Lost in the beauty of the garden :: the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens...
The man who made his fortune from Aspro also had another hobby.
Apart from curing the world from pain,
Alfred Nicholas believed in the power of gardens as a way to cure ills,
and its pretty difficult to disagree with that thought.
As a wealthy philanthropist,
the man was something of a gem,
dispensing enormous sums to hospitals and schools
in his lifetime,
but it was the gift to the public
of his own magnificent garden,
filled with tree ferns, maples, beeches, azaleas and eucalypts,
planted in the almost-impossibly romantic fashion of the 1930s
which is perhaps the best cure for ill-sorts imaginable….
Alfred Nicholas purchased land in the Dandenong Ranges,
overlooking Melbourne, in 1929
and promptly commissioned the Art Deco loving architect Harry Norris
to design a house with "fresh air, sunshine and an outlook of command, yet under control".
Norris delivered a triple story white mansion
in the fashionable Streamline Moderne style,
with waterfall curves, rounded cantilevered balconies
wrapped with zig-zag motifed wrought iron balustrades
and a generosity of windows
to admit the much-applauded fresh air & sunshine.
It was called Burnham Beeches,
named after the beautiful beech forests surrounding the Aspro factory in England,
where Nicholas had taken his young family to live while setting up
operations in the UK in 1927.
When he returned to Melbourne shortly after,
the enormous profits from sales of Aspro allowed him to build this property
as the family summer residence.
And while the house was being built,
Nicholas started work on the garden...
His dream was to create an incredible woodland style garden,
keeping the native eucalyptus and majestic tree ferns as the backbone.
Never one to do things by halves,
he travelled to the Chelsea Flower Show in 1929
(at a time when international travel was considered an enormous luxury),
where he met one of the gardeners at Kew Gardens,
and talked him into the role of Head Gardener at Burnham Beeches.
Meanwhile, he engaged the commercial Landscape Architect Hugh Linaker
(known for his bold planting work on The Shrine & The Domain in Melbourne)
to design a garden full of meandering terraces,
rockeries, waterlily lakes & waterfalls.
60 men were employed in 1929,
the year The Depression began,
to work on creating this ambitious garden on 13 hectares of Eucalyptus rainforest.
Green & Copper Beech trees were to become the main introduced species,
reflecting the name of the property.
150 advanced trees were imported from England,
and meticulously planted amongst the natural plantings.
Throughout the Great Depression,
the huge team of gardeners were employed to build and maintain
the terraced grounds,
in a manner which was most unusual for the financially-troubled times.
But of course, sales of Aspro did not stop and the pounds
continued to roll in.
Sadly, Alfred Nicholas did not live to see his glorious garden completed,
because he died in 1937,
while this bridge and waterlily lake were being constructed.
The property remained in family hands though until 1965,
when the gardens were given to the state government as a gift to the public,
and they were renamed the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens.
The house itself, Burnham Beeches, was used as a hospital during WWII,
and later as the research facility for the Nicholas Institute of Medical and Veterinary Research.
In 1981 Burnham Beeches was sold and developed into a luxury hotel.
which closed in 1991.
Left unloved and tragic for far too long,
the house was purchased in 2010 by chef Shannon Bennett & investor Adam Garrisson,
with the intention of restoring it back to its former glory
as a series of restaurants and boutique accommodation.
The first stage, a bakery cafe, opened this weekend,
with all other works scheduled for completion next year.
But meanwhile, the gardens are open to the public every day of the year,
with free entry,
and they would have to be one of our favourite spots in Melbourne,
at any time of the year.
They remain a much-loved and lasting legacy to a man
who dared to dream of the healing powers of both modern medicine and gardens.