Even though our first home stood right in the middle of a densely populated urban area of Charlotte, North Carolina, it felt like homesteading. We were a young, white couple of privilege with two small children and a dog, moving into an older, historically significant residential area long before I was mature enough to understand that “gentrification” was considered economic disaster to existing residents. At the time, I naively thought we were part of a grass-roots effort to fix up decaying sections of the city, bringing renewed interest and value to mislabeled historical neighborhoods. I had no notion of the effects our movement into the area might have on the pre-existing populations. I regret not being more sensitive to the effects of our movement into the area and how are neighbors felt. As I return now, some 20+ years later, the street is hardly recognizable, and all of those long-established neighbors have moved away.
The house itself was a very small one-story dwelling, consisting of a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a tiny bathroom. I can still remember the dimensions: approximately 28 x 31 feet. 870 square feet. It was built following WWII using what was called “the G.I. Bill,” part of an effort to quickly house the returning military and their families.
We set about to renovate the house by gutting the kitchen, adding on a washer and dryer mudroom, and totally restoring the interior cosmetics. The yard was of particular interest to us. Just prior, we had been living in a rented apartment with very little access to garden space. Now, we fully embraced our little plot of the world. I re-landscaped, erected a white picket fence, and added a greenhouse made out of thrown-away window sashes. Looking back, our tiny postage-stamp sized house and yard felt like Sissinghurst to us. We felt so very lucky to be living in such a place.
When it was first suggested to me that I experience a “One-Night Stand” in the Iron House, a National Trust of Australia heritage site in the state of Victoria, I was intrigued. Though I knew a bit about the history of pre-fabricated housing, I knew very little of such history in the British Colonies and Australia. The prospect offered startling contrasts to my other work in Australia; I was running four house workshops at the very large and architecturally spectacular Rippon Lea, and would now be sleeping over in perhaps one of the smallest heritage sites in all of Australia! The contrasts and similarities were to prove meaningful.
The Portable Iron Houses heritage site now rests firmly within a comfortable residential area on the outer edge of Melbourne’s central business district. The street consists of a series of nicely maintained, tightly placed, detached and semi-detached dwellings. On either end of the street, where it meets the larger, multi-lane avenues, commercial structures and apartment buildings anchor the transition. We drove up in the car, and as I got out, I started to feel the private quality of the residential area. I knew the iron house was open to the public, but everything about the street landscape felt like a private residential road.
I struggled to locate the iron house itself. It was even smaller than I expected. After so many big, trumped-up, showy mansions, my enthusiasm was a bit dampened. I freely admit the ill-conceived feeling, but I wasn’t expecting much from this “One-Night Stand”. Little did I know how ignorant I was as to the value of this little house. Its location, size, and architectural SILENCE are the very qualities that make it so compelling. I was later to find out that it wasn’t supposed to be showy, like Rippon Lea; rather its job was to be a “worker bee,” subversively completing whatever the Queen-bee directed, while everyone else was looking at the big, shiny, honorific object elsewhere.
I stood just outside of the white picket fence and scanned the streetscape.
Everything on the street had a similar scale and was densely landscaped. After a moment, I located the Iron Houses hidden behind a large tree and densely landscaped front yard, all tucked behind a tidy white picket fence. I was struck by the feeling that it felt in scale and presence almost exactly like our first tiny home in Charlotte. I wondered if it was simply natural, when existing in a tiny house, to expand its presence and livability by integrating well-formed landscape “rooms” into the very structure of the home?
As I walked up the path and opened the gate, I began to see the house. This was, by today’s standards, an industrial building technology, using nuts, bolts, and corrugated steel panels. Today we would see this in a storage unit behind a house. I noticed how the house was placed on “temporary” wood piers, and how the iron exterior was simply bolted to the iron frame. This little house was more Mies Van De Rohe than the Farnsworth House! The relationship between the building networks was almost Semper-like in its connections. In many ways, this tiny place was one of the most honest dwelling constructions I had seen.
My luggage seemed out of scale for the house, even though I only brought enough for an overnight stay. Escorting my luggage into the tiny hallway made me feel like some visiting friend from a far-off land who had to pack enough for months of travel. I dropped the luggage in the hallway and began to walk around. The truth is, you could see almost everything from one spot.
The iron house contains a first floor with three rooms, and a second-floor attic bedroom space with two rooms separated by a straight, steep stair. Once I understood the floor plan, I began to bring up my luggage to the attic bedrooms. The stairs were so steep that I had to be extremely cautious of my steps. I could only take up one thing at a time, and even then I had to hold onto the handrail. I think calling them “stairs” is a bit too generous. Perhaps I should call them a somewhat more horizontal ladder. It took me four trips up and down to gather my overnight items upstairs in the attic bedroom. Going down was the real challenge, as my feet were too big to travel down facing forward. I was told to move up and down as if it were a ladder and not a stair. It was awkward, but I got a handle on it (kind of).
