Kyabram Garden Club Talk
Friday 22nd February 2019
Thank you for asking me here today to tell you something about our home. The house and garden at Oak Dene have an interesting history and I am delighted to share what we know with you. This talk is given in fond memory of Peg and Fred Billings.
John Cam Wight was born in 1857 to a large and very well-off Melbourne family. His parents had arrived in Port Phillip in 1841 and were true pioneers of the colony and state of Victoria. They were friends of Governor La Trobe, and made many significant contributions to developing institutions – including, Bombers’ fans, the establishment of Essendon Football Club in 1872 and Anglicans, the building of St Pauls Cathedral.
Their son John was well educated at Geelong Grammar and Melbourne University, graduating as a medical doctor in 1884. After studies in Europe he came to Kyabram in 1894 as a locum for the town’s ill physician. Dr Lapierre died soon after and Dr Wight took over his practice. In the same year he married Sophie Bartrop and they lived and he practiced at 9 Church Street; the house is still there, first on the left from Allan Street.
Why did Wight stay in Kyabram? He was asthmatic and found the clean dry air of the Goulburn Valley congenial. He was clearly community minded too and perhaps he also saw the town as a place where he could make a meaningful mark on its development.
Wight’s father died in 1900 and while most of his significant fortune initially went to his widow, it would only be a matter of time before John Cam would have his own inheritance. In 1906 he purchased ten acres of land in Allan Street from the original selector, James Unwin. A year later the Free Press tells us that “Gerard Wight Invites Tenders for LABOR ONLY for a Large Wood and Iron House for Dr Wight”.
Gerard, 10 years younger than John, was a successful and prolific Melbourne architect. His story is for another time, but the house that he designed for his brother and sister-in-law was remarkable and usual then, and remains so today, 110 years on.
Before discussing the house however, a comment on climate: the first decade that the Wights lived in Kyabram coincided with what is now called the Federation Drought. Summers saw day after day of extreme temperatures and minimal rainfall. In January 1905 we recorded here the highest temperature in the state: 117 degrees Fahrenheit or 47.2 Celsius.
This audience needs no evoking of these conditions of course - we have just had a repeat of them - but life without air-conditioning or electric fans focussed both the clients’ and architect’s attention on how to design best for bearable living in this climate.
Oak Dene is a sprawling single level design, with a roof that covers nearly 60 squares, including verandas. It was built with 11 main rooms, a bathroom, laundry and scullery and two indoor lavatories. One room was Dr Wight’s surgery with a dedicated door facing Allan Street. Social visitors arrived via a curving drive at the actual front door, leading directly into the sitting room. The plan and elevations eschew symmetry, in the way that had become normal for the Edwardians, but at Oak Dene this is taken to an extreme. The layout was always confusing to me as a child, and the centre was a series of dark passages leading seemingly to odd places.
The plan in fact forms a U shape around a small courtyard and this is the first of its many responses to the local climate. This configuration allows nine of the main rooms to have external walls facing in two directions, and the kitchen in three. Because all of the windows are large and each room has a series of adjustable ventilators at mid and high wall level, cross ventilation can be maximised by catching breezes from whatever direction they came. Heat generated by the kitchen’s wood-burning range, had the best chance of dissipating as this room has three external walls. Quirky lobbies to the main bedroom and sitting room place doors facing south – then as now effective at admitting cool changes. Twelve open fireplaces – necessary for winter warmth – further increase draft when there is cool air outside to encourage indoors.
Deep verandas encircle the house on the north, east and west, keeping the sun off the walls and providing good opportunities for living outside. Generous roof spaces are well ventilated and the cellar remains cool in the hottest conditions. Wall cavities and the ceiling are all insulated, fairly effectively, with sawdust from Echuca’s redgum mills.
The positioning of rooms also responds logically to the passage of the sun: the breakfast room and kitchen are on the west, not heating up until later in the day, the bedrooms are on the east, cooler by evening, the important sitting and dining rooms and surgery face south, not much touched by the summer sun and most able to catch southerlies.
However the most unusual, and defining feature of Oak Dene, is that it is finished entirely in corrugated iron. Every single internal and external wall, and every ceiling is of small radius, galvanised iron. Inside the corrugations run vertically, outside horizontally. This was called historically ripple iron, superseded by today’s mini-orb profile. The roof is the conventional larger radius. The ceilings are 11 feet high, achieved by using 10 feet long standard sheets topped by a foot-high band of horizontal metal. The original dining room walls are wallpapered, a highly unusual feature likely to have been a way of reducing the noise of a happy table.
