Kyabram’s “unusual” gem

By Shepparton News

Kyabram has many distinguished people and moments in its history, but it also has a little-known architectural one: a historic home in the town, built in the early 1900s, can make a claim to being the only building of its type to exist not only in Australia but worldwide.

How it came about is a fascinating story, told here by veteran Kyabram journalist Gus Underwood from information supplied by its current owner, London-based architect and former Kyabramite Alan Higgs.

Tucked away in a leafy, dead-end street in Kyabram is Oak Dene.

From the street, it looks like a graceful but conventional Federation house. A closer look reveals however that not only its roof, but all of its walls are formed from corrugated iron.

Going inside is even more interesting, as all of the walls and ceilings are of the same material.

The house was always known to be unusual, but extensive research points to Oak Dene being actually unique.

There are many buildings all over the world built using corrugated iron. Pre-fabricated structures made in Britain for shipping to frontier territories and utility buildings for farming and factories are commonplace, and there are buildings that use the material for some of their parts. There does however appear to be other one-off, large private houses that use only this material, and for every wall, ceiling and roof.

The origins of Oak Dene begin in 1841 with the arrival in Port Phillip from Gloucestershire of Edward Wight. He and his wife Catherine made a major mark in the colony. They were friends of Governor La Trobe and were true pioneers, making many significant contributions to developing institutions – including the establishment of Essendon Football Club and the building of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Their son John Cam Wight was born in 1857 and educated at Geelong Grammar and Melbourne University, graduating as a medical doctor.

After studies in Europe he came to Kyabram in 1894. He and his wife Sophie stayed; Wight was asthmatic and found the clean dry air of the Goulburn Valley congenial. John Cam went on to make many marks, as a legendary doctor and in the development of the town, and with the building of his house and garden at Oak Dene.

In 1906 Dr Wight purchased 4 ha (10 acres) of land in Allan St from its original selector, James Unwin. A year later the Free Press revealed:

“Gerard Wight invites tenders for LABOR ONLY for a large wood and iron house for Dr Wight”.

Gerard was John Cam’s younger brother and a successful and prolific Melbourne architect. The house is a sprawling single-level building, with a roof that covers nearly 60 squares, including verandas. It was built with 12 main rooms, one was Dr Wight’s surgery. A second, smaller, simpler dwelling for the groom was built on the property, also of corrugated iron. This home is now in Wight St.

The house Gerard designed for his brother and sister-in-law was unusual then and remains so 110 years on.

What were the influences on its design? Climate was certainly one.

After many hot and dry years of the “Federation drought’, in January 1905 Kyabram recorded the highest temperature in the state: 117 degrees Fahrenheit or 47.2 degrees C. This focused the clients’ and their architect’s attention on how to design the best dwelling for bearable living in the heat before the era of electric fans and air-conditioning.

The house is planned in a U shape around a small courtyard. This configuration allows eight of the main rooms to have external walls facing in two directions. Because all of the windows are large and high, and each room has a series of adjustable ventilators at mid and high wall level, cross ventilation can be maximised by catching breezes from whatever direction they come. Heat generated by the kitchen’s wood-burning range had the best chance of dissipating as this room has three external walls.

Quirky lobbies to the main bedroom and sitting room place doors facing south – then as now effective at admitting cool changes.

Twelve open fireplaces – necessary for winter warmth – further increased draught when there was cool air outside to encourage indoors. The brick cellar remains cool in the hottest conditions.

The positioning of rooms responds logically to the passage of the sun: the breakfast room and kitchen are on the west, not heating up until late in the day. The bedrooms are on the east, cooler by evening, the important sitting and dining rooms and surgery face south, not much touched by the summer sun and most able to catch southerlies.

Deep verandas encircle the house on the north, east and west, keeping the sun off the walls and providing good opportunities for living outside.

Generous roof spaces are well ventilated and wall cavities and the ceiling are all effectively insulated with sawdust from Echuca’s redgum mills.

All of this makes sense – and offers some pointers for well-designed houses of today – but what is less clear is why the defining feature of corrugated iron? Every internal and external wall and ceiling is of small radius, galvanised iron.

This was called historically ripple iron, superseded by today’s mini-orb profile. Inside the corrugations run vertically, outside horizontally. The ceilings are 11 feet (3.30 m) high, achieved by using 10 feet (3 m) long standard sheets, topped by a foot (300 mm) high horizontal band of corrugated metal.

No other works by Gerard Wight are known that use the material, nor as research currently finds, so comprehensively, by other architects. The idea seems so antipathetic to an elegant large residence for a well-off family, despite the refined finished building.

The material is however part of a kind of engineering approach. The plan and elevations eschew symmetry, in the way that had become normal in the Federation era, but at Oak Dene this is taken to an extreme. There is virtually no ornamentation or any unnecessary flourish. Skirting boards, cornices and fireplaces are functional with little detail. The walls appear to be built off the raft of the floor, itself jarrah boards. Stumps and veranda posts are made using terracotta drainage pipes. The dining room walls are wallpapered, a highly unusual feature over corrugated iron and likely to have been a way of reducing the noise of a convivial table.

The result was almost certainly economical in cost and time to build and is practical and straightforward, all appropriate for rural Australia. The origins of this key design decision will probably never be known, other than perhaps the use of metal was an experiment for homes in hot, dry climates that never caught on?

When Oak Dene was built, it was surrounded by 1.4 ha (3.5 acres) of park-like gardens.

These stretched along Allan St between Dawes Rd and Wight St.

The garden included a eucalyptus plantation, a large dam and ponds. A trellis-enclosed walkway from Allan St to Dr Wight’s surgery entrance separated patients from his gardens, and a curving drive allowed social visitors to arrive at the formal sitting room entrance.

A collection of exotic trees, tennis court, sunken croquet lawn and summer house - ‘strawberry cottage’ - completed the must-haves for every Edwardian estate.

While the house remains today much as it was when built in 1907, these gardens existed for little more than 50 years; they were mostly lost to a land subdivision in the early 1960s.

Fortunately five of the original trees remain. Two of these are magnificent London Planes, and one, in an adjacent block, is an unusual evergreen oak. The second London Plane tree has just been classified by the National Trust and added to its Register of Significant Trees.

While much smaller today, the property retains the quality of a calm house in a setting of green lawns and established trees.

Dr Wight died in 1927, and Oak Dene remained home to Mrs Wight and their daughter Peg.

After Peg and her husband Fred Billings died in the 1990s, the property was sold to Michael and Cheryl Sweeney.

Although living for 30 years in London, Alan Higgs was looking for a base in Australia, and in 2016 proposed to the Sweeneys that he and his sister Gillian Banks become the next custodians of their house.

Oak Dene’s tradition of hospitality continues, especially as Alan’s wing is available as accommodation for short-stay guests.

The house is recognised for its specialness.

The Shire of Campaspe protects the building with a heritage overlay, and it is classified by the National Trust.

Although it may be found that there are other corrugated iron houses like Oak Dene, it remains a historic building and beautiful home in Kyabram.