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Labassa Upstairs, Downstairs - Tours

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by Jen (subscribe)
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Lavish decoration and overlooked spaces
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Labassa Mansion had A Taste of Christmas Open Day on Sunday 21 Nov 2021 just gone, and it's been a long time coming since the beginning of the year, with all the lockdowns we've had. The halls were decked, the Christmas trees decorated, and dining table set in the style of a sumptuous 1890s banquet. Decorations and vintage cards how-tos were spread across a few tables as examples of how to make your own decoupage Christmas cards, papier-mâché music sheet baubles, lace angel ornaments for your tree, and foxed angel garlands.


Upon approach, the Labassa Mansion at 2 Manor Grove, Caulfield North is surprising and unexpected as it looms above the gardens and hedges against the sky, with suburbia wrapped around it. Managed by the National Trust, the Labassa Upstairs, Downstairs Tours will begin on Sunday 5 December 2021 from 10am to 4.30pm (last entry at 3.30pm). Open days will be ongoing, but at this stage, it's a case of play it by ear, so keep checking back on the website as timeframes and dates are updated and adjusted. Right now, you can purchase tickets with staggered timeframes, to attend. All details about the tour are on the ticketing page for your perusal.


The largely ignored and often overlooked upstairs space will be included in the tour. Do pass this along to all your family and friends as it's a tour worth taking. Upstairs still needs a lot of work and this lovely old historic mansion could do with a lot of love and support. Your coming out in droves for the tour can only help towards the many renovations it needs and for its upkeep. If you happen to know a millionaire or two or are one, do encourage them to donate large sums of money as it would be wonderful to have this historic mansion restored to its former glory and preserved for generations to come.


Follow the evolution of how this modest 8 room villa became a comfortable 35 room mansion. Learn about some of the extraordinary people who lived upstairs, following the mansion's conversion into flats in 1920. That's almost unimaginable. There is no doubt the gentleman (back to us) you see in the first image could very well be at the mansion as I'm told he faithfully goes to open days. He lived there for many years, but at the time, as he relayed to me, just accepted matter-of-factly, it was just where he lived.


Do note that you'll need to wear a face mask indoors and outdoors and you must register your details via QR code, with proof of double vaccination status required for all visitors over 16. Do observe all Covid-safety measures. Children under the age of 16 must be accompanied by a fully vaccinated adult. The safety of visitors and staff alike remains a top priority. Please review the updated Conditions of Entry for more information.


I was lucky enough to meet my contact, author and historian Vicki Shuttleworth who wrote Labassa House of Dreams after years of research. Such an honour. This lavishly designed book includes a foreword by Barry Owen Jones AC, endnotes, index and over 100 photos, many specially commissioned for the book and you can purchase it HERE. The following information was gleaned from Vicki's informative knowledge. Labassa has survived nine owners, a conversion into flats and more than 700 residents during its near 160-year history. From humble beginnings of 8 rooms, 4 upstairs and 4 downstairs, it was built for Richard Annesley Billing who was an Irish barrister at law and came across from Ireland with his wife Mary, around 1856. The house was completed around 1863. Ten years on and well established, Billings wanted a grander house and so the house was extended from 8 to 20 rooms. You could say those two houses are still within the walls of Labassa itself.


After Billing died, the house was bought by Alexander William Robertson who was one of the wealthiest men in Australia; some say he was the second wealthiest in Australia. He was co-owner of Cobb & Co Coachlines and had very large pastoral estates in New South Wales and Queensland, and he wanted the grandest house in Melbourne. Canadian in origin, he was very socially ambitious and ambitious for his sons and daughters. Robertson employed a local architect - John Augustus Bernard Koch, who was born in Germany and was given the brief to extend the house from 20 rooms to 35 and to carry out a very elaborate redecoration of the interior as well as the exterior. The house as you see it today, is very much Mr Robertson's house.


After Robertson died, his estate wasn't wound up for a while and It wasn't until 1904 that the Watsons came on the scene and bought the house, and lived in the house until around 1919. Most significantly they gave the house its name, Labassa. The Watsons did a tour of the pacific islands at the turn of the century and the name Labassa hails from a Fijian village they fell in love with. When the house was sold once again, it was sold to a real estate agent who converted the place into flats. Luckily he appreciated the house and did not do much damage in the conversion.


The exterior of Labassa has marble inserts, some real and some simulated, that beautifully set off the grey of the building and is very ornate. It has a profusion of classical features, masks of Hera and Zeus and Aphroditie around the other side. It also has acanthus leaves and griffins, and a whole host of natural life. At the entrance are two sculpted female figures, very classical, known as caryatids - a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or pillar. Above the bay window is what appears to be a family crest, a figure of a male and a female. However, it is only there to add grandeur to the house, to give the impression that this family is very well connected.


The National Trust became involved in the early 70s, but before that there were a number of key architects who took a keen interest in the 1940s. June 1974 was when the National Trust became actively involved when it classified the house as, of state significance, and that was followed by Labassa being included in the first Victorian Register of Historic Houses. It was only in 1980 when the last private owner of Labassa died that the Trust had an opportunity to buy the property.

It went to auction and it was a competitive auction. There were two other serious bidders there and one wanted it for a restaurant, and the other for a private home. The National Trust made the winning bid of $282,500 which doesn't sound like a lot today but was a substantial amount and were able to do that with the help of Alcoa Australia and commenced conservation work on the house. There is the matter of an eyesore on the property that had to be pulled down/demolished, but no doubt you'll hear all about it on the tour, along with stories of its previous occupants.


Vicki (the author) has been asked if there was any ghostly presence in the mansion. She has said she has worked there on her own, day and night and has not felt any, but that the house itself was a more imposing and stronger presence on the landscape. There is so much to enjoy if you especially love old buildings, their architecture and their place in history and the stories that go with it. There are so many decorative and architectural features to enjoy and there's also a lot you could miss if you don't pay attention to every detail.

Don't forget to look up and enjoy the decorative ceilings throughout. The servants quarters also currently houses National Trust costumes which are partly stored there. Leadlight windows, which were part of the 1870s extension, depict the four seasons, and you may be surprised as I was, to learn that lovely gold embossed original wallpaper is Japanese in origin. Can you just imagine for one moment, the momentous task of reaching out to Japan for your wallpaper in the 1800s? Fascinating.


The dining room was originally two rooms with highly decorative chrysanthemum motifs. The land stretched out 5-6 hectares from a certain angle and the front gates were at the corner of Orrong and Balaclava roads. That's how expansive the property was and has over time lost a lot of its land. Our tour guide did mention humorously, if we wanted to see the front gates, they're now in a town called Bacchus Marsh. Enjoy 22 carat gold leaf work, corinthian columns throughout the house and a magnificent fireplace manufactured and carved locally.

Not all furniture is original but near to period from the National Trust collection. Interesting small details abound, including the beautiful cut glass doorknobs and cut glass servants bell that mirror the doorknobs. The whole mansion is a joy to walk through and to daydream and envisage the families that lived there and enjoyed that lavish home. I've taken oodles of pictures, but will leave you to go discover Labassa yourself. Do pop along to the tours and immerse yourself in history and support the National Trust at the same time, in helping them restore the magnificence of the past.
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Why? Labassa Upstairs, Downstairs - Tours
When: Sunday 5 December 2021 onwards and ongoing
Where: Labassa, 2 Manor Grove, Caulfield North, VIC
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