Research we have commissioned points to Oak Dene as being the only known house of its type and times to be built in this way. There are other examples with partial resemblance, for example the Bishop’s Lodge in Hay has external corrugated walls and there are public buildings using ripple iron, but only for certain elements. I should clarify that the Wights built two houses on their ten acres, the second being a smaller, simpler dwelling near the stable for use by the groom. This too is of ripple iron. I can attest to its qualities as that house was my home for 20 years before moving across the back fence to Oak Dene itself!
We also think that the house is unusual in having all of its surfaces executed in the same single material. What else could form walls, ceiling and roof, other perhaps than timber in multiple forms?
As you are the Garden Club, you will be pleased that I will now talk a little about that aspect of Oak Dene. Some older members may have known the grounds that Dr Wight created and please do tell me any recollections – especially as there are no surviving drawings and few photographs.
The house sits in the southern part of the original land holding, roughly in the centre of the garden planted around it. This was a square shape and covered approximately three and half acres. It stretched from Allan Street east towards Dawes Road and west towards what is now Wight Street. The groom’s house was to the north-west in a eucalyptus plantation. In the south-west corner was a large dam, fed via a private irrigation channel – does anyone remember the raised bridge over it as it crossed Allan Street? Water was supplied to the garden by a steam-driven pump. A tennis court, sunken croquet lawn and summer house – ‘strawberry cottage’ completed the must-haves for every Edwardian estate. The path to Allan Street was enclosed by trellis. Was this to keep patients and trade visitors from straying into the garden itself?
The garden layout was curvilinear, an attempt to mimic natural landscape rather than impose the straight lines and hard geometry of classical planning. The carriage drive, entered near present-day Jacaranda Avenue curved as it approached the house.
An evocative description is included in Dr Bill Bossence’s history of Kyabram, published in 1963:
“A garden that became the show-place of the town. Willows, bamboo thickets, lawns, rustic bridges, a stream and small ponds made it the most beautiful place in Kyabram, and on many occasions Dr Wight made it freely available to church and charitable organisations. For many years St Andrew’s Church of England held an annual Strawberry Fair there, and this description of the garden was published after that of 1909: “The grounds were an ideal spot in which to hold such a function. The lawns and garden generally were in perfect order, while the many ponds, rustic bridges and avenues, with willows, over-hanging bamboos and various creepers made a veritable fairyland. The charming effect was enhanced at night by strings of Chinese lanterns hung here and there, and powerful acetylene lights which had been specially laid on around the grounds. Many expressions of wonder and astonishment were heard from the lips of town and country residents who had passed Dr Wright’s place hundreds of times and yet were ignorant of the great beauties thereof hidden behind a high and thick pepper-tree hedge.”
Journalistic license aside, the garden sounds like it was designed by an accomplished professional. A primary feature are two London Plane trees, Platanus x acerifolia. The northern one is on the Victorian National Trust’s register of significant trees, and its citation mentions three men as visitors to Oak Dene and providing input to its garden design. The first is Ferdinand von Mueller and Dr Bossence attributes authorship to him without equivocation. He will be known to this audience as, amongst other things the first director Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Inconveniently however, von Mueller died in 1896, a full decade before the land was acquired! Dr Wight may have been acquainted with von Mueller and for anyone interested I have a book here confirming a connection.
The second name is the other grand man of 19th Century Victorian gardens, William Guilfoyle. Extensive research has not unearthed any connection with Oak Dene or the area, although his brother worked in Moama. Again, Guilfoyle died in 1912 and was ill for his last years, making involvement very unlikely.
The third name on the citation is more interesting. Charles Luffman was a consultant on the dried fruit industry at Mildura in 1895, became principal of Burley School of Horticulture in 1897 and published an influential book Principles of Gardening for Australiain 1903. Luffman lectured widely and was invited to do so Kyabram in 1895 – did he, and did John and Sophie Wight attend? Compellingly, the only known private garden left by him was very nearby, and for friends of the Wights, at Killamont, and designed only a few years earlier. Luffman however had left Victoria by 1908.
