Category Archives: Heidelberg Historical Society

‘Marion Mahony Reconsidered’ by David Van Zanten (ed.)


2011, 147 P & notes.

I come to this book feeling as if I have entered a room at a party where everyone knows everyone else. The so-called Prairie School, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Griffins are well-furrowed academic fields, quite out of my own area.  My own knowledge of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin is limited to awareness of their houses and landscaping in the Heidelberg and Ivanhoe area, and what I have gleaned from Heidelberg Historical Society’s exhibition Against the Forces that we mounted three years back.  In photographs she looks stern and formidable, and I’m aware of an underlying Unitarian/Anthroposophical influence in her work. What I hadn’t realized is that there is an ongoing controversy over her status as an architect.  Was she a merely helpmate to her husband Walter Burley Griffin,  and architectural collaborator, or was she the hidden force behind him?

The four essays in this book are extended versions of six presentations delivered at a symposium conducted alongside an exhibition at the Block Museum ‘Marion Mahony Griffin: Drawing the Form of Nature’ in 2005. The other two presentations made at the symposium were published in the exhibition catalogue. It is significant, I think, that the book utilizes her maiden rather than married name, seeking to delineate her identity as woman, thinker, artist and representationist in her own right, and not just as an adjunct to the two other men with whom she is professionally associated: Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin. Continue reading

Exhibition: A Brush with Heidelberg

Here I am, writing about other people’s exhibitions and I don’t think I’ve mentioned the exhibition I’m most closely involved with- A Brush with Heidelberg, at the Heidelberg Historical Society closing on Sunday 27 November 2016.


As you would know if you live in Melbourne, Heidelberg has a long connection with artists.  Most famously, the ‘Heidelberg School’ of Australian Impressionists (Roberts, McCubbin, Streeton, Withers etc)  stayed in Eaglemont during the 1890s and painted ‘en plein air’ in Heidelberg and the surrounding districts.  Then, there’s Heide, named for Heidelberg, across the river where John and Sunday Reed attracted modernist painters like Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and Joy Hester.

But other artists- some well known, others less so- have been attracted to Heidelberg, painting the river and its surroundings and also the quaint village of Heidelberg which somehow retained some of its earlier charm.

This exhibition has reproductions and original paintings of Heidelberg scenes, juxtaposed where possible with photographs of the same vista today.  If you know Heidelberg at all, you’ll see familiar buildings and landscapes, and perhaps learn about the history of the building or the painter.

The exhibition, located at the old courthouse in Jika Street (opposite Heidelberg Gardens) is open on Sundays between 2.00 and 5.00 p.m. Entry is $5.00. The exhibition is on for only a few weeks more, closing at the end of November on Sunday November 27.

And we were delighted to receive a commendation for our exhibition at the 2017 Victorian Community History Awards.


And a very good Banyule Festival was had by all….

Yes, it’s March and so it’s Banyule Festival again.  And so there we were, all frocked up for Twilight Sounds at Sills Bend, my favourite place in the world and which should be on the Victorian Heritage Register.  The weather was absolutely perfect: a still night, not cold.  The crowds were there- probably the biggest turn-up in all the time I’ve been going. As you know, from my blog posts about Twilight Sounds in 20102011,  and 2013 I usually specialize in taking photographs of empty chairs at this gig, but not this year….

Excellent acts- all of them.  Sweethearts first up- an all-girls big band from Geelong; then Emma Donovan  (excellent!!)  followed by Miss Murphy (who apparently won The Voice, but as popular culture tends to pass me by, I’d never heard of her).  Much laughter and fun was elicited by Anna’s Go-Go dancing, when she had probably 700 people up dancing, with their Saturday Night Fever moves and Hillsong Hands waving in the air.  Terrific idea; great fun.

Then bright and early on Sunday morning, there I was all ready to march in the Arty-Farty Parade down Burgundy Street, representing Heidelberg Historical Society.  What do we want? HISTORY! When do we want it? YESTERDAY!  Oh, you mean it’s not that sort of march?

