Mildura Weekly photographer PAUL MENSCH showcases the inside of Rio Vista, much of which has been restored in recent years.
By JOHN DOOLEY
SOMETIMES playing tourist in your own town can be a rewarding experience…and we are fortunate to live in a district with a rich history.
Without doubt our most iconic and important heritage building is Rio Vista, prominently situated in Cureton Avenue, a short distance from the Murray River, and a locale it shares with Mildura Arts Centre (MAC).
To many locals, the story of this imposing and significant historical landmark is well known – certainly to local school children who visit the MAC precinct regularly – but there are a lot of residents who have likely never stepped foot inside the famous house.
Rio Vista is the former home of William Benjamin (WB) Chaffey and his family, and proudly stands today as an elegant testament to a bygone era which heralded the beginning of a remarkable story – the development of the Mildura irrigation district.
The name Rio Vista was aptly chosen, being Spanish for ‘river view’, something the Chaffey family loved, and was reflective of the years they spent in California before coming to Mildura.
Designed by Mildura architects Sharland and Edmunds, Rio Vista was built by John Williams, a builder from Adelaide, who finished construction of the palatial home in 1891 – the Chaffey family would take up residence the following year.
The house was constructed from an exotic combination of local and imported materials.
Mildura Brickworks, the local brick kiln, supplied the distinctive red bricks and Murray Pine and Red Gum timbers were sourced and milled in the district and used in the interior panelling and construction of the house’s frame, while Blackwood timbers were used to construct staircases.
Imported wallpaper and Italian tiles and marble also formed part of the internal features, including the fireplaces.
While much of the joinery was locally produced, the majority of the cabinet work was carried out by a craftsman from California.
The timber floors in the house are made from Jarrah, Western Australia Karri and Murray Pine, and the beautifully striking stained glass windows were hand-made and imported from England, except two hand-painted stained glass panels in the front door, noticeable from their modern imagery with ‘Mildura’ branded oranges.
In recent years, selected rooms in the interior of Rio Vista have been painstakingly restored to their original splendour, a project undertaken by MAC.
The restoration project, which commenced in 2005, has seen wallpapers authentically reproduced, paint stripped back to reveal timber finishes hidden for years, and even original furniture being returned to the home by relatives of the Chaffey family and others who had been in possession of items since the property was sold in 1950.
WB’s first wife Hattie died in 1889 while the couple were still living in the Mildura Station Homestead, and eventually he married his second wife Heather, and they lived together in Rio Vista until his death in 1926.
Mrs Chaffey continued to live in the house until her death in 1950, following which the house was purchased for £18,000 by Mildura City Council, and in 1956 became an art gallery, which would serve to display a major art bequest from politician and philanthropist, Senator RD Elliott, owner of the Elliott Newspaper Group.
Many believe if it hadn’t been for this intervention, the old house may well have been destined for demolition.
In 1966 an art gallery and theatre was added, and the whole complex became known as the Mildura Arts Centre, which was officially opened by Sir Henry Bolte in November 1966.
The most recent development was finalised in 2012, with a state-of-the-art performing arts venue connecting the facilities together – marking Stage 1 of the transformation of the Mildura arts and cultural precinct.
Mildura Arts Centre now features a performing arts theatre, a regional art gallery, sculpture park and licensed café, with Mildura’s most important heritage building, Rio Vista Historic House, still the centrepiece of the site.
Today Rio Vista’s gardens, sculpture park and the adjacent MAC park surrounds are a lovely place to visit, and offer a shady spot to sit and relax while enjoying a coffee and snack from MAC’s cafe.
The original grounds of Rio Vista were landscaped by local firm Hughan and Glasson, who included an ornate fountain in their design, which is located in the centre of the main entrance to the house.
This fountain, however, is actually a replica, with the original having been relocated to the corner of Eighth Street and Deakin Avenue in the City’s centre in 1991.
Known as the George V Memorial Fountain, it was moved to mark the centenary of Rio Vista, and the Mildura Shire had a replica fountain made and installed in the gardens of the home.
Rio Vista’s ‘original’ wooden gates, which can be seen today on the perimeter of the gardens, are an authentic reconstruction of the fencing that bordered the property in 1900.
Directly opposite Rio Vista is another palatial home, known as the ‘Bungalow’, a ‘Queen Anne’ style residence which complements its famous neighbour well.
In the garden of the Bungalow is a huge Moreton Bay Fig, and a similar tree may be seen in Douglas Avenue, Mildura, estimated to have been planted at the time of the settlement of the district, more than 130 years ago.
Unfortunately, things eventually turned sour for the Chaffey Brothers, when disputes about their practices were discussed in Victorian Parliament.
A collapse of the Melbourne land boom would also contribute to the problems they faced, and after a government report, the Mildura Irrigation Trust took over from the Chaffey’s Mildura Irrigation Co. in September 1895.
On December 10 of the same year, the Chaffey Brothers’ Australian projects went bankrupt and George Chaffey returned to the United States. WB would remain in the district and continue to be a key figure in Mildura and contributing significantly to its history.
In 1903 he was elected president of the Shire of Mildura and became its first mayor in 1920. He was also president of the Australian Dried Fruits Association, and in 1924 was made a Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George.
WB is reputed to have said of Rio Vista, “I’ve got this house because I couldn’t sell it. It was offered for a little over a £1000, but nobody wanted it.”
• FOOTNOTE: Some reference content contained in this article was sourced from the visitmildura.com.au/Chaffey Trail and murrayriver.com.au websites.