When a home built in the 1950s still looks ‘out there’ in 2017, you know you’re looking at an architectural icon. Such in the case with Dromana’s McCraith House (or ‘Butterfly House’, as it is colloquially known). Designed by Chancellor and Patrick in 1955, this remarkable house was commissioned by Gerald and Nell McCraith.
Gerald McCraith was no ordinary client. The story goes that after some consideration, young architect David Chancellor told his client ‘I’ve come up with some ideas, but you might think they are too way out,’ to which Gerald replied, ‘What makes you think I don’t want way out!?’.
Gerald’s granddaughter, artist and jeweller Bin Dixon-Ward, was our gracious host on the day of our visit. It was wonderful to chat with Bin as she recalled childhood memories of her Grandparents and their unique holiday house.
‘In the 1940’s my Grandparents enjoyed weekend drives to the Peninsula from their home in Essendon,’ Bin recalls. ‘In the early 1950’s when Pa’s business was going well, they bought a bush block on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat. They met a young architect, David Chancellor, and asked him to design a holiday house,’ she adds. Once the house was built, it was named Larrakeyah, after the Darwin army base where Gerald was stationed during WW2.
Bin describes Gerald as being creative in the broadest sense of the word. ‘He was able to turn his hand to anything… he was interested in everything,’ she says. His main interest, in fact, was breeding Australian native orchids! He bred a number of varieties, and was proud to have two hybrids named after him. He even received an Order of Australia in 1993, for services to horticulture. In his quest to find rare orchids, Gerald also travelled widely, to remote areas of Australia, the mountains of Southern China, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, India and Singapore. His last overseas trip, at the age of 93, was to Malaysia and Borneo. (Gerald lived to 100 years, passing away in 2009).
Though its distinctive top-heavy design makes the Butterfly House a unique design and engineering feat – inside, it’s surprising modest. With just one bedroom and a tiny bathroom adjoining the main living area, this is a humble home, even by 1950s standards. Downstairs, in the narrow base of the building (accessible only by the exterior staircase) the second bedroom is lined with six in-built bunk beds, where Bin recalls spending many summer holidays with her siblings and cousins. ‘There was a hierarchy and competition for who slept in which bunk,’ Bin recalls. ‘The boys always got the best of course!’
In 2013, the McCraith House was gifted to RMIT University, and now serves as accommodation for RMIT’s writer-in-residence program. ‘It is rewarding to know that the house is able to nurture an artist’s creative practice, and is available for design and architecture scholars to study,’ Bin says.
As a jewellery and lecturer in gold and silversmithing, Bin’s own work has also been heavily influenced by her relationship with this unique property. ‘My work is influenced by the geometry of the built environment,’ she explains. ‘Having spent time in an innovatively designed space, where geometry is highlighted (red triangles) as an aesthetic feature but also a functional element is inspiring. I’m interested in how such simple shapes can be the basis of such satisfying spaces.’ Satisfying, indeed!
Archi-enthusiasts with a free morning TOMORROW might still find a spot to attend a tour of the McCraith ‘Butterfly’ House and morning tea with Bin Dixon-Ward, bookings are essential.
A HOUSE WITH MANY STORIES
Thursday June 15th, 10.30am to 12 noon
1 to 3 Atunga Terrace, Dromana.
The McCraith ‘Butterfly’ House is also celebrated in an exhibition on now at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, curated by Karen McCartney. ‘Iconic Australian Houses’ explores 29 of the most architecturally important Australian homes of the past 60 years and is running from May 12th to July 9th.