Our house: histories of Australian homes
34 - The Federation house
8 Chester Street, Subiaco, Western Australia
Chester Street house in 1997.
8 Chester was built in 1907 on lots 126 and 127 (part) on Perth Suburban Lot 250. When the suburban land was opened up in the 1880s Lot 250 - along with other lots comprising some 36 acres - was purchased by James Mackay, a Perth stationer. His land would become known in the 1980s as Subiaco's 'Golden Triangle'. The land was high above the new Perth to Fremantle railway line and would look over the 1890s tramway down Hay St from the city of Perth. King's Park, designated in 1901, reared still higher behind Mackay's land.
In 1891 Mackay sold 20 acres to James Chesters of St Kilda, Victoria, including Lot 250; and Chesters subdivided and sold lots to other Victorians through the goldrush years. In 1901 Chesters further subdivided Lot 250, creating Kershaw and Chester Streets, complete with rights-of-way. By this time Chesters himself had moved to Subiaco. In 1907 Chesters created lots 126 and 127 (part), 498 square metres in total, as a separate title, and also lots 128 and 127 (part). On these he had two identical houses built, federation-style of course, probably constructed by Joe Totterdell, a builder-developer active in Subiaco.
The Chester St house in 1948.
The brand new house at 8 Chester St was sold in 1908 to the Temby brothers, Walter and Fred, who were merchants and grocers in Subiaco. The house was owned by the Temby family until it was sold in 1927 to Mrs Anna Becher, a widow. Stannage family legend has it that Mrs Becher took in boarders and she may have added a fibro (asbestos) rear section to the house in the 1930s.
The Kimber family owned 8 Chester from 1938 to 1943. There were three sisters. Emma Millicent, the owner, was a schoolteacher and a well-known floral artist. There was a second Miss Kimber; and their sister, a widow, Mrs Baldock. They were improvers and replaced the bullnose-roofed wooden-floored verandah with a modern concrete floor, stone pillars and squared posts, and a flat roof. White-ant damage probably occasioned the 'improvement'. The self-contained asbestos add-on at the rear bears the marks of social and perhaps economic necessity. The bricks used for a rear-room cellar also date from that period.
The Kimbers built an air-raid shelter in the backyard, and, being independent women, drove a motor car. They built an asbestos garage on the rear of the block; and they carried the asbestos sheeting across the back at a great height, gaining privacy from the rear lane. Their wash-house backed onto this wall, a chicken-yard distance from the old outdoor lavatory. Perhaps their most striking innovation was the conversion of the pantry into an indoor bathroom and toilet. The house henceforth was nothing if not versatile.
Rev James and Helen Stannage with Miriam and Tom at Chester St in 1948.
This was the home to which the Masters and Stannage families came in 1943. Millicent sold 8 Chester for £2,700 (approximately) to Jane Masters, who, with her husband Charles, farmed in the Avon Valley. They did not leave the farm until 1948; but in the intervening years the house was lived in by their daughter Helen and her husband, the Reverend James Stannage. Helen and Jim lived there from 1943 to 1950, with their children Miriam (born in 1939) and Tom (born in 1944).
From 1950 to 1960 the Stannages lived in the parish of Basendean while the Masters enjoyed a quiet retirement in Subiaco. Their house was memorable for its rural character, from Goldsborough Mort calendars in the kitchen, the Western Mail and Countryman as staple reading, with fence, shed, and roof repairs usually involving pieces of wire, to the grinding stone in the yard, chickens in the back corner, and, in the evenings a quiet pipe and companionship in deep cane chairs on the front verandah, before the seven o'clock news.
Jane's illness brought Helen and Jim Stannage back to 8 Chester. Their impending return galvanized the family into massive renovations. This is what happened in 1959. On the northern (lane) side, the little room of baby Tom's years lost its exterior wall, which was pushed out to the perimeter of the property, creating a large study with a separate western external door and with medium-height windows. The dark south-side kitchen lost an interior wall and was opened out to a modern kitchen-dining room combination. The small high windows were replaced with room-width large windows. Thus from north to south the middle section of the house was flooded with light.
Miriam Stannage painting the back pergola in 1960.
Helen Stannage did the lot, with a local Bassendean builder, 'Mr Nugent'. She also had an asbestos partition put in the old sleep-out, to create a bedroom for herself and Jim. She converted the south side of the asbestos rear into a bedroom for the teenage Tom. Jane and Charles Masters had the 'top' two rooms, and Miriam had the adjacent 'spare' room.
Helen's modernizing energy was not yet spent. She installed a combustion stove, and then a revolutionary 'Small's sola heeta', designed by Bassendean parishioner, Clarry Small. The actual installation waited on the most dramatic of Helen's improvements, the re-roofing in orange Bristile tiles. As the tin came off, the old gables disappeared, and the plaster freizes with them. Wire mesh ringed the eaves to keep out cats and possums. By 1960 Chester St had entered the postwar world, with even the federation-style fireplaces and passage arch removed for the less fussy bricked-in look, and rooms painted in feature-wall colours.
