Lexbourne House was built for builder and entrepreneur Robert Law in 1911 by R Tindale to a design by the architectural firm of Cavanagh, Cavanagh and Parry. It remained in the Law family home until 1954 when it was sold to the State Government and was converted for use as the Government School of Nursing. Student nurses from the country received theoretical training and were provided with residential accommodation. Changes at this time included the conversion of the residence to student accommodation and the construction of a training block in the grounds. The majority of the garden features were retained. A three storey accommodation block, designed by the Public Works Department, was added in 1960. The place became known as Lawton Hostel in 1975 when it became a hostel for intellectually disabled persons operated by Mental Health Services. The property was sold into private ownership in 1990, when the 1950s lecture block was demolished and replaced with landscaped gardens. The house currently is used as offices, while the former teaching block and nurses quarters buildings appear to be in use by the Father Brian Crisis Care Centre.
A prestigious address
By 1900, West Perth was one of the more prestigious residential addresses in Perth. Its close proximity to the city and its elevated position south of the railway line made it a much sought after location. In 1906, the ‘high land of the city’ between Hay Street west and Kings Park was described as ‘a very fashionable resort’. Along with Adelaide Terrace and Cottesloe, West Perth was a favoured residential address for many prominent Western Australians.
Robert Oswald Law purchased a portion of Perth Town Lot H91 on the corner of Colin Street and Colin Grove, West Perth, in May 1910. By this time, much of Colin Street was extensively developed with large houses and medium sized houses, interspersed by a few vacant lots, including Law’s. Robert Law came to Western Australia in 1881 to join his father, David Law,in the family building business. The Laws completed a number of building contracts, including bridges, jetties, and railway lines. David Law died in 1886, leaving 19 year old Robert to supervise the construction of a large wharf at Derby. The following year Robert Law constructed the Long Jetty at Fremantle and in partnership with William Atkins successfully tendered for the Perth-Pinjarra Railway which was completed in 1893. Other prominent works completed by Law and Atkins included the Perth Mint, the Perth Boys’ School, Boans Emporium, Perth’s drainage and sewerage system, Cue Public Buildings (1895), Fremantle Post Office (1907), One Mile Jetty and Tramway, Carnarvon (1896) and extensions to the Bunbury and Busselton jetties (1911).
By 1905, Law was having difficulty sourcing bricks for his building projects and opened his own brickworks on the Helena River. In 1911, he established Monier Patent Proprietary Company Limited, the first company in Western Australia to manufacture concrete pipes from imported cement. In 1918, his Monier tile plant commenced the manufacture of concrete roof tiles, again from imported cement. Monier was later sold to Hume PipeCompany, but when Portland Cement Co Ltd (later Swan Portland Cement Co) was founded in 1918, Law was appointed chairman of the local board of directors. The company commenced cement production in 1920. In May 1922, Law’s various brick works were consolidated as the Metropolitan Brick Company (Metro Brick).
Law was the founding president of the Master Builders’ and Contractors’ Association, which was formed following a series of industrial disputes in the 1890s. He was also a Mason, and member of the Western Australian and South-Western Clubs and the Liberal League. He was President of Amateur Sports Club and a member of Croquet Club for a number of years, though Battye in his Cyclopedia of Western Australia, does not make clear whether these were local or State organisations.
By early 1911, construction of a large residence had commenced on Law’s West Perth property, designed by architects Cavanagh, Cavanagh and Parry. Construction by Mr R Tindale progressed steadily and the WA Mining, Building and Engineering Journal noted that ‘a special feature of the building is the brick columns and other reinforced work…’. The City of Perth Rate Book for 1912 records a house and garden valued at £140 on the property. No doubt Mr Tindale welcomed the work, for in mid-1911 the WA Mining, Building and Engineering Journal noted that there had been few tenders called for the construction of residences ‘during the last six months…when it is known that the population is increasing rapidly, and that there are no vacant houses to be obtained’.
Michael Cavanagh trained as an architect with the South Australian Public Works Department and studied in London before arriving in Western Australia to set up a branch of his South Australian architectural practice. He went on to become one of the State’s best known architects of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1900, his younger brother James joined him in partnership in Perth. Herbert Parry joined the firm in 1908. The firm designed many buildings for the Catholic Church, as well as a range of commercial and residential properties.
In 1913, Law purchased additional land at the rear of his property on Colin Grove. Another block to the rear along Colin Grove was purchased in 1920. The following year, this rear section was recorded as being vacant.
By 1930, the value of the Law’s house had increased to £240, indicating that improvements were made to the house at this time. In 1940, part Lot H88 was included in the Rate Book as an annotation to the entry for 18 Colin Street, which then comprised ‘house and gardens’.
