It’s said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and at Yallambie Homestead, with its tumble down verandahs, unpainted corridors and chaotic ongoing renovation that makes for a lot of beholding. Long before the spate of “reality” renovation shows popularized it as entertainment, swinging a hammer had become somewhat of a weekend entertainment in this house, a leisure time activity it could be said that’s more usually reserved in other places for men wearing arrows on their jackets and working in a chain gang.
Sometimes it feels to me like it’s been hard to tell the difference.
I can’t say we didn’t enter into this with our eyes wide open. When the property was up for sale in 1993 a real estate column summed up the broad reality of the project, warning that, “Once imagination ceases and practicality takes over, Yallambie House looks like a lot of work (and money) for potential buyers.” (Heidelberger, p23, 16 December, 1993). It’s been that way ever since and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it has had its moments. Just look back on some of these posts written on a monthly basis over the last five or six years. Then again, not everyone might necessarily agree with our obsession with the Victorian aesthetic. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all.
Back in 1993 I remember a property agent speaking derisively of the old claw foot bath tub present in one of the bathrooms at Yallambie, declaring that it would have to be one of the first things to go in any renovation, but it was precisely for this and for other original elements in the house that, flying in the face of all common sense, our interest was piqued.
The rest as they say is history.
To illustrate how things rely so much on your matter of perspective, in 1993 it was a renovated bathroom upstairs that received special praise by an agent in a newspaper article:
“A fully refurbished tiled spa bathroom hints at the standard of luxury that might fittingly go with ownership of Yallambie Homestead.” (The Age, p39, 11 December, 1993)
But you know what? Luxury has never been my thing. Given the choice between the old fashioned and modern, the impractical or the practical, the impractical wins out every time.
And that’s been our approach to life ever since. So when the time came for renovating a bathroom here, it was pretty clear in which direction we would soon be heading.
Freud said that soap is the yardstick of civilization and while the average house in Victorian times didn’t usually include a dedicated bathroom, it could be said at Yallambie civilization came by pretty late in the day. The first plumbed bathroom wasn’t introduced until Annie Murdoch’s 1926 renovations, which I guess explains why most people in those days reportedly only ever had a bath on Sunday, and ponged for the rest of the week.
Currently there are three bathrooms at Yallambie, the previously mentioned spa and the claw foot bath, upstairs and downstairs respectively, but it was the bathroom attached to the old servants’ quarters that properly gave us the horrors. After a quarter century living with it, the time had finally come for it to go and meet its maker.
Or in my mind, I was ready to send it to that other place.
Out came that hammer.
By the look of it, I’m guessing the previous poo brown tiling and cheap acrylic cabinetry had been put in more than 50 years ago, with little else of note preceding it. It was a joy to knock it down. For its size, the bathroom has often been thought of as the most expensive room in a house to renovate and while wrecking it is the easy part, putting it back together is another story. Even with the best laid plans, inevitably there are complications.
The old tiling in this room had been applied to tile sheeting battened onto the wall which in effect lost us several inches across the width of what was already a particularly small room. That didn’t suit us at all so off it had to come. As I levered it from the wall I peered at the back of the sheet as it came away in my hands. “A”, “S”, “B” I began to read before downing tools and jumping out of the window which had been left open to clear the lingering dust. A phone call later to the Asbestos removal professionals and the first unforeseen problem was solved and the first unforeseen expense added to the ledger.
Given that the servants’ rooms were a post 1910 addition to the house we chose an Edwardian inspired look for the room including subway tiling and chrome fittings. The fittings were mostly purchased new from a popular internet auction site while the tile design was made up as we went along with tiles sourced from at least five different tile suppliers. All the work was done by yours truly, excepting of course the electrics and the plumbing and while the tiling alone took me a long, long time I find such processes almost therapeutic and in a creative way, not that far removed from my professional life as a commercial artist.
The old ceiling proved to be in pretty poor condition and wet plastering over your head has never been my idea of fun so after some discussion we decided instead to replace it with Baltic pine lining boards, after first considering pressed metal. Either would have been appropriate for the Edwardian look we intended, but the Baltic boards won out as they continued through with a theme already established in the nearby kitchen area. The cast iron vent introduced into the ceiling in front of an electric exhaust fan was found locally a couple of years ago at the formerly annual, pre-pandemic, Lower Plenty Primary School car boot sale. Don’t ask me how such a thing ended up for sale there.
“The usual colour was a shade of cream, buff or light brown for the walls with a buff ceiling. From the 1880s, sanitary wallpapers were made which could be used in bathrooms. As a rule, no cornices were used. The only real concession to decoration was a stained-glass window, which served a dual function by retaining privacy for the occupant of the bathroom while providing a degree of natural light.” (The Bathroom, Victorian Splendour, Suzanne Forge, Oxford Press, 1981)
Painted surfaces were kept deliberately simple and we did away with architraves altogether, tiling mud cap tiles over any edges and attaching other tiles onto a surface level adjacent to the plaster, in effect leaving no edges for cleaning purposes. The level of the floor was dropped so that the surface came out on the same level as the timber floor in the passage way outside and the tiling sloped towards a single drain point in the floor. We developed a floor pattern design using small hexagonal and square mosaic tiles which, given the small area covered, was of necessity kept simple.
The Edwardians often favoured lead light glass in bathroom windows and with this in mind I had already previously repurposed the old Yallambie front door lead light into the window of this bathroom. The bathroom door itself was pretty decrepit and after measuring up I noticed that an old leadlight door removed at another time from above the front balcony at the other end of the house would fit, after using a little amateur carpentry. The only concern might be the use of transparent rather than translucent glass in the leadlight of this door, but in a choice between privacy and aesthetics, it was the aesthetics that of course carried the day.
So here is the result. My wife is happy with it but happier still that it’s finally done and dusted and we can at last move on to other projects. She handed me a broad brush the other day and reminded me we have the whole outside of a house to paint now.
And it’s a big house.
Doesn’t she know I have a blog to write?