The Age: Esme Johnston home saved from demolition

The Age published the following article on 15 June 2020. Author: Jewel Topsfield

Beaumaris Modern president Fiona Austin in front of the Esme Johnston house. Credit: Simon Schluter

An unusual Tudor Revival home in Brighton designed by journalist Esme Johnston in the 1920s has won a reprieve after an application to demolish it and build two townhouses was refused.

The National Trust and community association Beaumaris Modern – which has fought doggedly to preserve mid-century architecture – welcomed the decision but called for the eclectic home’s permanent protection.

Bayside City Council has come under attack for abandoning municipality-wide heritage studies in 2008 and 2018 – after “all hell broke loose” according to the mayor – which has left historic homes unprotected.

Last month saw the demolition of two post-war homes – the award-winning Breedon House, designed by architect Geoffrey Woodfall, in Brighton and a mid-century home in Nautilus Street, Beaumaris, designed by architect Charles Bricknell.

A third modernist home – The Abrahams House on Beach Road, Beaumaris – will also be lost after the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal this month granted a permit for two townhouses to be built on the site.

And police are continuing to investigate a fire at Spurling House – a 131-year-old home in Brighton that was at the centre of a demolition dispute – after firefighters believed the fire may have started under suspicious circumstances.

Bayside mayor Clarke Martin said he expected a report would be brought to the council next week recommending it “return to its duty” and resume a heritage study it abandoned in 2018.

“We have a duty under planning laws to protect heritage and without having completed a heritage study we are obviously a bit exposed,” Cr Martin said.

A heritage study would have identified the best examples of the mid-century period, with a planning scheme amendment prepared to permanently protect them. This approach is taken by almost all other councils.

But Cr Martin told The Age last month the council had abandoned the study in 2018 after some residents hit out when told their houses would be put on an interim heritage overlay until the study was completed amid fears it would make renovating and selling their homes difficult and drive down property values.

“As soon as the letters were put in letter boxes, all hell broke loose,” Cr Martin said last month. “It descended into a horrible situation, where people were literally yelling at each other in the streets.”

On Monday, Cr Martin said that when the heritage study was completed, “everyone will know where they stand regarding the heritage of properties”, including home owners and developers.

On June 10, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal refused to grant a permit to demolish the Esme Johnston house, at 38 Grosvenor Street, which was covered by an interim heritage order.

The home, which was built in 1929, was designed by journalist, actress, radio announcer and script writer Esme Johnston, who also acted as project manager and undertook some of the work herself.

In a citation, cultural heritage planner David Helms said it had aesthetic significance as a house with distinctive form materials and detailing inspired by the Tudor Revival style, which was popular during the interwar period.

“It demonstrates the emergence of women in the design and architectural fields prior to World War Two,” he said.

Beaumaris Modern president Fiona Austin welcomed the decision not to demolish it.

However, she said if Bayside City Council had completed a heritage study 20 years ago they wouldn’t be in the situation where they had to keep going to VCAT every time a significant property was threatened.

A planning panel in July will determine whether the Esme Johnston home will receive permanent protection.

“This is no ordinary heritage building—out of tens of thousands of places protected by Heritage Overlays in Victoria, the number of buildings designed by women, that we know of, can be counted on two hands,” said Felicity Watson, executive manager, advocacy at the National Trust.

“We look forward to supporting the permanent protection of this building at the upcoming planning panel hearing, and to furthering the recognition of women in our history and heritage.”