Geoffrey Harley Mewton, Modernist Pioneer

February 2022

Woy Woy, Marine Parade, Elwood, 1936. Photo Rohan Storey, 2019, just after renovations and repainting.

Last year I went to photograph Woy Woy, the bold blocky 1930s Modernist apartment block on the Elwood foreshore, and discovered it had just been renovated; painted white after years of being a muddy yellow, suddenly it looked remarkably like the stark white volumes of the pioneer European Modernists of the 1920s, something very radical for Melbourne at the time. Then I started to look into what else the architect, GH Mewton, had done, and began to realise that perhaps he was one of Melbourne’s most daring pioneers in the early 30s, but had been overshadowed by his far more famous then-partner, Roy Grounds, and overlooked because most of his (or their) more striking modernist designs have been demolished.

Mewton and Grounds met as students at Melbourne University in the mid-1920s, forming a close association that would last until 1937. They first made news in May 1928 when their joint design of a rustic weatherboard cottage won the RVIA Model Homes competition (homes under £1000 section), then again when they both won different scholarships just a few moths later, just before they also graduated in mid 1928. Then in July they set off together for London, as many architects and architecture students did at that time. In 1929 they both worked briefly in New York, where Mewton worked on the Chrysler Building. In 1930 Grounds made the unusual decision to go to Los Angeles, where he ended up working on set design for the movies, while Mewton went in the other direction, working and sight-seeing around Europe for the next year or so.i

This must have been quite an experience, with the stark white Modernism we now associate with the Bauhaus well-established in France and especially Germany by then, but hardly seen in the UK, and not at all in Melbourne. Mewton certainly saw some of this radical work, because after he returned in early 1932, and set up a practice (at the height of the depression), he wrote an article for the January 1933 edition of Australian Home Beautiful. Titled “Modern and Medieval”, he discusses housing in the US and the UK, with both described as very traditional, contrasted with the very modern German scene, where their flat roofs and a desire for maximum sunlight using large areas of glass opening onto outdoor areas are illustrated by several photos of stark white houses (and one of flats in horizontal stripes of brick and render).

Grounds returned later in 1932 and wrote for the Argus of his experiences designing for the movies.ii By January 1933 he set up office with his old chum Mewton, with an arrangement that they would pursue work separately, but brand it all as Mewton & Grounds. We know this from Professor Philip Goad, who interviewed Mewton in the late 80s as part of his thesis The Modern House in Melbourne 1945–75, and it is only from this and his other writings on the partnership that some of the Modernist projects have been ascribed to one partner or the other.

One thing is clear is that it was Grounds who did most of the projects that are not Modernist – a series of charming cottage style houses clearly influenced by the simple rustic weatherboard gable roofed houses of American architect William Wurster, just then gaining popularity in the Bay Area of California. Grounds might well have made the effort to see some of them. The first was the Henty House (‘Portland Lodge’), Oliver’s Hill, Frankston, built 1934. On the other hand, Grounds is clearly the author of at least one Modernist project the same year, his own holiday house in Mount Eliza, nicknamed ‘The Ship’, which has flat roofs, horizontal cement sheet walls, a glass walled upper floor, and porthole windows.

Goad’s thesis states clearly that Mewton was responsible for another house that was equally Modern, but with quite a different expression. The Stooke house in Brighton was a small but bold design from late 1935, of white brick walls with primrose tiled edges, steel-framed corner windows, with a low walled front court-garden area and built to avoid trees (his house was sadly demolished in the late 1980s). It was described in the Australian Home Beautiful as “the kind of house you see in Germany today”,iii an interesting observation given Mewton’s earlier article. Goad is also the source that ascribes the firms Modernist apartment projects, Woy Woy and the softer, two-tone brick Bellaire flats in West St Kilda to Mewton. But what about the other ten or more modernist projects by the partnership?

Stooke House, Brighton (Image : Australian Home Beautiful, 2 March 1936)

It is always a bit fraught to assign on stylistic grounds, but when I began to look at their work as closely as I could (since most are long gone), there are clear similarities and differences between them, and they fall into two main groups. The first are a small group of simple asbestos cement sheet houses, like Grounds’ Mount Eliza holiday house for himself. The 1935 Rosenove house in Frankston (which Goad says is by Groundsiv), was also a lightweight, linear asbestos cement sheet design, as was the ‘asbestos cement house’ the firm entered in the 1934 Centenary Homes exhibition (which came second), so perhaps these three were by Grounds.

The firm also had an entry in the concrete home section, which didn’t win, but did get published, and it’s a very different style, much more Bauhaus, so perhaps this one was by Mewton, inspired by his German experience, and represents the second, larger group, most probably by Mewton. This concrete house is quite similar in form and details to the 1934 house Ingpen House in Geelong, with the same railed deck and chevron pattern on the front door, but in cream brick, with horizontal raked joints, with white window frames and orange fascia.v The same form and details, such as large areas of plain, rake-jointed brickwork, with thin brick edging, flat roofs and first floor deck, are repeated on the 1935 Evan Price house in Essendon,vi the only Modernist house of theirs (apart from Grounds’ Mt Eliza home) to survive – I would say both are clearly by the same hand, as well as the concrete Centenary Home, so perhaps all three are by Mewton.

Then there’s the 1935 Thomas house in Balwyn, another stark white walled, flat roof design, avoiding trees on the site, and with a low wall enclosing a front court-garden, just like Stooke house, and from around the same time, though it’s not as slick, being in bagged brick, with simple timber framed windows. Goad says this is by Groundsvii, but if so he was rather directly copying his partner’s design, albeit in his favoured more rustic materials, or was it just by Mewton, but without the budget of the Stooke house?