Robert Law died in 1947 and Mrs Law continued to live in the house until 1954 when the property was purchased by the State Government for conversion into a training center for country nurses. At this time, the ground floor of the residence comprised a lounge room, smoke room that opened onto a side verandah, living room and kitchen on either side of a wide entry hall, with a recreation room and laundry at the rear. Upstairs comprised bedrooms and bathrooms, with two sleepouts above the side verandah.
Survey and sewerage diagrams from the 1950s show the layout of the house and grounds, with the residence set well back from Colin Street with a brick path running from the northern end of the lot on Colin Street to the house and brick building (‘Summer House’) and gavanised iron aviary on the Colin Grove frontage. A bitumen path/roadway from Colin Grove leads to a brick garage at the rear of the residence. A brick stable and assortment of small brick buildings are located near the garage. The majority of the remainder of the property is fenced open ground, with a stone wall screening a pond, sunken gardens and glass house at the very rear of the property. The property has a high brick wall on both street and rear frontages, and a brick pier and picket fence between it and the adjoining property to the south. The Law residence became the West Australian Government School of Nursing in December 1955:‘In December the new Government School of Nursing was opened in Colin Street, West Perth, having transferred from Devonleigh Hospital. A large house had been purchased and adapted and new lecture and demonstration rooms etc. constructed at the rear of the premises. The whole unit is most attractive and efficient and it is expected that it will be able to cater for an increased intake of trainees for training in the country hospitals.’
The report of the Principle Matron of the Nursing Branch provides further information on the new School:‘The Government School of Nursing, 18 Colin Street, was opened on 5 December. Up-to-date school rooms have been built affording excellent facilities for teaching. The original building has been extensively renovated and presents a most attractive appearance. The interior of the nurses’ home is very comfortable and should do much to attract young girls to nursing as the Home stands in delightful grounds. The situation of the school is ideal in that it is within a few minutes’ travel from the centre of the City but being in a quiet area away from traffic disturbances. In order to accommodate the Nurses from the Country Training Schools attending the Block Sessions, Irwin Court was acquired, this building providing adequate accommodation.’
In the conversion to nurses’ quarters, very few internal changes were made to the building. The television lounge, office, pool and recreation room, dining room, kitchen, laundry and maids’ dining room was located on the ground floor, while bedrooms (accommodating two to three beds each), office and toilet were located on the upper floor. The existing garage was converted to a maid’s change room and store, while the existing pavilion was converted to offices for the matron and typist. Works included new brickwork, windows and doors.
The new training school block was a single storey brick and tile building comprising lecture rooms, demonstration rooms, a ward, kitchen and sisters’ rooms. Landscaping involved the removal of trees and shrubs ‘to allow the work to proceed’ and the demolition of the glass house. Flower beds and lawns were to be retained where possible. While at the Government School of Nursing, student nurses were given theoretical training ‘free of the duties and distractions of the Hospital Wards’. Although the system changed over the years, student nurses initially spent four weeks of each year’s training at the School. Former students of the Government Central School of Nursing were invited to an open day at the new Colin Street school in January 1956. At the time, there were 17 junior trainees and 14 nurses preparing for final examinations at Colin Street.
When the lease on Irwin Court expired in 1960, additional living accommodation was built at 18 Colin Street. The West Australian described the new building as ‘striking quarters’ of ‘contemporary design [that] will dominate the Government School of Nursing’:‘The new block will adjoin the existing single storey school building…The new building will be behind an existing lawn and set among trees and shrubs on the site. A sunken garden and fish pond will be retained. The façade will be framed in a rendered surround. A big section of the front will be cement rendered and the rest will be in contrasting panels of glass and brickwork. Two panels of brickwork will carry patterned tiles and the upper panel will also carry the school coat of arms.’
Designed by the Architectural Department of the Public Works Department, the building comprised a lounge for tutor sisters and library on the ground floor and 26 bedrooms and a sitting room on each of the upper two floors. In addition to the pavilion building, features on the site dating from when the place was the Law residence included the aviary, sunken garden, garage and shed (old stables) After a new School of Nursing was constructed on Wellington Street near Royal Perth Hospital in 1973-75, the property at 18 Colin Street was passed to Mental Health Services. Known as Lawton Hostel, the place operated as a hostel for intellectually disabled persons.
As part of the State government’s rationalisation of assets, the property was sold to Tipperary Investments in 1990. The closure of the place also represented a policy shift away from institutional care for mental health patients. A newspaper reported that $4.3 million was paid for the property and that the owner intended to retain the original residence, summer house and three-level hostel. The 1950s lecture buildings were to be demolished and replaced with ‘ornate gardens and landscaping’. At the time, the residence was described as retaining many of its original fittings, ‘as well as polished wood floors, staircases, ornate ceiling and leadlight windows and fireplaces’. The house currently is in use as offices, while the former teaching block and nurses quarters buildings appear to be in use by the Father Brian Crisis Care Centre.