The bedroom consisted of a dark, attic-like space with a small window on the gable end. My hosts had left folded sheets and blankets on the narrow, 1850’s twin-sized bed. Later, in the illumination of a kerosene lamp, I would make the bed and arrange the room for my overnight stay.
Once my items were secured, I walked backward down the stairs and began exploring. To my surprise, there was not simply one pre-manufactured iron house on the site, but three. Each was in varying degrees of restoration. The organization of these three houses produced a friendly landscaped, cloistered area. The main iron house, The Patterson House (c. 1850), the one in which I was spending my overnight, was original to the site. The second dwelling, The Abercrombie House, was moved in 1970, placed on the back edge of the property, and left as they found it. This unrestored iron house has the evocative quality of a stabilized ruin. The third iron house, The Bellhouse (c. 1853), serves as the education center. It had been stripped down to the fundamental structure to show how these pre-fabricated dwellings were made. Combined, all three of the structures tell a nicely tied narrative.
While I was exploring the site and the three iron houses, my hosts had started an outdoor fire. It turned out that they had a very special dinner planned for us. John (Portable Iron Houses Property Manager, NTAV) and his husband, Athan, had gone to great effort to prepare a typical colonial pioneer’s dinner. They showed us how traditional “damper,” a type of bread, was prepared and cooked over the open fire. A staple food, damper may be related to Aboriginal people’s historic practice of cooking grain mixtures directly on the fire coals.
Originally called” seedcakes” by Aboriginal people, the bread was made by grinding seed into a dust, mixing it with water, creating a dough, and then cooking it directly in the hot fire bed. High in protein and carbohydrates, this foodstuff was a central focus of Aboriginal existence. There is some scholarly discussion as to the early creation of bread by Aboriginal cooks. British colonizers brought their own bread-making practices, and those settlers possibly adapted indigenous practices into the making of “damper” or “bush bread.”
Since I did not know much of the history of the people who originally occupied the land where Melbourne now rests, my host provided information that helped inform my experience. Melbourne lies within the traditional lands of the Yalukit Willamm people, who inhabited the swampy areas below Emerald Hill (South Melbourne). The various clans comprising this group met in large gatherings on land now occupied by Melbourne. Although white settlement of Victoria did not commence until the 1830s, earlier accounts of indigenous people by settlers described them as “peaceable natives”. Unfortunately, early on, there are written accounts of Aboriginal women from these clans being kidnapped and used as laborers and concubines. These kidnappings often resulted in hostile battles and relationships between Aboriginal people and European invaders.
With the arrival of Europeans, the local indigenous people were also hard hit by introduced diseases, and their decline in numbers was hastened by mistreatment, alcohol, and venereal disease. In around 1835, Europeans in this area began to settle in large numbers , which immediately had an impact on the nomadic life of Aboriginal people. In just four years between 1835 and1839, the population of Aboriginal people in the area of Melbourne dropped more than 86%.
The settlers saw the presence of the aboriginal peoples within the settlement limits of Melbourne as a nuisance, and disturbing, primarily because aboriginal communities had once lived in a complex relationship with the seasonal cycles of the land. Previously plentiful plant and animal life were gradually depleted by the agricultural and farming practices of the settlers, and the indigenous population was forced into a type of urban living that was entirely alien to their longstanding way of life. Many aboriginals were forced into begging for food, as they no longer had any way of maintaining their self-sufficiency.
Though the validity of treaty agreements is still open to great debate, in 1835, the area that was to become Melbourne was possibly part of a treaty agreement between the Aboriginals and John Batman. Transient occupation by European settlers quickly followed. Newly arrived colonists took up residence in temporary-style, tent-like communities. During a gold rush population boom of the early 1850s, some years after the initial displacement of indigenous communities, the iron houses were introduced to replace these earlier, tent-like settlements. It is within this larger cultural framework that the iron houses become a significant, and more permanent, element in the suppression and genocide of Aboriginal people in Australia. Displacement became formalized as speculative developers created planned communities, streets, and parks. The iron houses became a quick and easy method for making once-temporary housing permanent.
In this way, both the early humble transient housing as well as the later iron houses (both in concept and in execution) are a manifestation of the basic colonizing principle of an occupying population: an effective way to gain complete control over land and people is to make permanent, as quickly as possible, your way of life. By erecting these pre-fabricated and easily built settlement dwellings, Britain was able to, with speed, establish one of the wealthiest colonial outposts in their entire kingdom.
We often think of the architecture of colonialism as strong, monumental buildings whose purpose was to establish an honorific and dominant built environment upon the landscape of the previously occupied lands.