After milling around on the oval for a while, waiting for the festival to be officially opened, over we trotted to Sills Bend itself which was all set up for the Arty Farty Festival.

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But wait- there’s more!

Heidelberg Historical Society had its annual Bus Tour that afternoon and this time we headed off across town to the Essendon Incinerator.  Yes. An Incinerator.

The Essendon Incinerator was designed by Walter Burley Griffin and opened in 1930.  It was one of 13 that Griffin designed in Australia –  seven of which are still standing- and the only one left in Victoria.   The post-WWI  influenza epidemic had raised anxieties about the dangers of tips, and when a young engineer called John Boadle invented a new form of incineration, it attracted the attention of a number of councils.  Called the ‘reverbatory incineration’ technique, it involved dessicating the garbage before firing it at 2000 degrees in a closed furnace whose heat was intensified by being bounced back or ‘reverberated’ from a brick arch.  The process generated little smoke or smell.

The garbage was conveyed onto the site in trucks which drove straight into the building. The load would be tipped into hoppers and hot air piped over it to dry out all moisture.  Gravity dropped it into the incinerator where it would be fired, with the ash raked out from the bottom.  Heat from the process was used to make and heat bitumen made from  the ashes. The showers provided onsite for the workers (which was rather revolutionary at the time) were heated by the incinerators, and the hospital used the heat to sterilize bedpans.

The incinerator is on the site of the old Essendon tip.  No-one wanted the incinerator built near them, and when it was argued that the people already living near the tip had paid cheap prices for their land anyway, it was decided to build it there.  However, the first very bland and ugly design for the incinerator caused an uproar, and so Griffin and his partner Nicholls were called upon to redesign it. And so they did.

The building is quite beautiful- almost churchlike.  It has many Griffin-esque touches like the raked roofline, cut-out geometric shapes in the windows, interesting plumbing details, and the use of reinforced concrete.

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Despite its innovative design, it was not used for long.  It required fuel-injection to light the incinerators and during WWII, shortages of fuel forced them to stop using it.  After the war, they commencing tipping again into landfill sites, and the incinerator was not used again.

It’s fortunate that it has survived: many of them have not. Neighbouring Brunswick had one, but it has been demolished.   The most famous one was at Pyrmont, and there was much unhappiness when it was demolished as its chimney was one of the landmarks of the harbour.  The incinerator at Willoughby has been turned into an art centre, as has the Essendon one.  It’s surrounded by trees and is a beautiful building.

You can read more about the Griffin incinerators here.

Janet McCalman on the Founders and Survivors Project

A couple of weeks ago, Heidelberg Historical Society was delighted to welcome Professor Janet McCalman to our open meeting to speak about the Founders and Survivors Project.  This is a fascinating partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers who are using the convict records of the 73,000 men women and children who were transported to Van Diemens Land (VDL) between 1803-53 to create a collective biography of the transportation experience as it played out through succeeding generations.   Not particularly “Heidelberg-y”, you might think, but you’d be wrong: from among the records she found three ex-VDL convicts who settled in the Heidelberg/Diamond Creek/Whittlesea district, and in many ways their lives illustrated the ‘lifestories’ approach of the project as a whole.

The Van Diemens Land records are one of the most complete databases of the bodies and lives of an entire population in the world- so unique that it has been placed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2007.   The Founders and Survivors Project links them with another parallel database: that of those who served in the AIF in World War I.  These two data banks form the bookends of a project that looks at the convicts as a population, rather than as individuals, gathering data on their lives before sentence from which to infer their early life influences, examining their progress through the penal system in VDL, then tracing their lives after sentence.  It moves onto succeeding generations, looking at the  occupations, life span, families, mobility and social location of their descendants ending up, if possible, at the AIF records.

