South Yarra 3141 – Unpacking The History Of Two Stonnington Icons
In a booming suburb with impressive homes, new and old, at every turn, we’ve decided to identify two of the most significant and iconic buildings in South Yarra, in this unique edition of Melbourne’s Most Magnificent Streetscapes.
6-18 Avoca Street – ‘Lee Terrace’ c.1890
Tucked around the corner from the thriving buzz in Toorak Road, Avoca Street highlights the most marvellous line of seven Victorian terraces. Number 6-18 Avoca Street is a row of highly significant two and three-storey homes that remain with their impressive original detail to this day. Back in the 19th century, Melbourne’s first city organist David Lee owned the land that had a 100 feet frontage to Avoca Street and a depth of 150 feet along Station Street. By 1889, he had invited the eminent architects Wilkinson and Permewan to provide tenders for the construction of seven large brick houses on the lot. Wilkinson and Permewan were responsible for the design of many notable buildings throughout Victoria including the Eaglehawk and Castlemaine Town Halls. The seven terraces in Avoca Street were completed by 1890, with high-ranking civilians including a surgeon, agent and mining manager moving in. The corner and most famous house of the lot at number 6 known as Waterloo was occupied by Lee and his wife up until her death.
Fronted by narrow gardens, the terraces are in Victorian Italianate style. As Avoca Street descends away from Domain Road, the homes are distinct in their height. No. 18 enters on the ground floor while no.6 enters on the first floor (or elevated ground floor) and gets a full basement level underneath, unique for a home of its time.
The façade is made up of rendered rising from footings of rock faced bluestone. Originally enjoying hipped slate roofs, the homes now feature corrugated iron. What makes this group stand out so much is the unique design issued within each home, yet there’s connected formation. The two terraces on either end sit forward towards the street in a symmetrical fashion.
Still to this day, there’s no doubt that number 6 stands out, as was likely the initial plan as the home for the owner David Lee. The presence from Toorak Road, the curved cast iron verandah with staircase and a fetching corner oriel bay window is an irresistible impression. Interestingly, the remarkable residence has changed hands many times over the past couple of decades, with five announced sales within that time frame. It recently sold again in February 2023, this time for a new record price of $7.5 million. Presenting in elegant and pristine fashion, the recent sale had approved architectural plans accompanying the sale, to transform the landmark home. The home has grown significantly in value over the century, with a sale just tipping over $1.7 million in 2003 and landing right on $5 million in 2016.
Corner Williams Road and Lechlade Avenue – ‘Como House c.1847
Accurately described as the National Trust’s jewel in the crown, Como House (and associated gardens) in the City of Stonnington and suburb of South Yarra is undisputedly one of Melbourne’s most iconic residences. Resting on 6.5 acres approx. of magnificent gardens, while enjoying an elevated position overlooking Como Park and the Yarra River, Como House now serves as a tourist attraction under the power of the Natural Trust of Australia.
Constructed in 1847, Como House is a particularly stately combination of Australian Regency and Italianate Victorian proudly showing its superb symmetry, a distinctive verandah, scores of wrought iron, classic details and grand proportions. The interiors remain mesmerising and offer a rare example of late Georgian style architecture in Victoria.
Como House was initially owned by supreme court judge – Sir Edward Eyre Williams. Williams owned the home for five years before selling it to renowned investor – Frederick Dalgety. One year late, he sold it to master builder – Mr John Brown. Brown completed great works on the property which included a new ballroom and consulted expert landscape designer and gardener – Mr William Sangster to reinvent the grounds. At the time, the land occupied was some 53 acres bound to Toorak Road and all the way to the banks of the Yarra River, with a swamp on the edge of the river and partly cleared land throughout. Sangster designed a five acre formal pleasure garden with exotic trees and borrowed views of the river. Business concerns in 1864 led to Brown’s bank selling Como House to Charles Armytage for 14,000 pounds. The Armytage family would hold the home for 95 years, up until 1959 when it passed the grand dame into the hands of the National Trust. The estate was divided up over its time in the hands of the Armytage family, most notably in 1921 when the Armytage’s sold 35 acres of the river frontage and retained the allotment that is still seen today.
Retaining many of the original monuments and elegant dressings owned by the Armytage family, Como House offers a rare insight into the opulent lifestyle of the long-time owners. With very few changes from its 19th century origins, the detail and ornamentation present as a true standout compared to surrounding period homes, highlighted by the ballroom with its Teak floors, Cedar woodwork and a sprung framework to allow for the dancing parties. The home was famous among the local high society for its large-scale events and celebrations. In recent years, illustrious landscape designer Paul Bangay has partnered with the National Trust’s Garden Team to work on the famous grounds, even drawing on inspiration from William Sangster’s diary notes from back in 1862.
A popular venue for weddings and ceremonies today, Como House is now open to the public offering guided tours, free use of the glorious gardens and access to the reimagined Stables of Como café. It’s a fine example of how heritage advocacy organisations and councils, such as the National Trust, can make a lasting difference to a suburb. As without the heritage overlay, the land may well have been subdivided and our history lost.