When my parents where retired, (and younger than I am now), they sold their house and they bought a campervan. They strapped a couple of mini-motorbikes on the back and went, as you were supposed to, ‘around Australia’. We got postcards and reports from places they liked and stayed for a while, but by the time they got to Darwin in 1979, I think they were sick of each other in a small space. So they came home to Melbourne.
Their plan was to build a house in Diamond Creek near my sister and their grand kids but in the meantime they looked for jobs. Answering an advertisement for ‘Couple wanted, companion house-keeper for ageing lady, and maintenance – groundsman – gardener’, they ended up in a lovely 1920’s house on the Yarra River in Heidelberg. I can’t remember how long they were there but it seemed to be working well until the owner of the house, a comfortably wealthy widow, was in need of constant medical care. There’s a biographical entry about the owners here. It mentions the house as perhaps a later purchase.
I don’t know if I’d visited them before this but my mother requested I take some photographs of the house and interiors to remember it by. My jaw dropped as I stepped onto the hand-adzed floor in the front hallway. It was full of bespoke furniture, sculpture, Heidelberg School paintings and a couple of French impressionists. There were Norman Lindsay prints, and more than a few nudes. I remember it was a rushed shoot, while Mrs Foletta was away for a few hours and I only had one 36 exp roll of 200 ASA Ektachrome. So like most colour which I shot frugally at the time, there are few duplicates. I regret that now.
The house was, and probably still is, dark. Even opening all the curtains I was still photographing at shutter speeds of a second and half a second at times. Handheld, no tripod of course. So some shots are moved, others just plain out of focus but I think the feeling of an era comes through. There are comments attached to some of the images, and I welcome identification of the artwork – I noted Heysen, Roberts, and a Conder. I thought the nude photograph by the door was by Gordon DeLisle but if it was, that must have been a later purchase.
In the yard that stepped down to the river, were overgrown hot water heated greenhouses, one dedicated to orchids, another had some citrus I think. They had white painted glass mostly intact. The large kitchen was clearly made for catering. There was one wall of stainless full height doors that lead to walk-in refrigerated storage.
I’m still fixing a date to this, but certainly it was early 80s. In 1975 George Foletta’s biography Woven Threads was self published, telling of the history of the family company, Prestige Hosiery. I was given a copy, and a box of 16mm film mostly of the family holidays in Europe – (that’s headed for the ACMI archives.) The paintings, artworks and furniture were divided up between the relatives (they all had stickers on them that said who was to receive them). It was last sold in October 2003 for $1,050,000. It is estimated to be worth three times that today, even without the artwork and a river access.
The Victorian Heritage Database says a nearby house, Woburn, was built in 1911, (and could almost be a twin for the one I photographed from this description) ‘a large example of the half-timbered Arts and Crafts style, popular in the wealthier parts of Melbourne including Heidelberg and Ivanhoe in the early 20th century’. The large blocks of land that reached from the roadway to the Yarra River bank were opened for sale when the electric railway line was extended in 1901. Most, like this one, have now been subdivided losing the scale of a sloping bush block fronting the river.
The report says the Woburn house ‘is enhanced by its garden setting and intact interiors. It is of local historical importance and local architectural significance. Woburn is in an attic style, Tudor residence of timber construction, with Marseilles pattern tiled roofs. The half-timbered gables which face east and west, with their rough-cast rendering, are perhaps the main distinguishable elements of original 1912 section, each with large leadlight Tudor arched windows. The tapered, rendered chimneys appear to date from the 1920s or 30s alterations. Internally the major space is the upstairs billiard room which has an exposed truss ceiling (1912) whilst its counterpoint is at lower ground level at the south-west corner, where a fine 1930s interior was added with custom made lamp fittings and furnishing.
The front and rear gardens are diverse in character but the major original elements (conifers and palms) are discernible as is the terraced layout at the rear, fronting the river. A large Weeping Cherry is prominent in the front garden whilst on the western boundary, a large glass house has been built (1920-30s) at the rear.”