Crossing the Nepean Highway and entering Elwood, we found ourselves in the land of the English writers. This is one of the most famous street name clusters in Melbourne, where dozens of poets and novelists, many of them 19th century but a few more recent, hang out together. In fact the whole suburb has a romantic, fictional kind of atmosphere.
Often the street name is found close to some other notice, so Lytton Street is accompanied by the message ‘Don’t Litter Our City’, Tennyson is close to a pair of walking legs, and Lawson St – good to see at least one Australian poet there – shares his pole with a Give Way sign.
There’s an other-worldly atmosphere about the streets of Elwood. The suburb is dotted with houses and apartment buildings in a bewildering range of styles, with romantic place names like ‘Camelot Court’ ‘Avalon’, ‘Montmar’, ‘De Montrose’,’La Casita’, ‘Dynevor Court’, and ‘Juliette’. On Tennyson Avenue the houses are named things like ‘Merlin’ ‘Godiva’ and ‘Vivien’ – all of whom were characters in Tennyson’s Arthurian poetry (“At Merlin’s feet the wily Vivien lay” the politically incorrect poem begins – you can read the rest here.)
As I walked along these broad quiet streets, beneath the spreading boughs of plane trees and ankle deep in autumn leaves, I felt that that if you were dropped at random here from a passing aeroplane it would be hard to know quite where in the world you are. The streetscape has been put together by someone madly filling their plate from the architectural salad bar -a mixture of Spanish mission, art deco, mock Tudor, art nouveau, Victorian and more. It feels like a suburb that has been dreamed up by writers and stage designers rather than planners.
All that, of course, makes it appealing: but not too many artists and writers could actually afford to live here these days, now that it’s one of Melbourne’s most desirable suburbs, with its cafes and trendy wine shops, so close to the beach and all. Still, we can wander and wonder, imagining the narratives that might unfold up on those balconies and staircases, behind those archways.
In contrast to some of the more fanciful architecture is this austere, minimalist apartment block on Marine Parade. ‘Woy Woy’ was designed in 1936 by the firm of Mewton and Grounds.
Traces of a more mundane past linger on in places. Near Elwood junction, at 16 Ormond Road you can faintly make out the words ‘The Elwood Confectioner’. My Sands & McDougall directory places C.A. Winterburn, confectioner, here in 1946. Of course the shop may well have been a confectioner’s for many years on either side of that date.
Not far away, a more legible Coca Cola sign is visible on Glen Huntly Road. Two signs in fact – the newer, familiar red sign is superimposed over an older slogan, ‘Coca Cola refreshes best’.
If that leaves you hankering for some uniquely Melbourne signage, the place to look is Jerry’s cafe on Barkly Street, formerly a classic milk bar, which is adorned with beautiful ghostsigns for Robur Tea, Swallow and Ariell biscuits, and The Age – ‘fresh daily’. After all the exotic architecture, here’s a place that’s unmistakeably Melbourne. (By the way, that’s another ‘Confectionery’ sign across the top. It’s amazing how many confectioners there used to be.)
Back in the land of the poets, it’s startling to be confronted by a Victorian mansion at 14 Hennessy Avenue. The style is not that unusual, but it’s a surprise to find it here. Named Sherwood Hall, it is flats today, but was originally a rich man’s vanity project. But what does it have in common with Jerry’s milk bar?
The house, originally named Rothermere (or Rotherfield – both names turn up, confusingly) was built in 1890-1 for Joseph Cowen Syme, the nephew of David Syme, proprietor and editor of The Age, a shrewd businessman and political operator who used the newspaper to promote causes he believed in for half a century.
Young Joseph, described as a “forceful character” was for a few years a partner in The Age. But David didn’t much like sharing control with anyone, and the stormy partnership ended with David buying out his nephew’s share of the business for 140,000 pounds. In the self-effacing style of media magnates, Joseph used the money to build himself this 45-room mansion, designed by architect David Askew, and built by Thomas Machin. Joseph, who didn’t rate highly for interpersonal skills, fell out with Machin too, and was successfully sued by him when he didn’t pay for the job.
Joseph Syme lived in the house until he died in 1916, and his widow Laura rattled around in the 45 rooms until her own death. The skinflint rich man and his lonely widow in a massive house sound like good characters for a Dickens novel. In the late 1920s the building was converted to a guest house, and subsequently to flats. The estate was subdivided, after which most of the houses and apartment blocks on Hennessy and Wimbledon Avenues were built.
Here’s a couple of images of Rothermere from 1963, when the National Trust did a heritage survey of the building.
Looking at Syme’s mansion, it struck me that the house might more appropriately be located on nearby Shelley St. It was the radical poet Shelley who wrote the great poem ‘Ozymandias’, debunking the pretensions of the rich and powerful who think their works will last forever.
Unlike many grandiose Melbourne mansions built by over-reaching businessmen during the Boom years of the 1880s, at least Rothermere/Rotherfield still survives, whether you see it as an example of fine architecture or a symbol of arrogance and self-importance.
Thank you again to the National Trust (Victoria) for assistance with photos and history.
A long-time resident of Elwood, Ken Corbett, has drawn from memory a map of Elwood Junction in the 1940s-1950s. You can check out Ken’s map here, along with some other Elwood local history.
There are many online resources about Elwood. Try this one.