‘It’s a jigsaw puzzle’: new book tracks 157 years of mansion residents

In the 1960s, an eccentric Scottish public servant lived alone in a flat packed with books in Labassa mansion.

He loved the ladies, and spent long nights reading Russian novels. But neighbours' eyebrows were raised the day a large woman turned up at the Victorian mansion-turned hippie hangout in Caulfield North.

Labor of love: Vicki Shuttleworth at National Trust mansion Labassa, in Caulfield North. Credit:Eddie Jim

It was his wife, and she'd come from Wagga Wagga, with five kids looking for their dad.
"How could they possibly have found me here?" the Scot was heard to mutter.

It's just one tale told in a new book about Labassa, the National Trust-owned beauty which somehow evaded the wrecking ball to become one of Melbourne's most loved historic homes.

In the book, Labassa: House of Dreams, author Vicki Shuttleworth tells stories about some of the 700-or-so residents in its 157 years.

"It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle," says Ms Shuttleworth, a volunteer Labassa guide and president of Friends of Labassa. "I like that aspect of it, trying to fit everything together to make sense of it.

Some Labassa tenants, circa 1970, during its long period of division into flats. Credit:Peter Tarpey

"But I do love stories about the people because there are so many interesting people who lived there."

November 8 is the 40th anniversary of the National Trust buying Labassa at auction and eventually restoring it.

Ms Shuttleworth says it's a wonder the mansion survived. It started in 1863 as an eight-room city barrister's house.

But today's Labassa is a 35-room palace, built around the original house in 1890 for the family of Alexander Robertson, a millionaire pastoralist and co-owner of Cobb and Co's Victorian coach service.

Merle Morgan, a resident of one of Labassa’s flats, on her wedding day in 1924. Credit:Andrew Ramsey

By 1919, the land was more valuable than the mansion, so it made sense to knock it over. But new owner Stanley Sergeant loved converting mansions into beautiful flats for professional tenants, so he kept it, although Labassa deteriorated over time and rents got cheaper.

In the 1960s, Victorian mansions like Labassa — now let and sublet by students and artists — were considered vulgar and a waste of space, but then owner Hinda Kazer felt her late husband, Wolf, would have wanted to retain the mansion, so she kept it on.

But neighbours had been shocked when the Kazers built their two-storey brick veneer house on the front lawn, blotting out the mansion.

In 1980, after Mrs Kazer died, aluminium company Alcoa donated $150,000 to help the National Trust buy Labassa.

The house that blotted out Labassa’s facade was demolished in 1988.Credit:National Trust of Australia (Victoria)

The Kazer house was demolished in 1988 and the elegant facade was again on view. It has since featured in countless wedding photos and mini-series.

Memorable tenants Ms Shuttleworth details in her book include actor Louise Lovely who starred in 50 Hollywood films, Jewish refugees, and television writer Peter Homewood, whose early 1960s theatrical soirees with friends such as Frank Thring and Mary Hardy ushered in a long era of artist, student and hippie tenancy.

There are more stories to uncover. Ms Shuttleworth wants to know more about a 1969 tenant known as Boris or Rasputin, who was tall, wore a black top hat, black-tailed coat and a white lace shirt, and had a long, gaunt face. There are "so many stories about him" including that he was kicked out of the Hells Angels for refusing to fight.

The mysterious 1969 Labassa tenant nicknamed Rasputin or Boris. Credit:Penny Carruthers

"He's a character with a lot of mystique. I'd love to be able to catch up with him and find out what his story really was," Ms Shuttleworth said.

Labassa: House of Dreams, $39.95 plus postage can be ordered at shop.nationaltrust.org.au

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