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By: Vicki Shuttleworth

Labassa has been part of St Kilda’s landscape for more than 150 years – first as “Sylliott Hill” built in 1862 for barrister Richard Billing, then as “Ontario” following a lavish refurbishment in 1890 for Cobb and Co. partner, Alexander Robertson and finally as “Labassa” when J. B. Watson II took up residence in 1904.

As with many St Kilda mansions built on 19th century gold, the Labassa Estate was decimated by 20th century residential subdivision and “flat-mania” of the 1920s. Labassa’s story is the story St Kilda reflecting its demographic shifts and social mores.

In February, more than 135 former residents, and others with a special connection to Labassa, returned to help document this story. A 1958 ABC documentary showing tenant furnishings and original 19th century fittings was found and more than 180 historic photos were added to our collection. Above all, we learned much more about the people who lived at Labassa and their links with the local community.

Stanley Sergeant, a real estate agent and one of the auctioneers of the Labassa Estate was the first owner to recognize Labassa’s potential for subdivision into flats, advertising for “approved tenants only” in April 1921.   He was also a well-known champion bridge player and in 1934 opened the Sergeant Bridge Studios in a new, purpose-built art deco building at 22 Punt Road, St Kilda – formerly the site of a historic iron house being used as a chemistry laboratory.

Grazier, Robert William Hannon purchased Labassa from Sergeant in March 1923. At this time, the mansion’s stables were still part of the Estate. Plans to convert them into flats had been thwarted by Caulfield Council who refused a permit on health grounds. By 1926, however, vacancies were being advertised at the new “Ontario Flats” with Hannon, his wife and their maid taking up residence.   Hannon’s tenants at “Labassa Flats” included several local identities – Miss Dora Miller, Head Mistress at Strathfield College in Inkerman Road; Company Director, Dan Davidson and radio broadcaster Norman McCance.

By 1936, Labassa’s grand downstairs rooms had a settled community of genteel, elderly couples who had lived in the area for several years. Thomas Chadwick, “of independent means”, took up residence in the Drawing Room with his wife Annie. The Chadwicks enjoyed a gracious social life, offering their apartment for charity fundraisers and celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 1944 with an “at home” on two separate dates, which were advertised in The Argus.

The “Willas Flats”, which were built on to the rear of Labassa by owner William O’Callaghan, were completed in 1937. Among the new tenants was silent screen star Louise Lovely – the first Australian movie actress to find success in Hollywood – and her husband Bert Cowan, Manager of St Kilda’s Victory Theatre.

During World War II, Labassa was a hub for fundraising activities with its own Red Cross Comfort Fund and Labassa badge.  Money was raised through card parties, raffles and a garden fete which, due to newspaper restrictions, was advertised by the Police Pipe Band marching up Orrong Road and into the grounds.  Neighbour, Mr Jones, father of former politician Barry Jones was the Air Raid Warden with responsibility for ensuring all windows in Manor Grove had their blackout curtains closed during air raid practice. Tenant Margaret Gleeson recalls the strange sight of a “blanket of darkness over the rooftops all the way to the Dandenongs”.

Following the war, Labassa was home to migrant families arriving from Germany, Holland, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. By the mid 1950s the entire first floor was occupied by Jewish families. A recently discovered legacy of their residency is the traces of Mezuzahs[1] on most of the upstairs doors. Jewish festivals were observed, sukkahs[2] built and kosher wine was made in the Willas Flats laundry. The first floor became much more than family accommodation, however, with the Apfelbaums and Traurigs using their apartments to manufacture garments.

By the beginning of the 1960s, “Labassa Flats” had been a family household for 40 years but demographic changes within St Kilda and neighbouring suburbs, combined with new rent collection practices, changed this forever. Up until c.1960 Labassa’s rent was collected by Francome & Co. employees. When the new agent, L. J. Hooker, ceased onsite rent collections, tenants started to bypass the agent and sublet their apartments.  The agent’s “married couples only” policy became impossible to enforce and Labassa developed a life of its own.

The establishment of the ABC television studios at Ripponlea in 1956 drew young actors, producers and editors into the area looking for accommodation. With the establishment of Monash University in 1961 and a growing interest in arts courses at the Prahran and Caulfield institutes of technology, students gravitated to St Kilda with its plentiful supply of rooming houses and flats.

Labassa evolved into an enclave for many artists in their formative years including playwright John Romeril; painter Robert Jacks; comedienne Jane Clifton, and, creative director for several Olympic ceremonies, Ric Birch.

While Labassa developed a reputation for wild parties, marijuana farms in the cellar and police drug raids, many of the tenants continued to live a more subdued, traditional lifestyle. As former tenant Philip Hutchison remembers: “We always had a lot of classical musicians and singers visiting, and one memorable evening, after the Monash Choral society had performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana they all turned up in their tuxedos and evening dresses about 11.00pm and on the staircase, balconies, tower and roof we had a magical performance of Carmina Burana.

These vignettes are only a small selection of those that have recently surfaced. If you have any Labassa stories to share please contact Vicki Shuttleworth or 9544 6859. Labassa, Manor Grove, Caulfield, is next open on Sunday 19 May 10:30am – 4:30pm


[1] A parchment containing the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael and attached to the door way in the main rooms of Jewish homes.

[2] A temporary hut constructed for use during the weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot.

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