Another house by the partnership has by far the most clearly Bauhaus inspiration – the Watt house in Toorak, from early-mid 1936,viii which has solid rectangular volumes with stark white walls, flat roofs, and even a strip window, the kind the Bauhaus used (this house still exists but has been greatly altered). This would seem to be most likely by Mewton, inspired by what he saw in Germany.

Wildfell, Upper Beaconsfield (Image: Australian Home Beautiful, January, 1934)

Then I looked back at the earliest design by the partnership, which if it still existed would in my opinion certainly be regarded as the first example of European Modernism in Victoria – Wildfell in Upper Beaconsfield, which was built by late 1933. (By comparison MacRobertson Girls High, often described as the first example of Modernism in Victoria, while designed in late 1933, was not completed until a year later). Wildfell was flat roofed, with rendered walls painted a ‘silver white eucalyptus’, on a base of red bricks, which also formed the chimneys and door surrounds, the paving of low walled terraces which led out of every main room, while the steel framed windows were painted matching ‘rust red’.ix With its simple rectangular forms, long low lines, white walls, corner windows, bright primary colours, and rooms opening to the outdoors, it was very much like the German houses Mewton had described in his article earlier in 1933, elements repeated on Mewton’s Stooke house. The low spreading plan is perhaps more like Grounds’ asbestos cement houses, but I would think the design is largely Mewton’s.

Milky Way, Little Collins Street (Iamge : State Library Victoria)

Another striking early project was, of all things, a milk bar, an initiative of the United Milk Producers Society, which opened at 300 Little Collins Street in February 1934.x Called the Milky Way it featured the last word in modern furniture, with tubular steel chairs and tables, seemingly straight from the Bauhaus, recessed strip lighting, a colour scheme of black white and silver, and a jaunty flying cow. The extreme modernism of the space seems more likely to have come from Mewton, though the cow graphic perhaps implies the hand of Grounds’ movie set experience.

As well as a couple of commercial projects (a factory in North Melbourne and a shop in St Kilda), six of the eight modernist houses by the partnership, with most probably by Mewton, are now lost – the highest attrition rate of any notable architect from this period I’m aware of. Grounds’ work has survived far better, with six of his seven cottage style houses remaining, as well as his own Modernist holiday house. Also surviving are the firm’s two Modernist apartment projects, both of 1936, both by Mewton (Goad may be the source for this, but I agree that their Modernist lines make this highly likely).

Woy Woy is said to be the first example of modernism applied to flats in Melbourne, and with the recent re-painting it does indeed look like something that could be from 1920s Germany. Originally it was in fact a little more radical – the windows were more horizontal, and the stairs stopped below the roof, without the little tower and the date block (these alterations date from the early 1980s). Bellaire in West St Kilda is composed of similar stark volumes but softened by the use of two colours of bricks, giving it a more streamlined effect — and it looks remarkably similar to the German apartment project in Mewton’s 1933 article.

The next year Grounds left for overseas again. Though I have made a case for Mewton being the more radical designer, once he was on his own, the modernist projects ceased. Indeed, his own house of 1938 in Sandringham is a version of Grounds’ gable roofed houses, on a long linear plan, in whitewashed brick– but it does have a very modern lounge, which opens to a paved area and the back yard through a bank of steel framed windows which could fold away completely (something he remarked on the German houses in his 1933 article). That same year he joined with EF Billson, and they produced a series of modernised Georgian, American cottage or Streamlined houses and flats in the next few years.

Immediately after the war, like most architects he practiced in a simple lightweight modern style, and soon joined a partnership which eventually became Godfreys Spowers Hughes Mewton & Lobb — whose work was never as radical as Mewton’s was during the partnership with Grounds between 1933 and 1936. I can only speculate that perhaps Grounds urged Mewton to take risks, or it might simply have been that Mewton’s early zeal waned, and after 1938 he was happy to design practical modern homes, without feeling the need to adopt a startling modern aesthetic.

Whatever the exact authorship might be, we can certainly say that Mewton was part of a partnership that produced just about the most radically Modern houses in Victoria in the early 30s. He may well have been the designer of most of them and certainly deserves to be better known.

Modernist Projects designed by GH Mewton (probable)

1933

late : Wildfell, Upper Beaconsfield (demolished)

1934

Feb : Milky Way Milk Bar (demolished)

March : Factory, Villiers Street, North Melbourne (demolished)

Nov : Concrete House, Centenary Homes competition (no prize)

Nov : Asbestos Cement House, Centenary Homes competition (2nd prize)

late : Ingpen House, Geelong (demolished)

1935

early : Evan Price House, Essendon

late : Stooke House, Brighton (demolished)

? : Thomas House, Balwyn (demolished)

1936

early? : Watt House, Toorak (altered)

mid : Shops, Village Belle, St Kilda (demolished)

? : Woy Woy, Elwood

? : Bellaire, St Kilda West

1938

? : Mewton House, Sandringham

Endnotes

i Entry for GH Mewton, Encyclopedia of Australian Architecture, eds Goad and Willis, Cambridge University Press, 2012

ii “So this is Hollywood?” The Argus, Thursday 15 September 1932

iii “A very modern house at Brighton Beach”, Esme Johnson, Australian Home Beautiful, 2 March 1936

iv Date of construction also from Goad

v “Colours blended in Geelong Residence”, The Herald, 19 December 1934,

vi “SImple Design for Essendon Home”, The Herald, 3 July 1935,

vii Date of construction also from Goad.

viii The site was not created until late 1935

ix ‘Modern by Circumstance’, Australian Home Beautiful, 1 January 1934

x “The Milky Way, opening today” , The Age, 14 February 1934

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