It may seem silly dedicating two posts to the one house – but once you get to the end of this one, you’ll be glad I did.
While I normally post photographs chronologically (according to the order I saw the house in), a picture of Como House’s back wall is in first position as it’s my favourite. There were levers throughout the house that, when pulled down, caused one of these bells to chime. They were used to call the servants. Each bell had a different sound so that the servants knew which room of the house to attend to.
These mirrors hang from the wall of the ballroom. In many ways, this room is the centrepiece of the house. It is where the Armytage family held regular dances. It connects the house to one of its pristine gardens via French doors. More pertinently, the ballroom is gigantic – so much so that the collection of French antiques, grand piano and chandelier are not enough to reduce its vastness. In fact, it feels kind of empty.
It was in the ballroom that, after a mini-inquisition by me, the tour guide informed us that the Armytage family is no longer necessarily a paragon of wealth, although it does count journalist Samantha Armytage in its ranks. By the mid-twentieth century, only two elderly sisters remained at the property. There was talk of the government resuming the land and turning it into a nursing home. As a result, the sisters sold the house and its land for half its value to the National Trust (a non-government heritage organisation that still manages the estate today). They then donated the proceeds back to the National Trust. While this is spruiked as a positive – and for people like me, it certainly is a positive – I find it incredibly sad that the family’s estate was essentially wrested from their hands, and without any gain for themselves. The sisters donated their belongings to the trust in order to preserve the house’s authenticity.
As the house was lived in by women and children for so long, only one room in the house has any evidence of ‘male-inspired’ decor: the billiard room. Its masculine design even informs the lever for the servant’s bell, which has a decorative black shell rather than the transparent crystal used in other rooms.
Security was a significant problem on the estate. Caroline’s first means of defence was standing on the top verandah and shooting at strange noises. They were a little bit cowboy in the nineteenth century. Their alternative security system was the below tunnel, which had two doors – an ordinary one and a super-heavy, impenetrable steel one. As my partner noted, you can’t actually close the door from the inside of the tunnel, so I presume that one of the servants had the enviable job of standing outside and locking the door, leaving themselves as bait for the intruder.
A back verandah was converted into a sunroom, which provided the only natural light for one of the bedrooms. The bedroom in question has bathing jugs, which were used until the early twentieth century in the house as the sewerage system wasn’t hooked up in Melbourne until then. One of the servants had to refresh and dispose of the water.
The main bedroom was typical of the rest of the rooms in the house – expansive and overfilled with intricate furniture and artefacts. I haven’t posted photographs of the nanny’s or children’s bedrooms as they are fairly standard. The nanny, interestingly, was one of only two servants who slept in the house itself. The rest slept in the servants’ quarters, or were day servants.
One of the house’s highlights (for me, anyway) is its original bathroom (I have never seen an original Victorian bathroom before – most unrenovated homes still seem to have had their bathroom renovated in the ’60s or ’70s). Due to the Armytage family’s affluence, Como House was one of the first properties in the city to have a bathroom. Space from one of the bedrooms was used to build the bathroom, which was constructed in the early twentieth century. Weirdly, the condition is so good that it almost looks like a heritage-inspired contemporary hipster design.
The servants were not entitled to use the main stairs – they were strictly confined to the servants’ stairs.
The servants’ area, which was located to the rear of the property, consisted of a well-equipped multi-room kitchen, sleeping quarters and a laundry. While the sleeping quarters are not particularly exciting (although they also weren’t awful), the servants’ area of the house contains some of its gems, particularly the kitchen, which houses a number of the mansion’s most interesting artefacts.
Como House provokes a mixed emotional response. While its grandness is awe-inspiring, treading through the house and seeing it set up as it originally was results in a sweet, sad nostalgia, particularly given the fact that the estate ultimately had to be given away to be preserved. While the mansion is breathtaking, it is also fighting against age, a difficult thing to do when monetary resources are so scant.