When assessing the entries for the heritage category of this year’s Boroondara Urban Design Awards, members of the judging panel found themselves torn between two outstanding properties. So they decided to award both properties: Belmont House in Kew, and the property profiled here: Hawthorn’s Elberfeld House.

Our regular contributor Stephen Crafti is one of Australia’s most respected and widely published architecture and design writers. This is the second of three profiles he’ll be writing about Urban Design Award-winners, which will feature in the October edition of the Boroondara Bulletin.

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Text by Stephen Crafti, photography by Derek Swalwell

Boroondara Urban Design Awards 2018: Heritage award-winner Elberfeld House

An early Victorian villa in Hawthorn shares this year’s Heritage Award from our Urban Design Awards. Located in Lisson Grove, a picturesque street lined with many period homes, this house, dating from the mid-19th century and thought to be one of the oldest in the area, appears relatively modest compared to its neighbours.

“Our clients (a couple whose children had long left home) were looking for a period home in this area, something that came with history,” says architect Jane Riddell, director of Jane Riddell Architects. She had already inspected a couple of properties for these clients, advising them on the potential and drawbacks for each. “They missed out on the other two places, but got lucky on the third attempt.”

Riddell’s practice tends to serve a number of generations from the same family. “Each brief tends to be quite different given the ages, but you develop a relationship and sense of trust that spans years,” she says.

Sitting on a generous 1,000-square-metre site with a rear northern garden, the home's potential was obvious. However, rather than focusing solely on its period charm, Riddell also spoke frankly to her clients about the Victorian villa's constraints. While it certainly constituted an important part of the heritage streetscape, it was in need of attention. The once slate roof had been replaced and the original front awning had long gone.

Garden at Elberfeld

“You could say the original house had a strong masculine feel, quite robust on its bluestone foundations,” says Riddell, who was also concerned with the sombre front rooms, devoid of light. “People lived very differently at that time. The focus was on the open fireplace, rather than the garden,” she adds.

One of the highlights of the original house was the arched entrance, with its steel columns framing the passage. Riddell and her team reworked the original front rooms, converting two of them into the main bedroom and ensuite. On the other side of the passage, two rooms were transformed into a study and a gymnasium. New skylights in each area increased the amount of natural light.

Light-filled interior at Elberfeld

However, what the home really needed was an entire new contemporary wing, with a couple of additional bedrooms. “Our clients’ children often come over for a meal and end up staying the night,” says Riddell.

Rather than simply attaching a modernist structure at the rear of the home to maximise the light and garden views, Riddell designed a bridge-like gallery passage that links the past to the present. In a nod to the decorative steel columns greeting visitors to the house, fine steel poles line the passage connecting the two wings. The courtyard-style gardens on either side of this walkway, designed by John Patrick Landscape Architects and conceived in a low-maintenance Japanese aesthetic, further soften the lines between the two periods. And unlike the previous arrangement, where there was a steep set of stairs leading to the back garden, the ‘bridge’ as it’s referred to (flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass walls either side) features gentle broad timber steps, given there’s a slight fall across the property.

In contrast to the Victorian villa, the new Miesian addition is heavily glazed and appears to ‘float’ above the landscape. Riddell used screw piles below the veranda to support the structure, creating a ‘dialogue’ with the heavy bluestone foundations that feature in the Victorian home. As well as floor-to-ceiling glass walls framing the new open-plan kitchen, dining and living area, Riddell inserted two large steel-and-glass pivotal doors (over three metres in height) on either side of the fireplace.

The kitchen is also unashamedly contemporary with streamlined white painted joinery and a central island bench, finished in granite. “The kitchen is fairly pared back to allow the garden to be centre stage,” says Riddell. A wraparound verandah at the rear diffuses the northern light, its steel columns in keeping with the contemporary theme.

Although this house is substantial for a couple, it can be broken down into zones so that the spaces are far from overwhelming. “Having the ability to close off part of the house formed an element of the brief,” says Riddell, who admires her clients’ move into a contemporary world. “When you’re working with clients, it’s important to show possibilities. But it’s also important to educate and show the best of both periods, past and present,” she adds.

Example of interior design at Elberfeld