Using the methodology of prosopographical demography, it is a project built up from small records into an over-arching collective biography.  The convict indents are a starting point, but it widens out to genealogical records, shipping records, newspapers and institutional records as these individuals move through different life stages.  As you can imagine, this is a hugely labour-intensive process, involving records from all over the world.  In a way that just would not have been possible twenty years ago, the grunt-work of the project has been crowd-sourced, with local historians, family historians and genealogists from all over the world making their contributions.

You can see a video and read a transcript of Janet giving a talk similar to the one she gave us here at the State Library of Victoria website.

The people of Port Phillip during Judge Willis’ time liked to pride themselves on belonging to a ‘free’ society rather than a penal colony.  However, as I wrote about here, there were many convicts in Port Phillip, and through the Founders and Survivors project,  they have established that many of them were attracted to either Melbourne and its suburbs or the goldfields.  I was not surprised to learn that of the ex-convicts they were able to trace to death (just under half), the majority of men did not marry, but I was surprised to learn that 30% of women did not marry either.  Moreover, the majority of the women they have traced did not have children, although as Janet explained, a large tranche of the earlier female transportees were street-walkers whose venereal disease may have affected their fertility.   One of the criteria that the project has used for ‘success’ in later life is the presence of grand-children. Grandchildren suggest that the former transportee was able to carve out a life that was sufficiently secure to raise children to adulthood, and that those children, in turn,  were able to find life partners with whom to start their own families.  It puts the present-day pride in convict ancestors into another light: as far as VDL convicts are concerned, those who went on to sprout forth large family trees were very much the exception rather than the rule.

Two comments that she made struck me in particular- probably because they have resonances with events today.  The first was that of the punishments inflicted during transportation, solitary confinement seemed to be correlated most strongly with poor life outcomes, with fewer marriages and children afterwards.   Physical punishment (e.g. lashing) declined over time, as the system moved towards more psychological punishment.  Women in particular suffered from transportation (or the life prior to transportation), with their life expectancy some ten years lower than that of  free settler and native born women.

The second observation that Professor McCalman made was that it was government activity that gave many of these ex-convicts a leg-up.  Many were employed on the railways, and moving beyond WWI, those who served in the AIF and received returned-service homes managed to avoid the worst of the depression.  Many from later generations worked on the large infrastructure projects- Yallourn power station; roads etc.  In a world today of for-profit, public-private partnership, it underlines the importance of government activity in infrastructure, not just in its construction but its ongoing operation as well.

This project combines big-picture analysis with fine-grained family stories. There’s a wonderful, beautifully-designed  site called Founders and Survivors Storylines that presents these family stories through video, song and words.  Well worth a look.



The local newspaper on the sale of Banyule

A good article today in the local newspaper about Banyule Homestead quoting (ahem) Yours Truly, who doesn’t represent the Heidelberg Heritage Society, but DOES represent the Heidelberg Historical Society.

See it here:

Five million eh?  Given the money that the Council is going to put towards the arts ‘space’ on Banksia Street, thereby stealing public parkland for a restaurant and carpark with an arts ‘space’ attached, five million is a good buy, I reckon. I’m always worried by anything that is planned that has ‘space’ attached to the title.

Walter and Marion Griffin in Heidelberg

As you probably know, 2013 is being celebrated as the centenary of Canberra.  These celebrations have included a retrospective look at the vision of  a new capital, for a new nation,  that was produced in the designs of American architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.    But the Griffins’ influence extended further than just Canberra.  Central Melbourne and surrounding suburbs and Heidelberg/Eaglemont in particular,  bear traces of the Griffins’ influence in buildings, homes, industrial constructions and subdivisions that they designed. Heidelberg Historical Society has an exhibition until November 24 that addresses the other designs of the Griffins in Sydney, Melbourne and even India

There are four Griffin houses in Heidelberg and Eaglemont and over the past few years I’ve been lucky enough to go into all of them.  The Murray Griffin House was on the market a few years ago and I saw through it then, and Lippincott House was open some time ago.  Earlier this year Pholiota in Glenard Drive and the Skipper House in Outlook Drive were  also open.  What a privilege to see inside.