Helen should have been allowed to rest on the seventh day; but the physical changes to the house needed to be matched by an emotional energy to care for six and sometimes seven adults. Jane and Charles Masters were nursed at home, dying in 1961 and 1963. Helen bought out her sister Isabel and became sole owner in 1964. With Jim now in non-earning retirement, Helen reworked the study and back asbestos section into a self-contained flat, filled from 1964 to 1970 with 'the girls', nurses and office workers paying a weekly rent. For the only time in the postwar years Helen had the beautiful street-fronting 'top' bedroom; indeed alone after Jim's death in 1968.
Helen's final burst came in 1970. Fearful of dry-rot and brick-fretting she got 'the boys' to render part of the front, and then paint over all its tuck-pointed exterior red-brick walls. The federation look had now gone completely. And by one of history's ironies, the heritage movement was about to move in.
Last days for the outdoor lavatory, 1977.
It did so in the form of her son, Tom, and his wife Maria who returned from England in 1971. Helen returned to the rear part of the house, while Tom, Maria, and baby Christopher and then baby Katherine lived in the 'top' half. In 1972 ownership passed to Tom and Maria, for $18,700. Helen bought a smaller house in adjacent Salisbury St. By 1973 Tom and Maria were prominent in the 'Save Subiaco' Movement, deriding the Town Plan as a 'businessmen's ramp', as it deemed 80% of the housing stock of Subiaco demolishable.
At 8 Chester between 1974 and 1976 old leadlight front and side doors (from a home demolished down the hill on Rokeby Rd) were (re)installed, and a massive Edwardian fireplace and surround again graced the lounge-room (from a house demolished in Claremont). A local 'heritage' builder found turned verandah posts (from a house demolished in Leederville) and these were planted and covered with a bullnose tin roof on the 1907 line.
Changes were also made inside. The wall separating the dining room and half the back flat area was knocked out to create a dining-family room with glass from floor to ceiling at the extended rear. Exposed raked timber rafters characterised the new space of the seventies. The builder, Charles Lubanski, worked from feel. He also converted Tom's teenage bedroom into an inside laundry. In 1977 they knocked down the outside lavatory, using the old bricks as paving under a new pergola. Throughout this period the old flat part of the house was let out to tenants.
Not until 1980 was the full house finally resumed by the family. The Stannages then took a deep breath, modernised the kitchen cabinets and floor (and painted the walls in high gloss royal blue, anticipating fashion by a decade), berber-carpeted the house (previously honan matting, finger wrenchingly stitched), and restored the passage plaster arch and ceiling corners.
Back garden and pool at Chester St in 1997.
The last transformations were prompted by promotions for Tom and Maria. It was the summer of 1982/83. The asbestos flat was torn down and a new rear bedroom for the parents created, linked externally to the glassed family room. The bedroom had an attractive Stannage-designed bathroom. A new brick garage was built on the site of the 1930s asbestos one, with the brick wall carrying along the east rear wall, maintaining a good height for privacy. And before the brick wall went up a concrete swimming pool went in. The Stannage children and their grandmother, Helen, loved it. She had watched with good humour as Tom and Maria undid her 1950s improvements ('I always regretted doing that...').
By the mid 1980s Subiaco had been 'saved', with even white picket fences reappearing after the high wall phase, houses were sold expensively as 'colonial', and the growth of blocks of units was dramatically slowed. Subiaco was now middle class professional conservationist and proud of it. The cracks in the façade had yet to appear.
8 Chester itself had become re-federationized but comfortably eclectic (pre-postmodern) as a home. Christmas day brought all the assorted relations to 8 Chester for lunch and presents and memories. And so it would remain into the 1990s. As they arrived, however, it was the oldness of the place which greeted them, for, despite all the changes, the tacoma hedge stretched greenly across the front, as it had done since the 1920s.
A working family's paradise, as they say in Australian history.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
For 8 Chester St there are Subiaco Council records, Department of Land Administration records, Stannage family photographs, an interview with Helen Stannage, and memories of Tom and Maria Stannage.
Spillman, Ken, Identity prized: a history of Subiaco, Perth 1985.
West Australian 1 August 1939; 6 September 1944; 25 October 1945 (information on Miss Kimber as a floral artist).
White, John and Margaret Pitt Morrison, eds, Western towns and buildings, Perth 1979.
Professor Tom Stannage took up his appointment as Executive Dean for the Division of Humanities at Curtin University in 1999. Previously he was Professor of History at the University of Western Australia. He received the inaugural Prime Minister's Award as Australian University Teacher of the Year in 1997 and was foundation Chairman, Western Australian Heritage Council, 1991.
His main publications include The people of Perth: a social history of Western Australia's capital city, 1979, co-editor/author, Handbook for Aboriginal and Islander history, Canberra, 1979, 1998; editor, A new history of Western Australia, Perth, 1981; Western Australia's heritage: the pioneer myth, Perth, 1985; co-convenor and co-editor, Images of women: women and museums in Australia, National Museum of Australia, 1994; and co-author, Principal Australian Historic Themes, a report commissioned by the Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra, 1993-94.