simply funded by the National Trust as unique heritage buildings maintained in working order.

In Australia we do not seem to apply the same values as universally to our historic buildings. It is often the individual vision and ability of the buildings owner/s that manage to save and re-purpose a site.

Burnham Beeches provided such a conundrum. Built in 1933 by Alfred Nicholas of the ‘Aspro’ Nicholas business empire, it has seen a series of iterations – from research facility, children’s hospital to luxury hotel. See previous blog on Burnham Beeches

More recently, street artist ‘Rone’ was approached by one of the current owners to consider an installation. Rone accepted and the results were simply stunning.

You can read more about it here and view some of the images…

Street artist Rone transforms Melbourne mansion Burnham Beeches in his installation Empire


Everything from the wallpaper to the dust has been brought in for the project

Surrounded by trees at the end of a windy, shaded drive, a long-abandoned Art Deco mansion has just undergone a makeover.
Rather than “a new lease on life”, however, this elegant dame has been brought down at the heel — deliberately, by Melbourne street artist Rone aka Tyrone Wright.

It’s not the first time Wright has taken over an abandoned site; he has become known for his murals of women’s faces in buildings marked for demolition.

Empire is the first time he’s been given a building in its prime — albeit for just six weeks.

Imagined decay

Burnham Beeches, built in 1933, is located in Sherbrooke, about an hour’s drive from Melbourne.

Originally the home of industrialist Alfred Nicholas and his family, it later served as a research facility, a children’s hospital, and a luxury hotel.

It hasn’t been open to the public for more than 20 years.

Wright first heard about it when one of the building’s owners (celebrity chef Shannon Bennett) suggested he use it as a canvas.

The artist was immediately drawn to the building’s atmosphere.

“It’s almost like a ship in the forest — the shapes of it are just beautiful.”


There are plans to turn the 1930s Art Deco mansion into a luxury hotel.

“I already kind of romanticised what it would look like on the inside, and when I came in I was almost disappointed that there was nothing here,” he recalls.

“It was totally stripped out and it was more of a construction site. There were old Herald Suns from like 1993 folded up … [it was] like a tradie hangout at the moment when they were just about to start a renovation.”

Treating the building like a “blank slate”, Wright set about recreating his imagined vision of its interiors.

The result is a haunting picture of abandoned opulence, housing “hundreds, if not thousands” of objects, from chandeliers and a grand piano to vintage shampoo bottles.


Objects like this tower of champagne glasses draw the viewer around the space.

Wright describes it as “a kind of open-house viewing” that gives you a glimpse of the life of an imagined family, and foments a sense of mystery around why they might have left.

“I didn’t want to try to tell a historical story of the space because I’m only going to get it wrong,” he explains.

“This is more a fantasy story than it is a documentary.”

An elaborate construction

Empire is Rone’s most ambitious project to date: a 12-month endeavour involving custom-made fittings, heritage consultants, creative collaborators — and a “monstrous” amount of paperwork.

The wallpaper has been custom-designed and printed, the ceilings have been transformed with a patina that looks like black mould, and even the “dust” (which is actually ash from the cafe on the property) has been artfully arranged. It almost looks too real — at first glance, it might even look au naturel.

But then you see the piece de resistance: the “library”. The most elaborate of the rooms in the project, this one has been flooded in a difficult operation that had to be done twice — because it leaked the first time.


The house’s “library” sits inside a glass case flooded with inky water.

Throughout the house, various objects distract and draw the eye thanks to interior stylist Carly Spooner.

The team spent days collecting greenery from Burnham Beeches’ gardens. Autumn leaves are piled up in corners, grass seems to sprout out of couch cushions, and in some rooms trees look to be springing out of the walls.

In the hallway, branches have been intertwined overhead to create a dark, atmospheric tunnel.

“It looks like nature is starting to come back and take over the building once again,” says the artist.

“Walking around this property and driving up here [you see] how important nature is to the area … you could see this place just being engulfed if it was left for another few decades.”


Rone says the beauty of his murals is enhanced by their crumbling surrounds.

Rone’s signature portraits of aloof women haunt the walls, besieged by peeling wallpaper.

The finishing touches are an evocative soundscape, by composer Nick Batterham, and a custom scent designed by Kat Snowden.

Visitors are given a map upon entry and encouraged to wander at will.

Fragile beauty

Wright hopes Empire’s impermanence will add to its appeal — much like street art.

“I think that’s something with street art and graffiti … you have to go see it now while it lasts because it could be gone tomorrow — and that’s what makes it exciting,” he says.

“I kinda hope this whole project has that same energy.”


Although Burnham Beeches will be stripped of Empire when the exhibition is over, Wright hopes the work will live on once plans to transform the building into a hotel (described on the website as “Australia’s first 6-star luxury retreat”) come to fruition.

“We’ve scanned the whole installation in 3D — it’s almost like a Google street view that we can integrate into an augmented reality,” he says.

“So in the future, I hope … you’ll be able to walk around the hotel and see [on your phone] what was once here.”

It’s a new way to experience his paintings, which he feels are enhanced by the ruins that surround them.

“There’s that fragileness of something that’s just about to fall apart that kind of makes it more beautiful.”


Part of gaining acceptance for any proposed renovation requires public awareness of the building and property as well as an understanding of what in fact makes it unique and worthy of preservation.

Exercises like Rone’s Installation profile what is a beautiful building and bring it into sharp focus. It raises awareness of the property and its unique heritage features.

For Governments this is a rather tricky proposition. Investing in our heritage can be confused with subsidising property developers.

It again comes down to a fresh appraisal of what our heritage values are, what we as a population are prepared to invest in and what such investments mean for the state.

Currently the Victorian State Government is heavily invested in PPP projects in the education arena. Many new schools are currently being built under what is known as the Public Private Partnerships model. There is no reason this scheme could not be expanded to include Heritage Preservation, Restoration and Re-purposing.

Current PPP projects also include the major infrastructure developments such as:

  • North East Link
  • Northern Roads Upgrade
  • South Eastern Roads Upgrade

These are currently under procurement.

Other contracted projects include

  • Ballarat North Water Reclamation
  • Barwon Water Biosolids Management Project
  • Bendigo Hospital
  • Royal Melbourne Showgrounds Redevelopment

There are another 27 projects currently utilising the scheme with an overall project value of $30.1 billion in capital investment.

It’s time to push the boat out on Heritage protection and restoration. The major advantage is that the larger projects will ultimately return a significant revenue to both the promoters and the State Government – the people of Victoria. It’s time to rethink, re-purpose and re-use.

Let’s foster and protect the character of our state through its many superb buildings and outstanding properties.

Heritage – it’s here to stay, if we choose. Time for some action, legislation and clever policy. It’s not too late.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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