Stephen Crafti gets invited into a highly original restoration of a landmark Victorian home.
The wrong owners could have easily get their hands on this imposing Victorian home located in the leafy Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn. A developer eyeing the property with the intention of pulling it down was overheard asking the question ‘do you think we’d get permission?’ by one of the son’s of interior designer Caecilia Potter, director of Atticus & Milo, who purchased the home with partner James Smeermdijk. “Given the heritage listings, that wouldn’t have been possible,” says Potter. “But why would you even entertain such thoughts?”
Thought to be designed by well-known architect John Beswick, responsible for Raheen in Kew and numerous homes and civic buildings in the locale, the house is one of those buildings that everyone, both near and far, is eager to inspect. Avant-garde for its day, circa 1890, the grand two two-storey red brick and stucco home is a landmark, with French empire-style circular windows and gables. The circular driveway, now complete with a decorative fountain and manicured garden beds, beckons visitors to the front door. “When we first saw the house and garden, it was in a fairly sad condition. Apart from the driveway, the garden had been neglected. While structurally sound, the interior was also in a fairly sorry state,” Potter explains.
Although the couple, with their two sons, was looking at moving closer to the city, they had just seen the extraordinary film Blessed, a social realistic masterpiece by Ana Kokkinos. One of the film sets included this house, where one character, an old lady, was regularly visited by a young boy. That night, Potter says, “the entire family couldn’t stop talking about the film and the house. Both were moving experiences.”
Virtually in original condition, with a few inappropriate partitions inserted in the 1980s (when the house was used for offices), little had been altered. A kitchen, in the same style as the conservatory, had been added, as well as superficial decorative work. “It had quite a heavy and staid feel to the place,” says Potter, recalling the red velvet drapes in the formal areas of the house, and a heavy-handed approach to gilding. “There was gold leaf on many ceilings and flocked wallpaper. It was too fussy for our way of living,” she adds. Other rooms, such as the formal dining and living room at the front (the latter now used as a billiard room) also was inappropriately connected with only a small aperture.
Click on image to view full size. Image: Derek Swalwell
From the start of the renovation process, it has been a slow and methodical transformation. The timber balustrades of the ornate staircase, with their modesty panels (to prevent men from looking up women’s skirts) have been restored. And in some rooms, such as the billiard room, a false ceiling has been removed. Before design decisions were made, Potter researched the house, named ‘Hunting Tower’. She also was conscious of how she and her family live, drawn to film, music and art. So rather than doing a ‘makeover’, 90 per cent of the family’s furniture was simply repositioned in their new abode or slightly reworked. As the ceilings are four metres in height, object d’art placed on top of chiffoniers provide the required scale.
Other areas, such as bathrooms, were completely renovated. A guest powder room on the first floor, for example, features a whimsical wall of porcelain trophy heads, homage to James’ brother who operates a safari park in South Africa. The tower’s rooms have also been lightly reworked, with a built-in bar to allow for some of Melbourne’s panoramic views to be enjoyed by family and friends. The vibrant hunting wallpaper by Manuel Canovas, also alludes to the mansion’s hunting history, in particular spotting game in the nearby Yarra.
Click to enlarge. Image: Derek Swalwell
Rather than fill the house with stuffy high-back chairs framed by voluminous curtains and tassels, a more delicate approach has been taken. Sheer black curtains frame the formal rooms, and unexpected objects appear throughout. A stack of vinyl records, including Neil Young’s iconic ‘Harvest Moon’, displayed on one wall, is as unexpected as the customised bookshelves in a downstairs library. The bookshelves, featuring sliding black perspex cupboards, include phrases from Kokkinos’ memorable film. Words such as ‘Huntingtower was a film set for social realist masterpiece ‘Blessed’ in 2009’ have been stenciled into the perspex.
From the moment, the front door of Huntingtower opens, there’s a casual relaxed ambience. All the rooms, including three living areas, are used on a daily basis. And although there are bench stools to sit at in the kitchen, the family eats either in the ‘formal’ dining room (although far from formal) or outside on the terrace. “I’ve never really felt entirely comfortable with the large open plan kitchen and living room stuck on the back of a house. We much prefer to use all the rooms,” says Potter, who simply joins the billiard table to the dining table for larger events. “Rooms not used always seem sad and quite lonely,” she adds.
Atticus & Milo
All images below: Derek Swalwell
By Stephen Crafti