Over two cold wintry days when the wind and rain beat down on her modest house steeped in family history, on the clifftop above Ranelagh Beach, Port Phillip Bay, Victoria Grounds (B.Arch. 1972) generously told Judy Turner her story.
What happens when a girl with a design bent has a father living and working in Melbourne with a massive reputation as a leading Australian architect? She studies architecture, of course, then quickly escapes to Sydney to work with leading landscape firm Bruce Mackenzie and Associates and then to Canberra, where she spends most of her working life. Fast forward some thirty years and the same daughter, now with a daughter of her own, learns that the house into which she was born, designed by her famous father for her then equally famous mother, Mrs Betty Ramsay, is on the market? Naturally she rushes off to see it again, falls in love, and after a long series of accidents manages to acquire it.
Victoria tells me that contrary to appearances in the middle of June, the clifftop house is warm and cosy, in fact it’s the most comfortable and most practical house she has ever lived in. She puts that down to good design, and the north-west orientation that gathers every bit of available winter sun. I put it down to good design and good vibes, which it has aplenty. A place where two well-connected, well established and well-married people fall in love and decide to quit families and reputations to set up together has got to have a Forsyte saga feel to it, though in the case of Roy and Betty it’s a story with a much happier ending.
The house is part of the Ranelagh Estate – a small sub-division from the 1920s designed by the Griffins and “envisaged as a place where professional people would build their holiday houses. Purchasers were encouraged to buy double blocks and the total number of purchasers was envisaged to be about 400. Sale of allotments started in February 1926. With its distinctive long curved roads, recreation reserves, communal facilities and spacious triangular traffic islands, it is a fine example of a residential subdivision designed to harmonise with the topography and indigenous vegetation of the area. The Ranelagh Estate is commonly credited with being the birthplace of Melbourne’s modern movement.” [Recognising the Heritage of Ranelagh – Conservation Management Plan, July 2009, Context PtyLtd]
The Betty Ramsay house was not Roy Grounds’ first contribution to the Ranelagh Estate, in 1935 he had built an experimental house which ever since has been fondly known as “The Ship”. In that house, Roy eschewed the popular New England style of seaside house to build something economical, contemporary, using modern materials and meeting modern needs.
At around that time, Mr Tom Ramsay had contracted the same “dashing young architect” to put a second story on the Ramsay house in Toorak – including children’s rooms and quarters for a nanny. The unexpected outcome a few years later was a change in marital circumstances for all protagonists. According to Victoria, Mrs Tom Ramsay – later to be Mrs Roy Grounds – was a practical woman who had run her own couturier establishment in Collins Street with Zara Holt (nee Dickins).The house remained hers after the divorce, and Betty moved to Mount Eliza to spend the war years there. The isolation must have been intense, but as Victoria says, her mother was a part of that generation that “just got on with things”. Roy spent the years of the war in the South Pacific with the RAAF and when he returned to Australia they lived together in the Mt Eliza house until the mid-50s when Betty sold the house to …… drum roll……. Roy’s partner Frederick Romberg, who had always loved and admired it, and whose first wife Verena Romberg continued to live there until her death around 2006.
When visiting the beach house, Victoria’s two half-brothers – the Ramsays – were like heroes to her, and treated her with the disdain appropriate to the age and gender gap. Their school holiday visits were very exciting times, with treks up and down to the beach right below the house. A special room was designed for Victoria off the western end of the house, with its own “stable” door so she could be shut in! Fortunately she got to share the one bathroom and the “throne with the best view in Australia”. The ti-trees that surrounded the house provided beautiful shade in summer, and explained its unorthodox orientation. Sadly sometime in the Romberg era they disappeared, maybe through old age, or perhaps a lost battle with erosion and wind.
The block’s steep slopes provide an ongoing challenge to Victoria and her neighbours, and living on the cliff edge – at a proximity to the cliff that would not be permitted under current planning regulations – gives her both great joy and continual stress. Wondering if she will wake up on the beach one day occasionally interrupts her sleep, but the sound of the waves and the wind are there to counteract Victoria’s anxiety. On the upper level, Roy’s solid wooden shutters instead of glass windows are an economical design feature, while the floors are in Victorian ash that gives off great warmth. On the ground level the floor is of terracotta tiling on a concrete slab, providing warmth in winter (passive solar effect) and cool in summer months. My own favourite feature was a giant army ordnance map of Port Phillip Bay, cut out and coloured by Roy for his own and the kids’ enjoyment, and stuck onto the ash lined wall at the eastern end of the ground floor living area.
The house is full of these delightful details in which Victoria takes great pride, and which give her joy every day. Replacing all the windows (in various stages of decay) with new timber windows in keeping with the original is her current project. But Victoria sees herself working on this labour of love for as long as she is able. With her talents, knowledge and skills she is uniquely qualified to look after this little treasure for posterity. In a moving postscript, Lady Grounds, the previous Mrs Betty Ramsay, outlived both her husbands and lived just long enough to see her original beach cottage return to the family when her daughter Victoria acquired it.