The architect, Harry Norris (1888-1966), was a commercial architect in Melbourne in the inter-war era. And he stayed up-to-date by making a number of trips abroad, especially to the USA, to observe modern architectural trends. But probably Norris was given the job because he was a neighbour of the Nicholas family in Melbourne.
Norris was given explicit instructions; the new house was to have “fresh air, sunshine and an outlook of command, yet under control”. I have no idea what that meant, but being built in the 1930-33 era, the architect had no trouble coming up with an Art Deco design that fitted the bill.
The use of advanced reinforced concrete technology at Burnham Beeches was important; it provided for spiffy Steamlined Deco architectural elements eg cantilevered balconies, wide spans and continuous windows. So like many Deco buildings, the lines of Burnham Beeches really do remind viewers of an ocean liner moving through the water. A zig-zag motif was used on the decorative wrought iron work and on the balcony balustrades. Finally, the white exterior of the house was decorated with Australian fauna motifs in moulded relief panels.
One element of Burnham Beeches that Alfred Nicholas managed himself was collecting trees for the property. In every city of Australia, he searched for established trees to be purchased and planted. Then he travelled to Britain where he met one of the main gardeners at Kew Gardens, Percival Trevaskis. Percy was offered the position of head gardener at Burnham Beeches and quickly involved himself in designing the garden, rockeries, pools, waterfalls and an ornamental lake. Alas Alfred died in 1937, before the task was quite completed, but the vast majority of the work had been done by then.
Allow me to mention another connection. In 1938, world renown violinist Yehudi Menuhin married Nola Nicholas, daughter of the George Nicholas (Alfred's brother), and sister of Hephzibah Menuhin's first husband Lindsay Nicholas. When Burnham Beeches was operating as a hotel later on, the main restaurant was aptly named Menuhin’s.
In 1941, right in the worst part of World War II, the house became a children’s hospital. Alfred Nicholas’ widow returned her main home in Melbourne and had Burnham Beeches restored to its pre-institutional standard.
interior Deco features still intact, in 2000
I am not sure why the house was considered too small, but in the decade after World War Two ended, two additional wings were added on. From 1955, the Nicholas Institute used the house as a medical and veterinary research facility, and later this grand old house was converted into a hotel. Even more accommodation units were added to the original building as recently as the 1980s.
In Feb 2010 the property went up for sale, again. Being heritage listed, I cannot imagine a developer trying to sneakily pull the building down in the middle of the night (although it has happened before). But in any case there are 50 guests suites in the renovated building, and even more could be added, with council approval.
gazebo, Alfred Nicholas gardens
I am not a bushwalker, but BOB'S AUSTRALIAN BUSH WALKING JOURNAL recommends walking throughthe acreage near the house. It is known for its extensive water features including waterfalls and an ornamental lake, complete with boat house. These gardens were donated to the Shire of Sherbrooke in 1965 and named the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens. Acquired by Parks Victoria in 1972, a range of restoration projects have been done over the decades, including the rejuvenation of the lake.
The original 12 hectare Burnham Beech estate is still maintained in its utterly gorgeous state, as I can testify personally. I strolled the length of every path in the estate last weekend, concentrating on the spring growth: mountain ash and liquid ambers of course, but also the flowering azaleas, viburnum and cherry trees.
A Wonder House in the Hills: the History of Burnham Beeches was written by Deborah Lee Tout-Smith, 1993.