Our house: histories of Australian homes
40 - A large rambling affair
6 Throsby Crescent, Griffith, Australian Capital Territory
Throsby Crescent house in 1997.
Type 4. The Ideal Family Home: A large rambling affair, recklessly added to by a succession of owners whose vast imagination was matched by their handiness with tools. Its style is mixed and its lay-out improbable. (The House-Hunter's Phrase-Book', Observer, 22 February 1958.)
They moved in from a room in his aunt's house, where they stayed after marrying. Before that Bill Brown lived on the family farm at Bulga Creek, by the Murrumbidgee, the dirt floors of the homestead only recently covered with boards. Bette Hoggett had shared a room in Gorman House, a hostel for women, after coming from Hobart to work as a secretary in the raw national capital. They met in the typing pool in the Department of Immigration, Bette struck by the combination of brown suit and black shoes.
Largely financed by his savings from army service, this new house was built in double brick to the maximum permissible size of 12.5 squares. The builder supplied the plan - 'we'd never seen a plan before' - with specifications for cypress pine floors, tallow window sills and alpine ash joinery. It cost £2,240 and took six months (it could have been quicker, but the builder owned a racehorse, the electrician was a jockey, and the lures of country tracks took their toll).
A day, perhaps, when the horse was racing: Throsby Crescent house under construction in 1949.
The street was one of Canberra's distinctive Griffin-designed crescents, a generous sweep of roadway, lawn and footpath. There were two alternating, boxy types of government house on the down side, looking up - in a microcosm of Canberra's suburban hierarchy - to the wider facades of privately built houses on the other side of the street. Bill was offered a choice of three blocks, taking one on the high side to avoid the damp (the farmer's instinct). It was 1949 and 'it was ours'.
One ideal of the post-war 'modern' house was an open form that could be extended as enforced austerity passed. This was not such a home. Each of its rooms - kitchen, dining, lounge, two bedrooms (with built-in wardrobes) and bathroom - opened off an internal hall. They were bright rooms, with an enclosed verandah through french doors off the main bedroom to catch the morning sun. A modish projecting lounge-room had a large fireplace, and there was both a wood and electric stove in the kitchen. On freezing winter nights the warmest place to dry clothes, or for children to huddle in secret well after they should have been in bed, was in the hallway, soaking in the heat through the wall behind the fire.
Over time four children formed this family, the first, Sara, born in 1950, the last, Nicholas, in 1961, with Pennie and Simon in between. In accommodating them, this neat, formal house became a maze, sprawling, spacious and chaotic. The first bedrooms became thoroughfares to other rooms, one lost its window completely, and all rooms were drawn into a lottery of allocation according to age, gender, puberty and personality. The front verandah was closed-in very soon, becoming an illegal and draughty bedroom - but the only one leading nowhere else, allowing more freedom as it was passed from child to child.
In the late 1950s, young trees and lawn, a 'nature strip' leading down to a wide street, a floral frock and a boy in the gravel.
In 1955 a 'sunroom' was added beyond the main bedroom, with two walls of windows catching the north-westerly warmth - but effectively turning that bedroom into a thoroughfare. Another large bedroom at the back plunged the second bedroom into darkness. The original red-hued Marseilles tiles now abutted flat tin roofs from which tennis balls less readily returned.
In 1962 the kitchen was extended - another flat roof and now aluminium windows - to gain a space in which the family ate together at night, or, later, in a tight schedule of breakfasts as one son, a builder, gave place to the father, a public servant, followed the working daughter, the school child and the undergraduate. This, emphatically, was the mother's domain, complete with a large pantry for cakes, biscuits and preserves.
Pushing further out, in 1965 the neat cube of the sunroom was elongated into a space assuming the multiple functions of a family room. Still it was entered through the main bedroom, further eroding parental privacy - especially as older children used the room late into the night, and visitors progressed embarrassedly past bed and dresser. Soon the double 'arctic glass' doors of the dining room swung permanently shut, creating a fourth bedroom. Now each child had their own 'zone'.
In turn the lounge room became a dining room, and eventually boasted a broad, extendable table (Tasmanian blackwood, Bette boasted - reclaiming a bit of 'home'). On some Sunday nights, this was a site of initiation as each child introduced new partners, or returned for a meal with spouse and children. With the fire blazing at their backs, the pre-dinner sherry in their cheeks, this experience could be intimidating for those up for clan scrutiny.
Mid-1960s: the back garden of vegetables and the first ornamental tree - a rowan sapling by the barbecue; and a fair choice of chimneys.
Around the increasingly irregular form of this house, the garden, too, had its phases. At first beyond the back of the house lay a little lawn, then an expanse of beds devoted to vegetables and fruit trees, and to the side a garage knocked-up from an old farm fowl-house. But each extension defined new spaces. Wider windows and new doors opened onto a rock-paved area (a do-it-yourself flagging, which tested many ankles), a barbecue, a larger lawn and a concrete apron for a fleet of cars. At the front came a rockery and a broad terrace that was always just a little too open to the street but received, on summer evenings, the hint of a breeze.
Gradually all the children but one left home. Twice its original size, the house was sold in 1980 - not easily: it was too idiosyncratic - for $60,000. A new family of five, the Langmores, used it much as before, until in 1987 they knocked down walls between the kitchen, the dining room-bedroom-parlour and pantry, and fitted a skylight to the original second bedroom (now for 'dressing'). Even with this catch-up on the edicts of openness and 'life-style', there was no taker in 1989 at $235,000 and so in 1990 an ensuite was squeezed into the back porch and another bedroom grafted in beside the enclosed front verandah (still 'not to be used for habitable purposes'). The terrace was bricked up to eye-level: a courtyard safe from the street.
Sold again for $290,000 in 1996, the house is still loved as a family home, although one daughter now has the 'sunroom' as a bedroom to herself (the Browns roll their eyes at such luxury). The garden is all lawn and a second generation of trees - ornamental, not fruit. Overall, six Throsby Crescent testifies to the adaptability of the suburban home, through need, opportunity, imagination, and the changing aspirations for family space: 'the ideal family home'.
All photographs are Brown family photos.
Nicholas Brown was a Research Fellow in the Urban and Environmental Program, Australian National University, from 1995-1999, writing a social and environmental history of south-east NSW from 1945 and on aspects of the history of housing in Australia. He has a chapter in Patrick Troy's A history of European housing in Australia. He is currently working in the Department of Defence.