The location is superb, just across the Yarra River where Johnston St, Collingwood ends and Studley Park Road, Kew begins. The Yarra was a natural barrier to the city’s expansion so the early homes built in this area of Melbourne turned their backs on the working class terrace house, and gave way to the grand Villa’s of Studley Park, Kew. Early photos show that the villa was on a much larger property than it is today.
Villa Alba was built by William Greenlaw in 1882. Greenlaw’s wife’s family had purchased the property in 1862. Greenlaw was the General Manager of one of Victoria’s early banks, the Colonial Bank of Australasia which went belly up in the depression of the 1890’s.
The Greenlaw’s had spent a fortune on the property. According to the Villa Alba Preservation committee, Greenlaw “threw caution to the winds and turned his modest house, Villa Alba, into a mansion in keeping with its neighbours in Studley Park, Kew. He then gave Paterson Brothers, Melbourne’s leading decorators, free rein in his new interiors and topped off their work with loads of fashionable Aesthetic and Artistic Furnishings”. It goes on “While this exercise in conspicuous consumption contributed to Greenlaw’s insolvency, demotion and death (in 1895), his and his wife’s profligate spending will eventually benefit Australians”.
And indeed it did.
Greenlaw was obviously careful enough, and even though he personally became bankrupt, the house was in his wife’s name and out of the reach of creditors. Mrs Anna Greenlaw managed to hold onto the property until 1918 although she rented it out shortly after her husband’s death. She did, however sell all of the contents in order to earn some cash:
In 1918 the property was transferred to Samuel Fripp who owned it until 1950 to the Royal Women’s Hospital, initially to house nurses and subsequently a post-natal convalescence hospital for mothers and babies. It was held by several hospitals until 1999 when it was sold to the Society of Jesus for use by Xavier College.
A community group led by Sir Rupert Hamer was established in 1984 with a view to preserving the property which by then was in poor repair. In 2004 Villa Alba Museum Incorporated gained title to the house and it has been managed by that community group ever since. It is open on the first Sunday of each month.
These days the house is subject to constant restoration and renovation, with the committee trying to get it back to its earlier condition, although I must say that it is most interesting the way that it is currently presented.
Despite the tough time that it has had, there are many original features that indicate the highly ornate nature of the decorations within the Villa.
Much of the original garden was taken over by Xavier, however there is still about 3/4 of an acre of grounds around the Villa.
The plantings hark back to the Victorian era when the house was built.
So if you’re at a loose end on the first Sunday of the month, you could do far worse that a visit to see one of Melbourne’s perpetual renovations. The volunteers attending on the day showing the visitors through were fantastic.