The recent history of Burnham Beeches has seen up to eight different owners and operators, each proposing development plans with varying degrees of changes and interventions to the 22.5 hectare property and its significant Art Deco residence, known as the Norris Building. None of these development plans have been seen through to fruition, with the exception of the Forest and Garden Wing extension made to the Norris building in the early 1980s, an extension in the Art Deco style undertaken prior to the current heritage planning controls on the site. The lack of significant conservation works to the Norris Building and activation of the site more broadly has seen the property largely unoccupied for the last 25 years. The National Trust along with our Dandenong Ranges Branch have been involved in the planning processes of numerous applications over the last 15 years. Throughout these applications we have strongly supported the ongoing adaptive re-use and activation of the site necessary to protect this place for future generations. Given that the latest plans for the site by the current owners are about to be considered by the Yarra Ranges Shire Council, we thought it was worth taking a close look at our archival files on the property, and considering this permit in the context of the site’s development history.
The Art Deco mansion at Burnham Beeches was built between 1931-33 for the Nicholas family. The design by Harry Norris sits uniquely at the midpoint between the decorative zigzag Moderne of the 1920s. The vast three storey house, built in reinforced concrete, is a rare, elaborate example of its type in Australia and comparable with works in Britain and the United States. Built for a wealthy industrialist Alfred Nicholas, Burnham Beeches is a period exemplar of the up-to-the-minute high style living and entertaining of the 1930s in Australia. The site is surrounded by significant gardens containing a mix of indigenous and exotic plantings, intact rockeries and extensive terraces as envisaged by the owner Alfred Nicholas, his designer Hugh Linaker, and gardener Percy Trevaskis. A large extent of the garden is now known as the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens and is managed by Parks Victoria. The site also contains a number of outbuildings, reflecting the self-sufficiency of the Nicholas family when in residence. To find out more about the recognised significance of Burnham Beeches of you can read the National Trust Statement of Significance here, the National Trust full classification report here, and the Victorian Heritage Register Statement of Significance here. The Melbourne architect Harry Norris is known for a number of other recognisable buildings, including the Former Kellow Falkiner Showrooms in St Kilda Road, the David Jones Store (Former Coles) on Bourke Street, the Former Melford Motors on Elizabeth Street, and Mitchell House, corner Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets. For the Nicholas family he also designed the nearby property Strathalbyn in Sassafras.The Norris building and its surrounding landscape at Burnham Beeches was documented in Australia Home Beautiful in March of 1934 and 1935. Landscape designer Hugh Linaker is also known for his design of the Domain Parklands and reserve of the Shire of Remembrance, Former Mont Park Hospital in Macleod and Mayday Hills in Beechworth.
Alfred Nicholas had only lived for a few years at the property when he died in 1937 and the family offered up the home for use as a 50 bed children’s hospital between the years of 1941 and 1944, seeing some alterations undertaken to the building. The house was vacant between 1944 and 1948 before Alfred Nicholas’s widow returned to residence in 1949 following renovations and refurbishment. In 1955 the house was leased to the Nicholas Institute (part of Alfred Nicholas’s business run by his son, Maurice) who operated their medical and veterinary research at the site until 1981. Alterations were made to the house to accommodate the required laboratories. By 1965 the large extent of the landscaped gardens proved difficult to maintain, and the lake with 32 acres of garden was donated the Shire of Sherbrooke (now the Yarra Ranges Shire Council). Renamed the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens and opened to the public, the condition of the garden deteriorated during this time, including the controversial removal of almost 100 mature Mountain Ash trees from the entry to the gardens. Three acres of the garden were leased during 1971-73 to the Robson and Koslowski families who ran a miniature village known as ‘Kindyville’ on the lawn beside the front driveway. In August 1973 this part of the property was transferred to the Forests Commission of Victoria (now Parks Victoria) who maintain the garden to the high standards evident there today.