Pholiota and another Griffin House, Lippincott house are side-by-side in Glenard Drive.  Lippincott is a striking house with a very steep roof and characteristic ‘Griffin-esque’ windows.  The house has a lot of dark wood in it and it feels very snug.  Yet the abundance of windows offsets the darkness and brings the garden into the house.  (Click to enlarge any of the pictures)

Pholiota is not visible from the street because a 1940s red brick house has engulfed it completely. It’s difficult to photograph because it’s not visible at all from the front and  it’s hard to get enough distance from it in the backyard.  It is an unusually pinky-red colour with, again, those Griffin windows.

You need to walk through the 1940s house to get to Pholiota.  It’s almost a bit like Anne Frank’s Secret Annexe- a house within a house.

The Griffins themselves lived in this house and they were very fond of it- in fact, Marion described it as “the cheapest and most perfect house ever built”.   Where we today design a house to suit our lifestyle, I think that anyone living in Pholiota  today would find that the house would dominate their lifestyle completely.  On the other hand, only someone willing to fall under the spell of the house would live there.  The house itself is a simple square.  There are not rooms as such: instead there are alcoves.  Click on this link  to  a picture of the room in use as the Griffins intended it here it’s the Walter Burley Griffin site- well worth a look!

This drawing shows the original design of the house:


The middle of the house is now dominated by a large table and this really is the beating heart of the house.  The kitchen is rather rudimentary.  This would be a rather demanding house to live in, but I should imagine that it would give much pleasure.  It would change you.

The Skipper House is some distance from the two other houses.  What a beautiful, light house this is! It’s amazing to think that it was designed in 1927. I think that this is my favourite.

What is often overlooked is the Griffins’ work in landscape. Griffin designed both the Mount Eagle and Glenard estates with shared communal parkland space. The parks have a rather anomalous status and are not public but not entirely private either.  Some are very well cared for, while others are barely more than car parks which I guess reflects the diversity of attitudes towards landscape and space generally.  But the whole concept of communal open space, shared with neighbours, yet with a sense of ownership and responsibility reflects a philosophical attitude towards ‘how we should live’ that flows through many of their residential designs.

And remember- Heidelberg Historical Society’s exhibition is on until 24th November.

‘Against the Forces’ Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin Exhibition in Heidelberg

This year has been the centenary of the commencement of building Canberra. Part of that celebration has been the recognition of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin as the designers of a vision of a city that was only partially realized.

Most of the attention has been focussed on Canberra, but central Melbourne  and suburbs and in particular Heidelberg and Eaglemont,  have a strong Griffin connection as well.  Heidelberg Historical Society are marking this through their exhibition ‘Against the Forces: Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’.


I’m really proud that we have been able to mount this exhibition- it really is good.  Being located in Heidelberg, it has a focus on the nearby Griffin houses  (of which I’m aware of four- two in Glenard Drive, one in Outlook Drive and another in Darebin Street) and the subdivisions in Eaglemont that he designed but it’s much broader than that.

The exhibition traces the connection of the Griffins with American architects, most particularly Frank Lloyd Wright and their designs for theatres, public buildings, commercial industrial buildings -most particularly incinerators!- and  residential building in Melbourne, Sydney and even India.  You can read more about the Griffins’ building projects here.

The display depicts buildings but it also addresses the question of the Griffins’ ideas about the relationship between design and the big questions of environment, national identity and lifestyle choice.  There’s a lot of reading and thinking involved in the exhibition- it’s not the sort of exhibition that you can dash through in 5 minutes.

Which makes the $5.00 entry fee a small price indeed for a fascinating Sunday afternoon’s viewing!  The exhibition is open between 2.00 and 5.00 each Sunday until 24th November.  And if you come on the third Sunday in the month you may even glimpse a Resident Judge!

Heidelberg Historical Society is located in the beautiful old court house in Jika Street (the extension of Burgundy Street for locals).