At Home on Hotham Hill: A Portrait of a Nineteenth Century Entrepreneur
Annals of Hotham Volume 4
Hotham History Project, 2004.
Home is where the history is
The tale of a mansion called Milton reflects Melbourne's own story of boom and bust. Carolyn Webb reports.
"For more than a century," writes historian Janet McCalman in the foreword to a new book, "countless passers-by have wondered about the big house at 519 Dryburgh Street, North Melbourne - the house with the overgrown bougainvillea and the commanding view of Royal Park. Who lives there now? Who built it? What are its stories?"
Guy Murphy, too, used to wonder about the same grand edifice as he drove along Flemington Road, never thinking he would spend eight years writing a book about it. In 1996, Murphy looked up the date of the house for his postgraduate architectural history course and became fascinated by the way its history was also the story of early Melbourne.
His study evolved into At Home on Hotham Hill, a book that examines how the house - Milton Hall - came to be built; changes made over its 120 years; and the people who lived there.
It is also the story of a forgotten man - its first owner, Robert Langford, a Hotham (North Melbourne) mayor, fishmonger and property speculator who lost his fortune in the depression of the 1890s.
Murphy, 31, a heritage consultant with conservation architects Allom Lovell and Associates, says he kept uncovering historical gems about early Melbourne, and felt compelled to find out more. For example, that there was once a fish market on the corner of Flinders and Swanston streets, now the site of the Flinders Street Station clocks. In 1869, Langford, an English migrant, was a salesman at the fish market, which Murphy says was "like a squat ziggurat, three storeys high with a low roof and cast iron verandas". Game, poultry, galahs and seagulls were sold as well as fish.
Langford's success as a fish wholesaler bankrolled Milton Hall, the dream home that he and his wife Elizabeth built at the corner of Dryburgh and Curran streets in 1884. The Langfords were nouveau riche and keen to impress. The house's balcony and veranda posts were decorated with lashings of iron lace; the Welsh slate roof had a fish-scale pattern; and a whimsical tower had views to Port Phillip Bay.
The upstairs drawing room had two marble and iron fireplaces, grapevine-motif cornices and kauri pine floorboards. Four french doors opened on to a balcony with a fine view of Royal Park.
The housewarming party was held on September 1, 1884, soon after Langford was elected mayor of Hotham. It was so big, with 180 guests, that it had to be held at Hotham Town Hall.
According to the North Melbourne Advertiser, the ladies wore "costumes of coloured satin, muslin, velvet and broche, trimmed with lace, ribbon, pearls and flowers".
Guests ate turkey au truffles and larded guinea fowls, and danced until 4am.
On January 16, 1885, Elizabeth Langford hosted a fancy-dress ball for 70 children at her house. The Advertiser's account of this party took up a full column.
By the late 1880s, Langford owned dozens of properties around Victoria, including seven in Curran Street and, in 1886, he bought land for 96 lots near Bairnsdale, which developed into the resort town of Paynesville.
The Langfords moved to Hawthorn, reflecting his social aspirations and then, in 1889, to a mansion they called Rosenberg Park near Romsey, north-west of Melbourne.
But the property crash of 1893 was disastrous for heavily mortgaged "land boomers" such as Langford, and, by 1896, he declared himself insolvent.
But Langford was a resilient man. Instead of being crushed, says Murphy, he opened his home as a private hotel; held on to his fish business (which ran until 1914, the year before he died); and later became mayor of Romsey, and a councillor for the borough of Flemington and Kensington.
Langford had sold Milton Hall to a fishmonger friend, Percy Jenkins, whose shop at 5 Swanston Street is now part of Young and Jackson's Hotel.
But the land slump forced the Jenkins family to sell Milton Hall, renamed Parkview, to the Bank of Victoria in 1901.
Later owners, Charles and Elizabeth Ringrose, affected by another depression, converted Parkview to a boarding house in 1936, which it remained for more than 30 years, to its great detriment.
The balcony was boarded up and the house divided into units. The Langfords' beloved drawing room became a two-room flat and the dilapidated tower was dismantled by the 1950s.
The current owner, architecture Professor Hugh O'Neill, 71, says the house was in a "shocking" condition when he bought it in 1969 to live in with his (late) wife, Roma, and their five children.
The family removed layers of mouldy carpet and lino; tore down the balcony enclosures and the wall dividing the drawing room; disconnected four kitchenettes and built two modern bathrooms.
Thirty-five years ago, O'Neill planted the purple, flowering vine that caused locals to dub the mansion "the bougainvillea house".
"The tourist buses used to stop here on their way to the airport and people would get out and take photographs," O'Neill says.
But he cut the vine back several years ago "because it was eating up the house: It started pulling the roof off. It's a terrible thing."
O'Neill says the house costs a lot to maintain, "but people love it, because it's original, from the outside. It's not tarted up."
At Home on Hotham Hill will be launched by Professor Janet McCalman at 6.30pm on Wednesday at the North Melbourne Town Hall, on the 120th anniversary of the Langfords' housewarming party. The book will be on sales at North Melbourne Library.
Photos from the book launch event, 1st September 2004