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Melbourne Renovation -Villa Alba

27 February 2017
By Neil Gardiner

The location is superb, just across the Yarra River where Johnston St, Collingwood ends and Studley Park Road, Kew begins. The Yarra was a natural barrier to the city’s expansion so the early homes built in this area of Melbourne turned their backs on the working class terrace house, and gave way to the grand Villa’s of Studley Park, Kew. Early photos show that the villa was on a much larger property than it is today.

Villa-Alba-Kew 1

Front entrance to Villa Alba with interested spectator in the foreground.

Villa Alba was built by William Greenlaw in 1882. Greenlaw’s wife’s family had purchased the property in 1862. Greenlaw was the General Manager of one of Victoria’s early banks, the Colonial Bank of Australasia which went belly up in the depression of the 1890’s. 

Greenlaw Wedding Notice 1862

Wedding Notice in The Argus 25th July 1862 – there’s nothing like an accountant marrying into money. St Francis’s church is the oldest Catholic Church in Melbourne.

The Greenlaw’s had spent a fortune on the property. According to the Villa Alba Preservation committee, Greenlaw “threw caution to the winds and turned his modest house, Villa Alba, into a mansion in keeping with its neighbours in Studley Park, Kew. He then gave Paterson Brothers, Melbourne’s leading decorators, free rein in his new interiors and topped off their work with loads of fashionable Aesthetic and Artistic Furnishings”. It goes on “While this exercise in conspicuous consumption contributed to Greenlaw’s insolvency, demotion and death (in 1895), his and his wife’s profligate spending will eventually benefit Australians”.

And indeed it did.

Greenlaw was obviously careful enough, and even though he personally became bankrupt, the house was in his wife’s name and out of the reach of creditors. Mrs Anna Greenlaw managed to hold onto the property until 1918 although she rented it out shortly after her husband’s death. She did, however sell all of the contents in order to earn some cash:

Clearing Sale Kew

Notice in The Age, 20th March 1897 noting the riches from within the Villa.

In 1918 the property was transferred to Samuel Fripp who owned it until 1950 to the Royal Women’s Hospital, initially to house nurses and subsequently a post-natal convalescence hospital for mothers and babies. It was held by several hospitals until 1999 when it was sold to the Society of Jesus for use by Xavier College.

A community group led by Sir Rupert Hamer was established in 1984 with a view to preserving the property which by then was in poor repair. In 2004 Villa Alba Museum Incorporated gained title to the house and it has been managed by that community group ever since. It is open on the first Sunday of each month.

These days the house is subject to constant restoration and renovation, with the committee trying to get it back to its earlier condition, although I must say that it is most interesting the way that it is currently presented.

Despite the tough time that it has had, there are many original features that indicate the highly ornate nature of the decorations within the Villa.

Villa Alba Kew 2

Fireplace and surrounds in the Drawing Room. 

Villa Alba Kew 3

Here’s where you go - from the days when the Villa was a nurse’s residence.

Villa Alba Kew 5

Fancy work on the solid plaster after restoration. Much of the original stencilling was painted over by the Royal Women’s Hospital to “brighten the place up”. The brickwork under the plaster is evident.

Villa Alba Kew 7

Staircase detail, incredibly ornate and in wonderful condition.

Villa Alba Kew 8

Large combustion stove in the kitchen towards the rear of the house – there’s also a more modern version to the right

Much of the original garden has been taken over by Xavier, however there is still about ¾ of an acre of grounds around the Villa.

The plantings hark back to the Victorian era when the villa was built.

Villa Alba Kew 9

West Side garden with Acanthus Mollis (Oyster Plant) in the foreground. The Acanthus motif is a favourite in Corinthian Columns.

Villa Alba Kew 10

View to the rear of the property – Wisteria Lined walkway

Villa Alba Kew 11

Rear of property with citrus trees shading the windows.

Villa Alba Kew 12

Entrance to the kitchen at the rear of the property. Not quite as ornate as the front door but good enough for the servants who worked for the Greenlaw’s.

So, if you’re at a loose end on the first Sunday of the month, you could do far worse than a visit to see one of Melbourne’s perpetual renovations. The volunteers attending on the day showing the visitors through were fantastic

Related Tag: Home Renovations Melbourne

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