07 November 2010

Australia's own Deco treasure - Burnham Beeches

Burnham Beeches in Sherbrooke was a large home built in the leafy Dandenong Ranges, an hour outside Melbourne. It was designed for the very wealthy Alfred Nicholas (1881 - 1937), a man who made his money by buying his brother's patent for analgesics. Nicholas marketed them under the brand name Aspro, a word that went into the Australian language as a generic headache tablet.

Burnham Beeches, 2010. The original Deco features are still in place, including glass bricks,  zig-zag motifs on the wrought iron work and cantilevered balconies.

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.

Burnham Beeches, exterior straight after WW2 ended

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.

paths wander throughout the Alfred Nicholas gardens


rob (moderne melbourne) said...

Where were Nicholas and Norris neighbours?

Andrew said...

A friend worked for the eighties owner and also worked at the house once. Very nice property.

Unknown said...

Fascinating stuff Hels! So THAT'S the house that Aspro built!! wow!

Kind Regards

Hels said...

Rob, good question! And now I cannot find if Norris lived near Harcourt Street Hawthorn or not.

The National Trust data base http://vhd.heritage.vic.gov.au/search/nattrust_result_detail/70196 found social closeness between the two, but not based on being neighbours. Rather work on the Hawthorn house marked the beginning of a fruitful patronage that arose through a common interest in tennis. Norris gave Nicholas lessons in the game!

Nicholas was only a few years older than Norris (1888-1966).

Jim said...

Marvellous art deco architecture.

Hels said...

Andrew and H Niyazi,

The Victorian house that Alfred Nicholas had bought in Hawthorn in 1920, Carn Brea, must have already been lovely. Then Harry Norris was given responsibility for the re-design of both the house and garden, and Carn Brea must have become even lovelier.

By 1930, Nicholas wanted something VERY special. The land was huge, the money unlimited and Norris had the patron's total confidence. Every architect would love a commission like that.

Hels said...

J Bar,
you must come and visit Melbourne :) The opportunities for photography around Burnham Beeches, and all of the Dandenong Ranges for that matter, are endless.

Hermes said...

I could live in that house - no problem.

ChrisJ said...

I do so love everything Deco. This is beautiful.

Stela James said...

Man I’m impressed with this informative blog, and in fact you have a genius mind. keep up the good work.
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Unknown said...

I love reading your story regarding the famous Burnham Beeches. I have never traveled outside Canada, unlike Alfred Nicholas that I just have my tours online.

I 'm into architectural designs and innovative technology that will help enhance designing and production. Recently I had the chance to know about Mitutoyo coordinate measuring machine. It is a machine that helps one have a precise measurement through the use of computers. It is a big machine that will take over your measuring dilemmas, yet for a traveling architect like that of Alfred Nicolas, there is also a
portable cmm.

Nicholas had toured the world with his pen and paper. Who knows, when it's my turn, I'll bring the art immediate into life. Thanks again for sharing!

Anonymous said...

It has been purchased by Shannon Bennett of Vue De Monde with Adam Garrisson (previous owner of The Windsor Hotel and current owner of Kitchen Cat - ex Fifteen).

See the below for recent updates:

And this:

Work on restoring the property and buildings will commence later this year and rest assured, it will by no means be bastardised.

Hels said...


many thanks for that. I can't wait to see the restorations, once the public is invited in to have a look.

Hermes, Chris, Stella and David,

If Burnham Beeches ever re-opens up with conference facilities, I will personally organise a blog conference get together in Sherbrooke.

Hels said...

Jette said...

Having found your information about Burnham Beeches interesting I turn to you for additional information. Planning my holiday this November in Melbourne I am keen to have lunch at Burnham Beeches which I visited in 1989.
But I am not certain what to make of it. Are you pehaps aware of whether or not Burnham Beches is in business at all?

I did contact Select Hotels Group, but was told in an e-mail that Burnham Beeches is no longer a member of Select.

Hels said...

Jette, good to hear from you. As Anonymous said, BB has been purchased by Shannon Bennett of Vue De Monde with Adam Garrisson (previous owner of The Windsor Hotel) a couple of years ago. Apparently the then Planning Minister Justin Madden gave the green light for a 26-level, 91 metre hotel to be developed behind the historic building.

But where in the process are we now? If only I could say it was up and running as a hotel already. But I cannot.

Come and visit Australia anyway :)

Dick. said...

Apart from building a beautiful home and gardens for his family, Nicholas also developed a very important Jersey cow herd and stud on the estate.

He won many awards and prizes at the Royal Melbourne Show and endowed the Jersey Pavilion there.

Hels said...


you are spot on. The Australian Dictionary of Biography wrote "Owner of a prize-winning Jersey herd, in 1934 he provided funds to the council of the Royal Agricultural Society for a new cattle pavilion and was made a life governor of the society."

The reason I didn't mention it in the blog article was because when I visited Burnham Beeches, there didn't seem to be any open grazing land near the estate.

Some people have a LOT of energy to put into a diverse range of interests. And like Alfred Nicholas, they seem to do it all well!

geraniumkiss said...