In November 1981 the property was put up for auction. Restaurateur John Guy bought the property, subsequently holding a clearance auction of furniture and equipment in 1982. His $3 million development of the site into a luxury hotel has been the blueprint for a number of proposals for the site since then. Works undertaken at the property at this time are the most substantial alterations to the Norris building to date, largely through construction of a luxury wing of guest rooms, known as the Forest and Garden Wing (or Annexes). The extension saw the demolition of the original pool and the tennis court. Constructed in a “sympathetic” Art Deco style imitating the mansion, to the untrained eye this wing may appear to be part of the original extent of the property.While this imitation of the Art Deco style may not be seen as best practice in heritage extensions today, there appeared to be little objection to these works being undertaken at the time and the subsequent offerings of the hotel were praised in the contemporary press. Between 1983 and 1990 it is understood that the property changed hands two more times, once to Aman Resorts operated by Adrian Zencha (a Hong Kong company) and subsequently to Raymond Hall and Michael Wilson in 1989, whose management of the property continued to be praised by the local press. The National Trust classified the property in 1987. In October 1990, the Historic Buildings Council (now Heritage Victoria) examined the property, resolving to hold a hearing into the architectural and historic significance of the place in December 1990, placing an Interim Preservation Order on the property in November of that year. The property was formerly added to the Victoria Heritage Register on 27 March 1991. The following is a brief overview of the various permit applications and planning scheme amendments we are aware of since 1990:
In May the National Trust was invited by Adam Garrison to inspect the Burnham Beeches property. We had a complete run through of all buildings on the property affected by the planning permit including the Norris building and associated outbuildings.This provided us an opportunity to view current state of the Norris building, which has been largely unoccupied for the last 25 years, and for us to get an understanding of the scale of works ahead across the property more broadly. The National Trust was pleased to see that the building is in a fair condition, with minimal water damage to some isolated sections on the top floor. Conservation work to the reinforced concrete exterior and a complete fit out of the interior are major projects that will be subject to a Heritage Victoria permit. As far as we understand, based on the exhibited plans accompanying the joint C142 Amendment and planning permit, no major alterations to the layout of the Norris Building are proposed, with minimal demolition across the outbuildings more generally. Visiting the property and taking in the stunning interior spaces of the Norris building, with their connection to the surrounding landscape, reinforced our position that the site requires use and activation to ensure its conservation into the future.
The C142 Amendment and planning permit is to be considered by Yarra Ranges Shire Council at their Council Meeting this week, Tuesday 26th September 2017. The agenda for the meeting can be viewed here along with an outline of public submissions and site history in the agenda attachments. The Council will be considering the recommendation that the Minister for Planning appoint an independent planning panel to consider the combined application. They may also consider changing the amendment in accordance with submissions or abandoning all or part of the application. We support the recommendation made in the agenda that the combined application go through a panel process allowing for a full independent consideration of submissions received.
The National Trust statement of significance for Burnham Beeches highlights integrity of the place: “a property renowned for its completeness and attention to detail: Burnham Beeches comprised extensive residential accommodation, large garden, sufficient rural land to enable self-sufficiency and a complete range of complementary outbuildings.” The proposed adaptive re-use of these heritage outbuildings features a provedore retail space, and the focus on produce throughout the proposed uses for the outbuildings provides an interesting link to the self-sufficiency model Alfred Nicholas had in mind when he established the estate in the 1930s. The current owners have experience working with heritage properties with sensitive outcomes, and on balance, their proposal, as currently exhibited, presents an opportunity to celebrate the cultural heritage of the property in a form that will allow ongoing public access into the future. Based on the advertised plans for the joint C142 Amendment and planning permit we are generally comfortable with the heritage outcomes proposed for the place with any issues expected to be resolved in the detailed design process required as part of any Heritage Victoria permit.
The long history of failed and frustrated development plans at Burnham Beeches illustrates the challenges inherent in the management of complex historic sites, and the need to balance conservation outcomes with a viable commercial use. In this context, from a heritage perspective, we believe the current proposal strikes a balance between the need to raise capital for conservation, and providing for an ongoing use that will see the property restored with the introduction of relatively minimal new development, opening up parts of the site that have not been publicly accessible for decades. We consider that the planning amendment and permit processes will provide an opportunity to examine heritage issues in detail, but also recognise that heritage is just one of many issues to be resolved during the planning scheme amendment and permit process, including bushfire, traffic, and sewerage issues.
The advertised plans referenced above for the current joint C142 Amendment and planning permit at Burnham Beeches can be viewed here.
Our annotated photo gallery below highlights the features of the Norris building interior, a stunning space, which still maintains a dominant focus on the surrounding landscape and garden, heightened by the Moderne architectural style.
National Trust of Australia (Vic)