An Incredible Adventure In Renovating An Iconic Piece Of Architectural History

Buying a heritage listed home in need of a complete structural overhaul is an ambitious task, to say the least! But for author Mary Parlange and husband Marc, when you find a place that feels ‘just right, like Goldilocks finding the right bed’ – all of the restoration work is worthwhile.

The Salter House by Walter Burley Griffin (of Canberra urban design fame!) and Marion Griffin is an important piece of Australia’s material history, as one of the only homes that uses Griffin’s experimental ‘knitlock’ system of interlocking concrete bricks. Mary describes how they worked with architects Jane Cameron and Christopher Hewson to knit this heritage into their beloved, unique and peaceful oasis of a home (even it it took a while to achieve!)

Lucy Feagins
Supported by Dulux

The Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin-designed home of Mary and Marc Parlange in Toorak. The couple first purchased the home in 2017, soon after moving to Australia from Canada, and knew very little about the Griffins’ legacy! Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

The view from the front patio into the study window, which has an interior window so you can see through into the inner courtyard. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

The living room featuring a vintage Hans Wegner chair found in the warehouse Angelucci. Vintage lamp also from Angelucci. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Mary Parlange is a writer and editor who has covered the latest developments in science, engineering and medicine for more than 20 years. Vintage 70s bentwood leather chair by Farstrup Mobler in Denmark. Vintage ceramic lamp from Angelucci. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

A wall of the master bedroom. ‘Marc saw this painting in a restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso when he was working in rural Burkina on a research project. The restaurant owner promoted local artists by displaying their work on the walls,’ explains Mary of this painting’s origins. The stool was purchased when the couple were living in Switzerland, in celebration of their 20th wedding anniversary. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

The front (TV) room. Vintage Eames chairs made in Australia in the 70s by Herman Miller, found by Mary at Angelucci. Lamp by Herman Miller. The rug belonged to Mary’s parents, from Belgium. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Left: Mary showing a remnant of a knitlock concrete tile, showing how the pieces slide together and interlock. The use of these unique tiles meant that there was no mortar used in constructing the walls. Right: In the dining room. A painting from Mary’s parents’ collection, depicting the US southwest landscape, by Peter Meyerson. ‘It reminds me of New Mexico, where I grew up,’ Mary says. The mountain lion is also folk art from New Mexico. The Polar bears are by an Inuit artist, bought for Mary by Marc when they were living in Vancouver.  Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

The corridor to the inner courtyard. The cupboard door design is the same as the one used for the windows. ‘The Griffins often designed all the elements of a house, including light fixtures and rugs,’ Mary tells. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

A view from the kitchen into the corridor surrounding the inner courtyard.Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

The guest bedroom. The bed belonged to Mary’s mother – forged in wrought iron by an artisan in rural New Mexico. The painting is by Forrest Moses and was also part of Mary’s parents’ collection. Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

The Master bedroom. In the shelves are a small collection of Russian nesting dolls (matryoshka). ‘My parents started collecting them when my father (a particle physicist) traveled to the USSR for scientific collaborations’, Mary tells.  Photo – Caitlin Mills. Styling – Annie Portelli.

Lucy Feagins
3rd of April 2019

Author Mary Parlange moved from Vancouver to Melbourne in late 2017, as her husband Marc took an academic position at Monash University. When scouting for a home in their new city, the couple bid on some contemporary houses, but ‘hadn’t really found the right place.’ After scrolling though real estate apps, Mary stumbled across the Salter House, designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney Griffin in 1924.

Mary describes ‘when we walked in it just felt right, like Goldilocks finding the right bed.’ Their offer was accepted and as the reality set in, Mary reveals ‘we looked at each other and said “what have we just done?” At the time, we knew almost nothing about the Griffins or the history of the house. We just knew this could become a home.’

The ‘home-making’ process was not a straight forward or simple one, with their builder Stuart McLean reminding Mary and Marc ‘you can’t open a can of worms without expecting to find any worms.’ The couple engaged  architects Jane Cameron and Christopher Hewson to redesign the home, which required considerable work! The budget and timeline were revised countless times to accommodate the essential excavation and re-stumping of bedrooms, reinforcing of walls, rewiring, gutting and refitting of bathrooms, and all closets, built-in shelving and door hardware being replaced. Floors were repaired, sanded, stained and finished, and fireplaces were updated.

In addition to these extensive structural changes, interior walls were painted matte white, against an exterior grey. The landscaping was also completely redesigned by Sam Cox, introducing Castlemaine slate, and native planting ‘more in line with Griffin’s landscape philosophy.’

Mary describes the joy of moving through the home, where different ceiling heights create a sense of opening out, and inviting in. The iconic Griffin designed knitlock concrete tiles create a curved ribbing effect, and give the home a distinctive and timeless aesthetic.

For such a unique house, it is almost uncanny how well the couple’s furniture and artwork sits against the Griffins’ design. Beloved items include the bed in the guest room, forged in Pojoaque New Mexico, which originally belonged to Mary’s mother. The home tells a story of the family’s globe-trotting life, with pockets of folk art from their travels peppered through the property. Mary particularly highlights the combination of her parents dining table, paired with the Hans Wegner sofa and chair (restored by Angelucci 20th Century). She explains that everything fits together in this house ‘like it was pre-ordained.’

This stunning renovation was a major undertaking, ‘from the time we moved to Melbourne to when we moved into the house, we lived in seven different apartments and AirBnbs’ Mary admits. But the process has not only delivered a beloved home, Mary has also developed a new passion for the life and work of the Griffins. She explains ‘we have lived all over the world, and this has – by far – been the biggest adventure and most rewarding result.’

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