South Yarra has always been a fashionable and highly desirable suburb. It didn’t really experience a period of gentrification unlike many inner city areas in the 1970s and ‘80s. It was THE place to live, be seen and entertain. Number 9 Darling Street, a reception centre and now apartments, was a regular a drawcard for society functions. Plush velvet interiors greeted visitors who were quickly handed a glass of bubbly and a canapé.

South Yarra is still a mecca for dining, but these days the emphasis is slightly more casual, with locals often making their way to tables in lycra gym gear. France-Soir, the French-style restaurant in Toorak Road a few doors from Punt Road, continues to draw a crowd, with new kids on the block, such as Carolina (on the corner of Caroline Street and Toorak Road) filling up quickly. Designed by award-winning designer Chris Connell, this informal Italian-style brasserie is always bustling. Other new venues, such as Mopho Canteen, a Vietnamese-style restaurant/café at 74 Toorak Road is certainly worth a visit; its soups, crab rolls and other specialties are appreciated by this writer, keen to have an inexpensive, but delicious and quick lunch. Gum Tree, at 114 Toorak Road, a one-stop shop for prepared meals, wine, and even flowers, makes entertaining a breeze for locals who decide to leave everything to the last minute. But most living nearby, including this writer, tend to eat out at a different restaurant every second night.

Many residents living in South Yarra stay put rather than move elsewhere. Some move to high-rise apartments in St Kilda Road when the family home becomes too difficult to manage. However, many of the older residents who have been at the same address for decades would prefer to shuffle through corridors and keep those doors closed for rooms, such as bedrooms, no longer used. And unlike many suburbs where there’s reliance on a car, here you’ll see locals walking and enjoying the wide and leafy streets. Those who appreciate architecture should make a note of some of the fine 20th century homes along the way.

At 21 Gordon Grove, a cul-de-sac leading off Punt Road, you’ll find a 1960s house designed by architect Bernard Joyce. Considered to be a ‘hero’, particularly in architectural circles, this low slung, single storey house, sits quietly in the streetscape. Further along, at number 19, is a concrete-block house, designed by the eminent architects Grounds, Romberg and Boyd in 1962. Running through to Caroline Street at the rear, this multi-level home gives residents living in both streets (Gordon Grove and Caroline Street), a sense of history with this architectural legacy.

 The late architect Neil Clerehan is also well represented in South Yarra, with his modernist homes clearly identified from the street. There is the house he designed in 1964 at 228 Domain Road, a stone’s throw from the Royal Botanic Gardens. Complete with its basement car parking, which would have been one of the earliest examples of its kind, this courtyard-style house spread across one level has a strong Japanese aesthetic. Exposed concrete Besser block brick walls throughout add texture and warmth to this fine modernist home that received numerous awards in its day and has recently been listed by Heritage Victoria. As mentioned by Heritage Victoria, this house served as a ‘prototype’ for the modern townhouse. Recipient of the Victorian Architecture Medal in 1967, it seems relatively modest and understated by today’s standards. Architect Guilford Bell’s house next door, known as the Bardas House, after the founders of the Sportsgirl fashion chain, didn’t fare as well. It faced the wrecking ball a few years ago and was replaced with a polite Georgian-style home.

A similar type of brown brick was used for Clerehan’s house located at 82 Caroline Street. Although appearing relatively unchanged from first inspection, Clerehan added a second storey to this home in sympathy to the original design. Vintage photo credit: Peter Wille

Lawson Grove Cafe

Clerehan’s first house for himself and his family can also be discovered in South Yarra, located at 18 Fawkner Street. As mentioned in Philip Goad’s book Melbourne Architecture (The Watermark Press), ‘this flat-roofed townhouse (circa 1955) had a Stegbar window-wall and, unusually for the time, an upstairs kitchen and living room’. Today, locating kitchen and living areas on the first floor, with bedrooms below, is a relatively common occurrence to increase natural light and views. 

But in 1955, when this modernist house was built, neighbours would have returned to their Victorian period homes with raised eyebrows, ‘What were they thinking?’ Clerehan’s last and final home, a townhouse at 90 Walsh Street, remains in mint condition and was featured on the cover of Forever House, published by Thames & Hudson. As mentioned in Goad’s book, ‘his own house emphasised themes of privacy and the exposure of structure and materials. The house is set back from the northern boundary, enabling all the main rooms to face a paved courtyard containing a pool and terrace garden’.

While discovering some of the suburb’s architectural gems, make time to visit the Lawson Grove café. This hidden café/produce store was designed by Howard Lawson in the mid-1930s as part of the apartment developments surrounding it. The café’s interior has a cavernous feel with concrete floors and a concrete ceiling framing the bevelled leadlight glass windows. As well as individual tables, there are large communal tables with mismatched chairs.

Nearby is Lawson’s Beverley Hills Apartments, a broody and mysterious pile in Darling Street, overlooking the Yarra River and the Richmond rooftops. This development, which includes one of Melbourne’s first communal swimming pools, was THE place for the fashionable to live in the 1950s through to the ‘70s. Fashion model Bambi Smith would have posed numerous times around this swimming pool, reclining in her one-piece bathing suits, cat’s eye-shaped sunglasses and broad brim hat. If she were alive today, she might have even been a regular customer at the prestigious Le Louvre boutique, now located at Daly Street (off Chapel Street). This red brick substation has been entirely rebuilt into a three-level boutique. Mirrored walls, adorned with graffiti by artist Dan Wenn, include the silhouettes of designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Alexander McQueen and milliner extraordinaire Sir Stephen Jones. Objects and artifacts from the 1940s through to the 1960s are thoughtfully arranged on each level, with ocelot-covered screens and shopping bags, a signature of the store and its founder, Lillian Wightman, whose iconic store in Collins Street, Melbourne, was a mecca for high-fashion in this city. South Yarra also holds its place when it comes to period homes, including the Victorian mansion Como, located in Williams Road. If you want to spend a fine leisurely afternoon here, venture down the path that leads to the Stables of Como, a barn-like setting that serves up light lunches, as well as breakfast every day. The overscaled potted plants that line the gravelled pathway to the entrance has a certain theatricality.

South Yarra is fortunate to have in its midst the Royal Botanic Gardens, along with wide and leafy streets to explore. Take the time to wander, take a wrong turn and it’s most likely you’ll discover something new. It could be an extraordinary modernist home, a café, such as Lawson Grove that’s mainly known by locals, or a boutique that’s concealed down a side street. But take the time and leave the car at home!


Text by Stephen Crafti.

Lifestyle & Design

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