Rio Vista Historic House
Image courtesy of Black Diamond Images
In 1886, George Chaffey and his brother William Benjamin arrived in Mildura and developed Australia’s first irrigation program. Following their success with irrigation in California, Victorian Premier Alfred Deakin, who was under pressure to give up additional territory for farming and settlement, approached the Chaffey brothers, originally from Canada.
Mildura Station Homestead became home to the Chaffey families.
In 1889, William began construction on Rio Vista after the early irrigation development work was successful. The Californian elements in the Queen Anne design house are reflected in the Spanish style name Rio Vista (River View).
Hattie, William’s wife, died of illness shortly after the birth of their sixth child in 1889. The infant died soon after and was buried near the homestead with his mother. While William continued on his numerous business trips to California, the rest of the family relocated to the Rio Vista, with William’s mother and sister in charge of the children. William married his first wife’s niece Hattie and brought her back to Rio Vista on his last voyage to America. William and his second wife went on to have six additional children.
Despite the success of the Mildura venture, the Chaffey brothers ran into financial troubles and never realized the promise of affluence that Rio Vista represented.
In 1897, George Chaffey returned to America. Hattie lived in residence for twenty-four years until she died in 1950 after William died in 1926.
Senator R D Elliott, head of the Elliott Newspaper Group, had already left a rich art collection to the Mildura City Council in 1944. The bequest was contingent on the collection being housed in an appropriate location. Rio Vista was bought for £18,000 in 1950 and turned into an art gallery.
Many of the original surfaces in Rio Vista were painted over, and some rooms were changed for display purposes. The Mildura Art Gallery’s conversion saved the house from demolition and subdivision of the adjacent grounds.
Sir Dallas Brooks launched Rio Vista as Mildura Art Gallery in May 1956. It was used as a gallery until Sir Henry Bolte opened the Mildura Regional Arts Centre in 1966. Rio Vista is a significant heritage structure in Mildura, with a commanding presence in the Mildura Arts and Cultural Precinct.
In recent years, the attention has shifted to learning more about the Chaffey family’s past and restoring Rio Vista to its former glory. Ongoing conservation and restoration efforts ensure that the site is preserved for future generations, enhancing the story of its heritage and history in the cultural landscape.
The Interior Designers
Rio Vista was designed and built by the Mildura-based architectural firm Messrs Sharland & Edmunds. Local firms Mr. E N Wells, bricklayer, and Chapman and Sherring, carpentry, were among the subcontractors that performed the building work. At the same time, cabinetmaker Mr. W Kells of Ontario, Canada, was commissioned to create the cabinets and interior timber finishes. Chaffey’s Mildura Brickworks made the red bricks, and the Murray Pine and Red Gum timbers came from Risby’s Sawmill in Merbein. The tuckpointing of the brickwork and the elaborate gable ends that dominate the roofline at the front of Rio Vista are notable features of the building’s facade. The majority of the windows are double-hung and have adjustable internal timber blinds.
A cellar and a Butler’s Pantry are located at the bottom of the Basement Stairs and were originally used for storage. The main space was originally intended to be a ballroom, complete with a sprung floor and a fireplace that has since been removed. The springs were degraded by rising moisture over time, causing the Murray Pine floorboards to expand and bow. The basement and foundation walls have mostly been restored, and the ballroom’s five lightwells have been lost.
Hallway/Entrance, Ground Floor
The gorgeous tessellated entrance hall floor is constructed of Italian tiles, and the dado wall paneling comprises two different types of wood. The upper walls are lined with English-made ‘Lincrusta’ embossed wallpaper. Cedar five-paneled doors with brass door furniture and etched glass, each a tribute to skilled manufacturing and the best quality materials, add to the hallway’s opulent appearance. The ceiling is the only non-original decoration in this area of the home. Based on archival pictures and a new conservation study, this was recreated in 2017 using replica papers.
The magnificent Blackwood timber staircase, which draws attention to the double-height stained glass window at the back of the building, is the most prominent element of the corridor. The hallway continues past the main staircase, past the Blackwood Servants’ Staircase to the left, and ends at a back doorway and passageway that leads to the Kitchen and Service quarters and the basement stairs.
