Dr Michael Baker and his wife would not think of building a house without using an architect. To them building your own house was a tremendous commitment which you must do well and having decided to build he asked a colleague called Alex Craig “who is the best Architect in Australia”? Craig responded “if you lived in Sydney you would use Harry Sidler. If you lived in Melbourne you would use Robin Boyd. As you are in Melbourne Robin Boyd is your man”.
Michael and Rosemary Baker visited Robin Boyd and gave loose instructions as to what they wanted. They wanted as much space as possible and gave no specifications as to material or character.
Eventually, Robin Boyd came up with two schematics. One was two long symmetrical cylinders and the other one was the courtyard plan which was eventually built. Michael and Rosemary Baker of course fell in love with the ultimate design.
Originally the house was designed to be built of concrete and have plastered ceilings. This was changed with locally quarried Bacchus Marsh stone used for the internal and external walls, polished concrete floors and a thatched ceiling. The polished concrete was given a jade tinge by the addition of copper sulphate in its mix.
Originally the Bakers wanted a large English garden but after enjoying the bush for a while decided that they would resist the temptation of pulling down the local scrubland and would limit their English style garden to the internal courtyard.
Michael Baker says “The flora and fauna of the bush are tied up together, they cannot be separated and each relies upon the other. The koalas, possums, bull ants species, many small birds and the wallabies all rely on the delicate, struggling foliage of the mally trees and their under story for survival. The relationship is age old, delicate and all too important to upset." The trees obstructing the views were never cleared.
Robin Boyd describes the house in his book living in Australia as follows:-
As well as the usual accommodation for the family the,house was to contain a schoolroom where the children could be taught at home. No public services were available when the building started, although electricity came soon after. Rainwater had to be caught and stored and it seemed necessary to supplement the thin shade from the profuse of gums. A strong brown slate that split into thick chunks was available locally. Somehow it was like designing a building for Robinson Crusoe. This would be the only manmade thing to disturb the calm of the bush. So despite the romantic materials, a classical closed formality seemed called for in the form of the structure. The roof became a low pyramid, 27.5 metres square over symmetrically curved stone walls linked by straight window walls. The tanks became stone cylinders supporting the edge of the roof. Service rooms and children’s sleeping cubicles formed an inner ring around the court.
Dr Baker has said that “For Robin Boyd it was not just another project. He treated it as a masterpiece”.
In 1968 Rosemary and Michael Baker decided that they needed an additional house. Their family had grown to 5 children and all of them were being home schooled. The respective inlaws would come months at a time from England to stay with them at the Boyd Baker House. They therefore commissioned Robin Boyd to build another house, now called the Boyd Dower House.
This was commissioned in 1967 and completed in 1968. By then the local quarry in Bacchus Marsh had closed down. Dr Baker as resourceful a Geologist as he was a mathematician and Botanist, Poet, Artist, Musician and everything else known to mankind, had started quarrying some sandstone on site. He found a quarry and he and his family quarried the stone by hand themselves for the Boyd Dower House.
Dr Baker tells a story that he and his family and friends would busily quarry the stone by hand and cart it up the huge hill towards the Dower House ready for the builders to turn up on Monday. By this time he used a local builder who was a stonemason.
The house is a piece of art as is the Boyd Baker House.
Eventually the only change made to the Boyd Dower House was that the original kitchen was moved to a carport area and the kitchen became a bar area. Once again a water tank was included on the site.
Michael and Rosemary Baker were prolific readers. The library area in the Boyd Baker House was insufficient. The original library was moved to the bedroom next to the kitchen.
Still Dr Baker ran out of space for his books. So he proceeded to commission the design of a library. He contacted Sir Roy Grounds. Sir Roy Grounds is famous for design in the National Gallery of Victoria in St. Kilda Road. In coming into the Boyd Baker House Sir Roy asked Michael Baker “what mistakes did Robin make” Dr Baker simply replied “none” .
The library has visions and geometrical images of his NGV in St. Kilda Road. Once again Dr Baker, family and friends quarried the local stone themselves for the construction. No electricity was supplied to the library.
During the 1980’s Dr Baker became very concerned about the Urban Sprawl. He was worried about the reduction of the wilderness and a number of ranch style homes with tidied landscape increasing in the area. He was also concerned about the poor co-ordination between State Government Departments and thought how magnificent it would be if a national park could be established for the recreation of millions of people who lived in the Western suburbs otherwise the western suburbs would just catch up with and devour Long Forest. Accordingly, he donated approximately 200 acres to the State Government to start what is now known as the Long Forest Conservation Reserve.