Parks Victoria has lately refurbished the "tan" pathway between Nicholas Gardens and Ferny Creek Reserve, about 1.5 km, for walking, jogging, dogs on lead and horses. We recently walked our dogs there, Nicholas Gardens is one of the few parks in the Dandenongs which allow dogs on lead. At the Ferny Creek end, you can now take a rather rough but gravelled path up through the "paddocks" between Burnham Beeches and Ferny Creek Horticultural Society, which returns you circuitously to the Burnham Beeches entrance and thence a short walk along the footpath back to Nicholas Gardens. From the top of the "paddocks" one can view the back of the Estate and across to the back of Sassafras and Kallista, a completely new view to us (having lived nearby for over 30 years). There is evidence of some agricultural work on the estate land, crops, but no grazing animals that we could see. Highly recommended for a pleasant walk. As of mid-November 2011, no change to the house was visible from Nicholas Gardens. There was not the slightest sign of any work having been commenced. I do hope this isn't just another plan which will fall through. At one stage, in the 90s, there was talk of the house being divided into apartments for retirees, some of us up here dreamed of being able to spend our dotage there enjoying the fine architecture and gardens.

Great to read this blog entry with the history of the house and a very rare view of the interior, thank you.

Hels said...


agreed - this is totally baffling.

"No change to the house was visible from Nicholas Gardens. There was not the slightest sign of any work having been commenced (as of mid-November 2011". If the Planning Minister gave approval ages ago, and if the new owners are keen to restore Burnham Beeches to its former glory, why is nothing happening?

I am sure we could deal with the delays, if there was a particular problem eg asbestos, subsidence, old petrol tanks underground, boundary disputes with the neighbours, further planning appeals.

Carol said...

Alfred and Percival Trevaskis didnt get along , resulting in Percival not remaining very long. Alfred then employed Arthur Bolton (my Grandfather) as head gardener who made and completed the gardens including the well known lake. Later he also was employed to design and make the gardens for 'Strathalbyn' Maurice Nicholas's Home at Sassafras. My family are lucky to have an album of original black in white photos of the two property's and gardens during an after the works. Unfortunately all documentation and even a plaque at the lake acknowledge Percival for the work which is disapointing.My grandparents enjoyed living on the property in a small cottage near the main house until after 1945.

Hels said...


many thanks for your note... I too did not know your grandfather's name and role in Burnham Beeches.

Have you read A Wonder House in the Hills: the History of Burnham Beeches? It is the main reference on the topic so if Deborah Lee Tout-Smith did not know about Arthur Bolton's contribution, I would send her any text- or picture-based evidence you have. She will certainly add the material in time for the next publication of her book.

Anonymous said...

Nola and Lindsay Nicholas were not the children of Alfred Nicholas.

Hels said...


you are quite right, many thanks. I made the correction straight away.

Anonymous said...

Having just had a tour of Burnham Beeches with Shannon Bennett attending, I can advise that plans are well and truly underway and the first part of the grand plan (the bakery/cafe in the old piggery) is due to be completed in ely 2013. Work on the house is almost ready to commence but asbestos and the planning trail has obviously taken time. I think you will find that it will be about 5 years before the main house/restaurant(s), spa, self-accomodation on the land are complete. It will be quite amazing when finished and all the beauty of the house will be maintained.

Hels said...


I am delighted, but five years is still going to be a long delay - and expensive. Hopefully there will no more degradation of the architecture in that long time.

We will be going to the bakery and cafe, in the meantime.

Sue Walker said...

I live in Berkshire, United Kingdom and we often take our two Golden Retrievers to a forest for long walks and it's called Burnham Beeches it has a lot of history and was actually used during the 2nd world war. do you think there could be any connection in the name with the property outside Melbourne and our forest here?

Hels said...


Love your choice of dogs :)

I am in Europe at the moment and won't be back for a few weeks. But I am fascinated by the choice of names for the estate near Melbourne. Thanks for alerting us all - will get back to you.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother grew up in Burnham Beeches and remembers Mr Nicholas ng her and her sister playing in the garden. She has photos of her and her sister on the lake and many photos of the house and family. Her wedding photos were taken inside the house as well.
She still has the 21st birthday present she received from Mrs Nicholas.

Hels said...


Your grandmother was very fortunate - what lovely memories.

You and your siblings/first cousins must make sure you receive all the photos from Burnham Beeches, or at least good copies of them. Ensure that each name, location and date is written on the back.

Unknown said...

I was pleased to read Carol's write up as I lived at Strathalbyn and prior to renovating,improving and extending the ladnscaping of the garden I tracked Percival Trevaskis down and he visited the property. However, as you say he did not have anything to do with the planning and planting of Strathalbyn. I wish I had known about Arthur Bolton at the time. I also have albums and detailed plans of the property and original sketches of proposed extensions which were never carried out. One sketch I believe is from the interior of Burnham Beeches. It is amazing how the gardens were built during the depression by horse and cart and the Nicholas Gardens, Burnham Beeches and Strathalbyn were once all interconnected. I believe they had wonderful garden parties and boats on the lake.