In contrast, small dwellings, such as the iron houses are perhaps a far more important, though less symbolic, tangible method of achieving colonial dominance. The gold rush speculation of the 1850s provided the primary impetus to permanently displace indigenous peoples, while the iron houses addressed a supply shortage in the fledgling economy and provided mercantile trade to the British iron industry. Through the speculative introduction of these small houses, the British Empire was able to quickly gain economic and physical control of Aboriginal lands through the planned infiltration of European settlers into a desirable location.
As we all stood in the cloister, amidst the three iron “portables”, I couldn’t help but imagine how an Aboriginal person of the time might have viewed these dwellings. Permanent, made out of a locally unknown material, arranged in a hyper-organized fashion, these houses in South Melbourne must have seemed like the equivalent of warships floating in the sea of territory lands.
Watching the dinner cook on the open fire, we chatted about Aboriginal people, Australian colonization, the gold rush era in Melbourne, and my other “One-Night Stands”. Hovering above the open fire pit was a beautiful Australian sunset. Its brilliant colors seemed to stand firmly against the hard-edged corrugated steel roof of the iron houses. There was a moment when the site became an intense post-modern, saturated landscape. As if to push through all of the history of the site, the spiritual power of the Australian sun, land and essence seemed to coalescence into a dream-like story of simultaneous voices – the Aboriginal, the colonizers, all the way unto us – standing by the fire watching the sparks fly upward into the purple/pink sky. Even in the middle of Melbourne, you could hear the voice of the land reach out.
Glancing to my right, I was able to glimpse others setting up the makeshift dinner table for our gathering. Once the stew was warmed up and the damper fully cooked, we all moved into the iron house for dinner.
The Conversation continued throughout the dinner, ranging from the Australian debate regarding same-sex marriage to the American Presidential race to the Speedo controversy in Malaysia! It is one of the things I love most about the “One-Night Stands”, that the sounds of conversation, laughter, and singing bounce around these tired old houses. There is a part of me that understands that these silent spaces yearn for the voices of people – these spaces want to feel useful again. Meaningful.
The Iron House is not important simply because of its architecture or production technology, but because of the people that it housed. Their stories and how they exemplified an entire era of settlement and migration into the Australian wilderness are the soul of this heritage site. The story of pre-fabricated dwellings in Australia really stems from the economics of the British colonial system. In 1851, gold was discovered on Aboriginal land in what was later to be called the Clunes goldmine. Quickly, gold was discovered in other areas such as Buninyong, Ballarat, Castlemaine, and, later, Bendigo. In a matter of three years, all of this gold quickly turned the Australian colonies from mere dependencies to the British crown into one of the richest parts of the world.
Along with these discoveries came a mass migration of labor – not only from within the Australian continent, but worldwide. Australia’s total population more than tripled from 430,000 in 1851 to 1.7 million in 1871. The city of Melbourne swelled as migrants moved through the town. Within just a few months in 1851, Melbourne’s population doubled. Images from the era show entire sections of the city composed of tents, temporary “canvas town” groupings for gold rush miners.
The pre-fabricated dwelling was a quick and short-lived attempt to manage the exponential growth of population in Melbourne. The iron houses were fabricated in Britain and then shipped to Australia. The houses didn’t require raw material in their construction, merely labor. The minimal expense and speed of construction made the houses perfect for speculators wanting to cash in on the housing shortage. Entire areas outside of the city center were organized around tight blocks connected by wide roads. These areas became the “suburban” communities of 1850-60s Melbourne. Interspersed throughout these communities were rows of the pre-fabricated iron houses.
The dwellings were small, usually 4 rooms and an attic space accessed through a stair. The kitchens and utility spaces were usually placed in outbuildings behind the houses. These small houses began as rentals for transient miners and their families, and much later some became owner-occupied. These pre-fabricated buildings served the need of a growing population, but very quickly their liabilities became apparent. Perhaps appropriate for the weather of England, these all-iron houses became oven-like in the Australian heat and sun. Any accommodation that would make them habitable took a great deal of time, labor and money. The influx of new iron houses lasted only a short 10-year period. Although the iron houses remained in use for quite some time by middle and lower economic classes, they were quickly replaced with more climate-sensitive wooden structures.
It was time for dessert. More importantly, it was time for my hosts to show us how traditional “bush tea” was produced using Australian black tea infused with eucalyptus leaves. By now, the sun had set and the coals of the fire were bright yellow and red. The tea eventually began to boil strongly and the pungent smell of the liquid thickened in the air.
