Although Como House and Gardens no longer front onto Toorak Road, when allotments 11 and 12 were sold on 10 June 1840 in the first sale of Crown land in Prahran, the 54-acre parcel extended from the Yarra River to Toorak Road north to south and from Williams Road to Kensington Road east to west. As sections of the land were gradually subdivided, the roads created were named after people and places familiar to the residing family, the Armytages. Como Avenue was formerly the driveway up to Como House. Fulham Avenue was named after the Armytages’ Western District farm that had been given to them as a wedding present. Lechlade Avenue was named after Mrs Armytage’s father who had been the mayor of Lechlade in Scotland. Williams Road was named for the original owner of Como, Edward Eyre Williams, who was in residence with his family for five years before deciding the travel to and from his work in the city was too demanding. In those days, South Yarra was considered part of the country, not the city. Most people resided on the other side of the river.
The Armytage family, Charles and Caroline and their nine surviving children, five boys and four girls, owned and resided at Como for 95 years. Finally, after the parents were both dead and the boys had moved away, only two unmarried sisters, Laura and Leila, and the once married then deserted sister, Constance, remained at the house. After struggling through the war years in England, Laura decided at the onset of World War II that she could not survive another. She died, leaving only Constance and Leila in residence at Como.
After World War II, and with the approach of the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, houses like Como were being indiscriminately pulled down to make way for new residences that would present Melbourne to the world as a modern city. To ensure that Como House remained for the enjoyment of future generations, Constance and Leila Armytage sold the residence to the fledging National Trust of Australia (Victoria) in 1959 for £100,000, half what the house was worth. They also sold the contents of the house to the Trust but donated the money back. Ninety percent of the furniture in Como House is the original furniture used by the Armytages. The oldest piece in the house is a grandfather clock dating back to 1795.
Because the house was redecorated in the 1920s by the Armytage sisters, there is a heavily feminine influence throughout the rooms. The only rooms that do not display this influence are the hallway, the dining room and the billiards room. These rooms were traditionally male domains and the Armytage sisters respected that. The hallway of Como is decorated with stuffed game birds, deer skulls and antlers, signifying the hunting prowess of the Armytage men. The dining room also reflects them; portraits of Charles Armytage and his father dominate the room. Traditionally, after dinner, the men remained in the dining room, talking, smoking cigars and drinking port while the women withdrew to the drawing room, which was originally called the withdrawing room. Billiards was an entirely male pastime resulting in the masculine décor of the billiards room. The oars of Charles Armytage Jr hang high on one wall above the billiards table; he once rowed for Cambridge in England, an exalted achievement.
The furniture distributed throughout the house comes from a variety of sources. On a four-year tour of the world, Caroline Armytage acquired numerous pieces from France and Italy, and collected a writing desk from England that belonged to her husband’s grandmother. The dining table and sideboard in the hallway were made in Melbourne from Australian timbers by Bell & Butt, who also manufactured coffins.
One upstairs bedroom is known as the Susanne Brown Room. Susanne was the daughter of John and Helen Brown who Como for 10 years prior to the Armytages taking over the ownership. Susanne’s name is scratched into a pane of glass in the bedroom window and in a different handwriting (it is presumed a sibling’s handwriting) extra words have been added. The full sentence reads, ‘Susanne Brown is a threepenny fool.’ Nineteenth century graffiti!
The Armytage family frequently socialised with other families of the Melbourne social set, including the Sargoods of Ripponlea, the Chirnsides of Werribee Park and the Talbots of Government House. They gave fancy-dress balls, dinners, concerts, croquet and tennis parties and other fashionable amusements. Dame Nellie Melba was a close family friend and sometimes entertained those gathered with a song.
Arthur Merrick Boyd and Penley Boyd, respectively grandfather and father of the recently deceased painter Arthur Boyd, were also friends of the family and some of their canvasses hang in the halls of the home. The very talented Constance Armytage was taught to paint by Arthur Merrick Boyd. Her respectable attempt at imitating her tutor hangs opposite one of his efforts in an upstairs hallway.
The Como property was partially subdivided in 1911, and in 1921 the Armytage sisters sold Como Park to the Prahran Council on the condition it be made into parkland and never fenced. Como House and Garden now sit on 5.25 acres.
*First published in the “Toorak Road” chapter of InRoads: Great Streets of Melbourne, Holmesglen Writers’ Press, 1999