It is great to hear when people are saving these worthwhile properties.

Hels said...


Thank you! I always loved blogging but I had no idea that the most important role would be linkages: between historical events, and between interested readers.

I would not have known, for example, that Nicholas Gardens, Burnham Beeches and Strathalbyn were once all linked.

Anonymous said...

Harry Norris designed the Nicholas building for Mr Nicholas in 1926, so I would imagine that was why he was also the architect of Burnham Beeches

Hels said...


agreed. As I wrote above (to Rob), work on the Nicholas house in Harcourt Street Hawthorn marked the beginning of a fruitful patronage.

Harry Norris' work between 1930-33 was pretty impressive, wasn't it? Do you like the two additional add-ons as much?

Anonymous said...

I remember staying there as part of a school camp back in the 70's. I still remember the amazing pink circular bathroom - soo art deco. Amazing place.

Hels said...


I didn't even know that school camps were allowed to live in, or at least visit the house 40 years ago. Lucky students!

Julian said...

The Bayer company first produced a purple dye from a red powder; then they acetylated morphine into a substance that they handed about the lab.. everyone started to act like Heroes so they called it Heroin. It became so popular as an over the counter cure for pain/toothache that in New York, the addicted collected scrap metal to pay for their new wonder cure, thus becoming known as Junkies.
After WW1, as part of the Treaty of Versailles Bayer lost its world wide patent for asprin and thus a huge dispute of territory/sales commenced. Aspro, the variant of the independent English business was the first to direct market to consumers. I can remember attending the Melb Royal Show in the 50's where the pink Aspro kiosk was staffed by girls in pink handing out a small tumbler of water, 2 aspro and a pink sun visor to the long queue of parents with headaches! BB building was owned/used? by the Christian Brothers in the 50's.

Hels said...


Thank you! I have never heard of the origin of the words "heroin" and "junkies" before. But I do remember the Royal Melbourne Show each year... my highlight of the 1950s :)

Just one question. The Nicholas family moved out of the house and into a Melbourne home in 1954. From 1955-65 the Nicholas Institute seems to have used BB as a research facility. I cannot find any reference (yet) to the Christian Brothers.

Unknown said...


I believe the Christian Brothers occupied Strathalbyn the other Nicholas property built for Maurice the son of Nicholas. This property once adjoined the Nicholas Gardens and Burnham Beeches. I have been told from a gardener at Strathalbyn that they were of an order that did not speak. The house and out building were divided into many dormitories. The out-building was used prior to this by the Nicholas family as a school during the war. I have just read about the pink circular bath and am wondering if this was Strathalbyn as well.


Hels said...


Spot on! Strathalbyn actually backs onto Burnham Beeches (built 1930-33). Victorian Heritage wrote that Strathalbyn (built in 1938-9) has regional historical and architectural significance for its associations with the Nicholas family and the prominent Melbourne architect Harry Norris. Like Burnham Beeches, it has significance as a rare example of the use of the Moderne style in domestic architecture, and despite alteration retains evidence of the key elements of this style.

But I would love a reference to the school.

Australian Jewish News said...

Zelda Cawthorne examined the amazing life of violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, on the centenary of his birth. The connection with the Nicholas family started at London's Royal Albert Hall in March 1938 when two avid fans from Melbourne were brought backstage to meet the violinist and his pianist sister Hephzibah. They were Nola and Lindsay Nicholas whose tycoon father George was the founder of Aspro. Just two months after that backstage meeting, Yehudi married Nola Nicholas and within weeks, Hephzibah married Lindsay Nicholas.

Australian Jewish News
1st April 2016

Hels said...

Thank you. Two amazing siblings marrying two other amazing siblings!

Samantha M said...

Hi Helen,

I am hoping you may be able to assist. I have read your thread on blogger, thank you it is amazing and such a great wealth of information!! I am interested in contacting Chrisitne C, (I am an artist that would love to contact her as I am doing a piece on Burnham Beeches and wish to do one of Strathalbyn). Christine C commented on your thread, I am not sure if you may have any more details, here is the post:

"I was pleased to read Carol's write up as I lived at Strathalbyn and prior to renovating,improving and extending the ladnscaping of the garden I tracked Percival Trevaskis down and he visited the property etc.." October 15, 2012.

Thank you

Samantha M

Hels said...

Samantha, Hermes, Chris, Stela and David

I still have the old email letters with comments on them, but christine c has noreply-comment@blogger.com as her address. The more people doing a piece on Burnham Beeches.. the better, I say!

Christine C said...

Hello Helen

I have just read the latest blog about Burnham Beeches and was interested to see that Samantha is doing an article on both places. I am happy to speak with Samantha and suggest perhaps she emails me with exactly what she will be writing about to see if I can help her. I apologise for the delay in getting back to you and enjoy reading your all the interesting comments on your site.

Look forward to hearing further.
Kind regards

Dylan Eales said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Hels said...

Sorry Dylan Eales

glad you liked the post, but I don't do advertising.