As everyone finished their dessert and tea, I helped clear the table. As was always the case, the iron house did not have indoor plumbing, nor an indoor kitchen. Even today, the sink for the site has been constructed as part of an outbuilding used for visitor toilets and maintenance. I helped carry the dirty dishes out to that area. The light bulb was burnt out, so we managed using a kerosene lamp. My host stood at the sink while I brought more dishes out from the house. As he cleaned, I offered to help but he wanted me to relax. I sat there chatting with him as he washed the dishes. We spoke about his work, travel, and the comparative economies of Australia and the USA. We also discussed the imminent demise of the automobile manufacturing industry in Australia, and how this closure will affect the region.
The table cleared, dishes cleaned, everyone left me alone in the tiny iron house. It started to rain again and the sounds of the storm reverberated on the metal roof. The evening had turned rather cool so I went upstairs to change into my pajamas and warm woolly socks. The first time I traveled up the stair/ladder, I forgot the kerosene lamp. I walked back down the stairs (backward), grabbed the lamp and headed back upstairs. I entered my dark bedroom and began to make my bed. My hosts were concerned about the coolness of the evening, so they provided numerous wool blankets for my use. Because of the angle of the ceiling, and the fact that I am 6’1” tall, there wasn’t much room to move around in the room; I mainly had to stay right near the center ridge. I moved a small bedside table closer to the bed and began to empty out my pockets. I rested my partner’s pocket watch on the table, and suddenly felt like it was at home. It seemed to converse with the hand-stitched floral needlework of the tabletop doilies. I am not a big one for re-enacting eras, but sometimes it works – this was one of those times.
Now that the bed was made, I headed back downstairs to work on my computer and take some more pictures of the iron house. As I carefully walked backward down the stairs, I notices the interior wall boards. They showed decades of various wallpaper and surface treatments applied to mask the simple wood boards. Upon closer inspection, some of the wooden slats had packing labels and manufacturing names branded into the wood. I later found out that, in an attempt to cut costs and salvage materials, the packing boxes that were used to ship the iron building elements of the house were carefully disassembled and re-used as the interior walls and floors.
The spaces were small but very familiar. It was when I was working on my computer downstairs, using a candle to provide light, that I started to reflect on the similarities of our little house in Charlotte. How could two houses 9,906 miles apart feel so similar? What about these simple, humble dwellings felt comfortable for me? It was also a stark realization that I was sitting, in relative comfort, within a dwelling designed specifically to colonize and push out an indigenous population then considered undesirable by settlers.
The narrative of this site has far more to do with politics, than architecture, technology or a specific “period of interpretation.” It occurred to me that to some (depending upon political and cultural perspective), the iron houses could be seen as the result of an impulse similar to that of American town settlements of the Westward expansion and “manifest destiny,” during which settlers pushed out the Native communities of North America. On one hand, both of the occupiers (British Europeans as well as the Americans) were pulled into these notions of expansion through the propaganda of the state and the pursuit of financial self-reliance and security. But we now understand the devastating results of such expansion. It is always a difficult task to compare pre-colonial maps (either language or tribal boundaries) with a map of the present political demarcations. On earlier maps, indigenous territories can appear amorphous and nuanced to an outsider while present-day maps appear to be rigid. I can only imagine that this same comparison could be made between indigenous dwellings and the prefabricated dwellings of the colonizers. The very morphology of settlement, and the structures of habitation, defined the landscape in very different ways.
I do think the iron houses are perfect examples of this superimposition of one ideology upon another. Somewhere during the night, I kept seeing the harsh, hard iron lines of the house placed against the fluidity of the landscape. This contrast kept coming back to me over and over. Even as I fell asleep in the dark attic space, the sound of the heavy rain banging out sounds on the corrugated iron roof felt like a battle between one reality versus another. These “silent” dialogues seemed to be continually eroding each other. Like the rust on the iron sheathing itself, the disintegration of cultures (whether Australian Aboriginal or American Indian) seemed to never cease. Interesting to think of preservation as a form of cultural propaganda and validity.
It also occurred to me that our tiny house back in Charlotte, North Carolina, was, just like the iron house, designed to fulfill the least amount of space and lowest cost to achieve the goal of safe, permanent housing. It is an interesting concept – that the built environment is tied to policy and nationalistic intent. As historians, we often only speak about heritage sites in terms of the physical architectural shapes and colors of the materials – Rarely do we speak about the formative, higher-level concepts that defined that morphology.
There is something meaningful to the fact that 10,000 miles apart are two house so similar in not only scale and form but also driven by nationalistic policy.
I slept in both.
Are they, in fact, that different?
The National Trust of Australia, VIC. for giving me this opportunity, providing me with information and editing the drafts.
Martin Green and the staff at the National Trust, (Manager, Cultural Engagement)
John Stone (NTV – Portables Property Manager) & Athan Vlahonosias for organizing the entire experience, and cooking the dinner.
Julie Johnston (Volunteer)
Fiona Mclachlan (Volunteer)
Andree Peter (Volunteer)
Janetta Kerr Grant