My brother’s own view is that the garden may have been designed collaboratively by Dr Wight and Tongala architect and engineer Arthur Castles. There is the same evidence for this as the other names, that is absolutely none, but Castles’ own garden at Aloomba and his Memorial Gardens along Allan Street are very like Wight’s in concept and the two men knew each other well.
We will never know, and with the garden long gone, it is a footnote to history.
Dr Wight died in 1928 and Oak Dene was lived in by Mrs Wight, their elder daughter Peg, her husband Drummie and friends Fred and Gwen Billings. By the time Mrs Wight died in 1959, the acres of garden were overgrown and a costly burden to maintain. This and inheritance obligations led to the subdivision of the land into house blocks, and the creation of Jacaranda Avenue and Oak Dene. Most of the plantings and other features were cleared, paling fences were erected and the old house lost its designed orientation to Allan Street. It could only be approached from what was the back – what an indignity. Peg retained an acre, half of which was garden around the house.
For the next 35 years, the reduced garden was still a beautiful, tranquil place with distinctive original plantings; the two planes, a jacaranda and a coral tree – or Erythina – a gleditzia and clump of giant bamboo. Smaller specimens included old-fashioned crepe myrtles, agaves, lily of the valley (coaxed into surviving the summers), acanthus and a big bed of variously coloured japonica. Ornamental grapevines and Virginia creeper screened summer sun and bulbs and annuals added colour and seasonal interest.
Peg died on Christmas day 1994 and Fred in 1999, and the house was the house was sold for the first time. Don Tonkin had ensured that all continued to be maintained to a very high standard right until then.
Mike and Cheryl Sweeney made Oak Dene their family home for nearly 20 years, bringing up their four daughters there. They preserved the special place that they found, making minimal changes and enjoying its unique atmosphere and beautiful spaces.
I, my parents and my siblings had close relationships with Fred and Peg and Oak Dene was a central part of our lives. My brother, an architect in London, approached the Sweeneys suggesting that he would be a good custodian for the property when they wanted a change. Alan bought the house at the end of 2016, and embarked upon a programme of work the following year. Much of this is invisible but included subtle measures to allow the house to be occupied as two apartments – one for me and one for him. The main change has been to introduce a new front door, 180 degrees opposite from the original one and logically facing the street. This meant re-purposing the old scullery as an entrance hall, and it improves significantly the way the house works for today’s servant-less world.
Interventions in the garden are more apparent. After the subdivision, few changes were made to the garden. It had been designed to be seen from the house and by walking through it. There were some plantings close to the building but vistas were now short and only of sparsely cloaked fences with nearby houses seen above. The west side was a family space, with an outbuilding, car parking, storage and services. Small vestiges of the original curving bed layouts remained.
New plantings and layout changes were necessary and our design was guided by several principles:
We would not seek to re-create a small version of the historic Edwardian garden. This would be uncomfortable and fussy in the confined space
Changes would acknowledge the new reality of a normal rectangular block
A big rectilinear house stood in the centre, leading us to reflecting its geometry too
Plantings would be easy to maintain and be low water consumers and drought tolerant
Original specimens would be retained or relocated
We began by adding new plantings to the whole side and rear perimeter of the site as this is mostly what would be seen from the house – 140 meters in total. On the east, this is a hedge of Portugese laurel underplanted with relocated blue agapanthus. We removed tired planting between the veranda edge and lawn. On the narrow south side, little more than an alley, is a new white garden; star jasmine, hydrangeas, white aggies, hellebores, gardenia. On the west side a large lawn is enclosed by New Zealand Christmas bush hedges. This is very plain but it is conceived to have a large sculpture as a centrepiece, when one is found. Japanese honeysuckle covered the new west fence in only a year, and propagated grape vine festoons the veranda.
We relocated the existing outbuilding to near the street entrance and it is now a simple garage and garden shed. We hope it will soon be covered by Virginia creeper, from a cutting taken at our old house in Church Street. Hedges are nearly concealing service areas. We are about to dig up and re-site some of the original japonicas to better suit the house and garden relationship and reduce the view into the parking area from the street.
For 110 years the main characteristic of the garden at Oak Dene has been large trees in green lawns. We have continued this by introducing three mature English Oaks to the western boundary. We hope that these and the whole property will be enjoyed for the next century.