By 2006 Michael Baker had remarried and the only visible changes to the house he made upon remarrying were that he replaced the main bedroom with a library, removed the scullery converting it into a kitchen and converted the kitchen into a dining area. His children had all grown up by 2006 ranging in age from 47 down to 18 years of age. Finally, he wanted to relocate to inner Melbourne and now lives in Fitzroy. Some of his children live in England and some live in Melbourne.
Of course much publicity was generated by the forthcoming sale of these buildings before they were auctioned on 21 May 2006. A piece in the Age at the time showed what David Adams thought of the property. “One of Australia’s most important post war houses and possibly architect Robin Boyd’s masterpiece, the Baker House at Bacchus Marsh is being sold after more than 40 years in the same family”.
The current owner Peter Mitrakas saw this article on 29 April 2006 and immediately was amazed by the pictures. He traveled that very day with his wife Mary and daughter Alexandra to see this wonderful place.
In driving up the dirt track which was water logged with the incessant rain, Peter noticed hundreds of cars parked along the track and immediately noted that the house had generated much interest.
As soon as Peter walked into the home he realized the importance of the place he was standing in. It was a spiritual place, a work of art. Arthur Boyd’s widow who visited the house the day after Peter took posession asked him “why did you buy this house” to which Peter replied, "why does one buy any work of art by any Boyd? because it is a work of art, because they love it but this is one step better. This is a work of art that you can live in”.
Peter was later to say that it was as if the houses had sprung up from the very dirt of the Long Forest Reserve, the buildings were one with the natural environs. The dwellings are a masterpiece of architecture, Australian cultural heritage and ecologically brilliant.
The day of the auction Peter Mitrakas was on his way down to the auction when he got a phone call from his wife suggesting he stop at a service station and grab page 7 of the Age. A whole page of the Age on 21 May 2006 was titled “Boyd or Buy? Boyd’s bush idol under sell threat.” The article of course said the following:-
- The home is a precious piece of the state’s cultural heritage designed by one of Melbourne’s greatest architects the late Robin Boyd.
- Gene Aughterson of the Robin Boyd Foundation said in the ideal world it would go into public hands next best is that it goes into sympathetic hands. Unfortunately the foundation does not have the money to even bid.
- Dr Baker was exasperated that his attempts to interest the State Government and various other institutions to buy the propery had failed.
- Dr Baker sent letters on 5 June 2005 to Environment Minister John Thwaites, Parks Victoria the National Trust and the University of Melbourne forewarning them of the sale all of which were to no avail.
- The Baker House is not listed by Heritage Victoria or the National Trust.
Listing with Heritage Victoria
The first people to see the 3 buildings and their environs were representatives of Heritage Victoria including Ray Tomkin who had never seen the house before. Peter Mitrakas asked them to list the buildings. ) Of course, an owner buying a property and asking Heritage Victoria to protect it is a rarity. Naturally the buildings and the environs were protected a mere 6 months later in May 2007 and given the highest possible classification by the Heritage Council of Victoria. It was one of the most pleasing and fastest approaches to Heritage classifications in the State’s history. Obviously, everyone respected the importance of the buildings and their environs.
Aims for the future
Our aim has been and continues to be to use the place as an icon of Victoria’s cultural heritage and recent past. To show to Victorians, Australians and the rest of the world how fantastic Australians can be in designing houses within our environs and protecting them at the same time.
The property is open for holiday letting, weekenders, long term stays, functions, events, weddings, conventions and conferences.
The property featured in the latest Wallpaper Melbourne guide indicating its standing as an important Melbourne destination.
A blog site on architectural icons in America lists the property with links to Frank Lloyds Wright's Falling Water.
The property includes iconic mid century modernist furniture, works of art and furnishings. Mid-century modernist rare and collectible classic furniture features in every room and now serves to enhance the beauty of the walls and ceilings. Interior designers will be able to recognize the assembly of furniture greats such as Knoll couches, Eames and Bertoia chairs, Danish rosewood sideboards, Featherstone and important Charles Blackman and aboriginal works of art. There is even a Barry Humphries painting.
Our aim is to expose this property to as many people as possible. We want all Victorians and Australians to enjoy the Boyd Baker House and to consider it as important to Victoria’s cultural heritage as we do.
We are working closely with Heritage Victoria on future plans for the site. These plans will be released in the not too distant future.
National Trust of Victoria