At the eastern entrance of the vestibule, huge aviaries of exotic birds and parrots ran down that side of the house and their screeches and chatter could be heard throughout the garden.
The landing area of the huge staircase had a false floor in those days. For the unwary who stepped on it after ‘lights out’, an alarm was set off, warning the inhabitants either of an intruder or perhaps an unlucky latecomer arriving home on the quiet! This was just one of the many intriguing memories I have of my cousins’ home in Walmer Street, Kew. I frequently accompanied my grandmother on her regular visits there in the ‘40s and every visit was an adventure.
‘Villa Alba’ was purchased by my great, great uncle Samuel Fripp from the McEvoys in 1918. Sam Fripp was one of Melbourne’s early industrial chemists having arrived in Melbourne as a young man in 1874. He became the founder and Chairman of Rocke Thompsitts. He was also a Director of the Melbourne Herald amongst other Boards. He died at Villa Alba in 1938. His second wife Esther and two of his four children remained there until Esther’s death ten years later. His youngest son Larry moved a few doors down Walmer Street and his eldest son Sam Jnr. moved to Wardlow in Parkville. ‘Villa Alba’ was sold to The Womens’ Hospital in 1959 and became The Henry Pride Wing.
In 1988 I returned to Villa Alba for the first time since those early sojourns and my memories ran riot as I wandered from room to room recalling those heady days of my childhood when the house was stunningly and copiously furnished and every room a unique experience.
The exterior of Villa Alba was never considered beautiful. It was always a rather sombre two storey mansion that some considered Norman in style and others Italianate. It has 30 rooms and its tower was once a landmark overlooking the Yarra river valley area of Kew and Abbotsford. Even as a child however, I was very much aware of the splendour of its interior. I was of quite unaware in those days of my still latent interest in interior design and decoration, and it was only much later that I recognized the possible effect those early forays had on me.
The property, which adjoins what was then Mr John Wren’s mansion, was surrounded by a high, finely corrugated unpainted iron fence with a large and elaborate wooden gate in Walmer Street and paneled corrugated gates in Nolan Ave. Once inside, it was akin I imagine, to entering The Secret Garden.
Intensive landscaping had been carried out on the sloping land and many stone steps, pillars and paths were designed throughout the garden. At the eastern entrance of the vestibule, huge aviaries of exotic birds and parrots ran down that side of the house and their screeches and chatter could be heard throughout the garden. The Pekingese dog Dee always greeted us with joy on our arrival, so there always seemed much activity.
The main living area of the house was the vestibule [a sort of all purpose family/dining room]. It had a large round dining table covered with a long fringed velvet cloth, overlaid with damask. This was always set with heavy silver cruets, kept polished by the maid. This was where we always had ate. The walls of this room had murals painted on both walls and at either end of the room large glass doorways led outside. One of these led to the Conservatory, filled with orchids and rare and exotic plants.
The eastern exit from this room led to stone steps and the croquet lawn and further on flower beds surrounded by scalloped tiles. The gravel paths were always raked and I recall seeing my first tree peonies in these flower beds.
Further on into the garden and backing on to Mr Wren’s garden was a paddock which contained a house cow, fowl pens and a rabbit hutch; a fascinating domain for any child. This part of the property was Ern’s responsibility and garden was Syd’s. Both men lived on the place and like the maid, were very much part of the establishment, ‘retainers’ as they were called in those days.
On the occasions when it was too cold to be outside, I explored the house. The ground floor was dark, and the hall, shrouded in heavy velvet curtains seemed full of palms. My favourite room downstairs was Uncle Sam’s Smoking Room. This was the first room on the left leading down the hall from the vestibule. It was steeped in the aroma of pipe tobacco, cigars, chocolates [in wooden boxes] and butterscotch [in flat tins]. The chairs were draped with antimacassars and I recall silk smoking hats and a fire always burnt in the grate. Uncle Sam entertained in this room, it was his domain.
The staircase that led upstairs was carpeted, unlike the hall downstairs which had a floor of black and white diagonal flagstones. Half way up the staircase, as I have previously mentioned, the ‘landing’ had a false floor that moved slightly when you stepped onto it. It was a great source of great fascination for some reason. It represented stealth I think.
Upstairs was yet another world. Magnificent decorative bedrooms abounded on either side of the hall, all light and lacy, with voluminous beds and pillows and silken cushions everywhere it seemed. At the end of the hall was the entrance to the tower and this housed the spiral cast iron staircase. At the top was a landing where the flags, that were flown on specific occasions, were kept. The tower overlooked the Yarra and across Abbotsford to Richmond and the City. This was always a point of call.
I am fortunate to still have such clear memories of Villa Alba whilst it was still a family home.
Diana Allen, 2005