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Cranlana

This article was first published in the  White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No. 214 on 19th April 2007

 

Melbourne after the gold rush saw a lot of ‘new money’. When this new money came easily it was often invested in the McMansions of the time. Melburnians often regard these demonstrations that wealth doesn’t always mean taste as ‘examples of Melbourne’s grand heritage’.

Then there were those who with little or no money were through their own enterprise able to establish sustainable businesses that employed many people in the growing settlements. Numbers of them did not feel the need to build showy mansions and, at the same time, helped establish Melbourne as the undisputed philanthropy capitol of Australia.

One such was Simcha Myer Baevski. Arriving from Russia, he set up in the schmutter trade in The Lane (as Flinders Lane was then called). Later, they shifted to Bendigo and set up a small store but things didn’t go well. Now, if Sidney had an MBA he would know that trading conditions were not currently conducive to retail and that mail order catalogues were disrupting traditional buying patterns and as a result he should write a new detailed business plan or exit the industry. Sidney didn’t have an MBA but he had a violin. And like any good Russian Jew, at night he could make it sing and make it cry and make it give comfort and make it talk. Maybe it was the violin that told him that if the customers would not come to him, he should go to them. He obtained a hawkers cart and headed out door to door. He had very little English at this stage but Mrs Bendigo, her face flushed and hands red raw from scrubbing felt somehow quite special standing on the front step draped in a piece of cloth that Sidney assured her “suited her complexion”. She did have a little money which she was putting aside for something else but he was such a well-mannered man - not the sort you normally meet in the street - and, after all, it really did suit her complexion.

Years later Sidney, who had dropped his last name and was just known as Sidney Myer, would enjoy spending time on the floor in his Melbourne department store and assist new staff with their first sale. “The customer is special - without them you or I don’t have a job - so we have to make the act of buying a special occasion for them.”

But back to the Myer family home. Sidney’s first marriage had no issue - although the matter of whether the divorce was legal under Australian law was a different issue. He then married a certain Miss Ballieu - a name that may ring a bell He was to die as (unknighted) Sidney Myer and she as Dame Merlyn Myer - the honours and lack thereof being another issue for another time. For the new family house, a house which had been built about 20 years earlier in Toorak was purchased. Over time it saw a number of additions and extensions but always remained understated compared with the Victorian McMansions of an earlier generation. The department store in Bourke Street was another matter. The crown of the art deco building was the wonderful island windows with their sense of magic and something special inside. The store might be flamboyant but the family home wasn’t. After all, it was the customer who needed to feel special - not the proprietor. The art deco windows have long since gone and successive restorations have left only token facades of the original art deco building - but then Melbourne has always valued facades over architecture.

Back at the family home, the most important creation was the addition of a sunken garden. This remains as possibly one of the finest sunken gardens of its type in Australia. The designer engaged for the work was Desbrowe Annear. We have already mentioned his work in one of Melbourne’s Hidden Gems for his design of the beautiful Springthorpe Memorial.

The garden was important not only for family activities but for informal entertaining of staff of all levels from the department store. Today members of the Myer family still live there and because the house does not make a showy presence, the only indication is the Myer crest on the gate. As a family home, you are unlikely to have a chance to look inside, but never mind. You can head along to the Sidney Myer Music Bowl and listen to the Sidney Myer free concerts - both bequeathed to Melbourne by Sidney and the Myer family. If you do, listen closely to the solo violin and see if it has a message for you.

___________________  White Hat  ___________________

BL

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Other articles in the series Seven Mansions of Melbourne:

Seven Mansions of Melbourne - overview

No. 1 – Tara
No. 2 – Raheen
No. 3 - Cranlana
No. 4 - Lowther Hall


You can find a comprehensive guide to markets around Australia at The White Hat Guide to Markets in Australia.