Windows With Stained Glass
Except for two hand-painted and stained glass panels in the main front door, which are notable for their modern artwork complete with ‘Mildura’ branded oranges, these windows were produced and imported from England. The ’roundels’ feature typical late-nineteenth-century motifs such as English cottage and country settings.
Room For Smoking
Like the dining room, the Smoking Room has been restored to its former state. Beautiful Murray Pine paneling dominates the Smoking Room’s walls and vaulted ceiling. Kauri Pine moldings define the overall wall and ceiling design. A tongue and groove floor of Western Australian Karri completes the timber finish. The hearth and fireplace surrounds are made of veined black and white marble. Like the others in the house, this marble fireplace was imported from Italy and featured tiled accents.
Room For Dinner
This room is decorated in a neo-classical revival style and preserves its original finishes and furnishings. The mantelpiece is composed of Italian marble in various colors, while the beautiful coffered ceiling is made of Murray Pine. The entrance hall’s wall finish continues with timber dado paneling and embossed wallpaper. The floorboards are Jarrah, as are those in the Drawing and Breakfast Rooms.
The Japanese Tsuitate (single-legged) screen from the Meiji era (late nineteenth century) is a prominent piece in this room. The screen would have been used as a ‘distraction’ (a partition) across the service doorway leading to and from the kitchen, carved from Rosewood and inlaid with a decorative lacquer double-sided panel.
Breakfast Room And Drawing Room
The floor plan demonstrates the usage of space in these rooms. Heavy draperies would have once hung from the archway between the two sections, allowing them to be drawn across to create two smaller rooms or pulled back when the family needed to entertain visitors. New ceiling and wallpapers were put as part of the restoration work in 2006, replicating the original bold motifs popularized by the Aesthetic Movement. Fortunately, the rehabilitation work revealed four spandrel frescos on the archway that separates the rooms.
The Breakfast Room’s French doors lead onto the side verandah, which once housed an aviary.
This practical portion of the house includes a spacious kitchen, a scullery, and a Butler’s Pantry and is located across from the service entrance to the Dining Room. These sections were reconstructed in 2002, and a locally sourced wood-burning stove, comparable to what would have been found in Rio Vista, was used.
This floor had five bedrooms, a bathroom/dressing room, walk-in wardrobes, and the Servants Quarters when the home was first completed.
This corridor is also used as a sitting area. It has the original embossed Lincrusta wallpaper and the original ceiling and cornice, which were completely restored in 2015.
The floors are made of Karri from Western Australia.
Bedroom And Bedrooms Of The Best
The Best Bedroom had been refurbished in the late 1960s in a style that did not match any of the house’s original interior design. The space was drastically altered in early 2016 by extensive repaint and ornamental paper replacement. Based on archive pictures and fragments of old wallpaper, ceiling and wallpapers were expertly reconstructed. The additional bedrooms will be restored in the future to match the elegance of the Best Bedroom.
Dressing Area (Former Bathroom)
The Dressing Room, off the Best Bedroom, still has its original mosaic pattern floor tiles. The chamber is thought to have formerly housed a big marble bath with a marble shower screen and a hand basin.
Quarters For Servants
The servants’ quarters are accessed through a short flight of stairs off the main staircase landing and consist of two rooms and a bathroom connected by a short passageway. This area is now closed to the public because it houses administrative offices.
The Gardener’s Cottage And The Area
The ship-lapped board-clad Cottage, located at the back of Rio Vista and directly behind the Kitchen Wing, had a Laundry, two toilets, a Chaff Store, and a Tool Store on the ground level, with the three-roomed gardener’s quarters on the top story. The stables and garage were located next to the Cottage.
The grounds had a vegetable garden, fruit orchards, and olive trees that could still be found in the back. A gravel tennis court and a water well were also available behind the Conservatory.
The Cottage was once the only source of sanitation for the residents of Rio Vista.
Following the sad drowning of one of the Chaffey children in 1897, the original Rio Vista fountain was turned off and sat unused until 1936, when it was donated to the people of Mildura to commemorate King George V’s Coronation. This fountain is still a significant Deakin Avenue feature. In October 1991, a replica fountain was built in front of Rio Vista for the centennial celebrations.
The double-height Conservatory adjoined the main house and was reached from the kitchen side verandah. It was built on brick foundations and made with timber and glass walls. The structure had fallen into such disrepair by the 1950s that it was dismantled.