The man behind the houses
In the next instalment of our “Precinct Ambassadors” series, we have Elio Sarpi, the man behind the insanely popular Houses of North and West Melbourne Instagram page.
In what started as a release from his stressful job and an outlet during COVID-19 lockdown, Elio began taking photos of houses through his neighbourhood.
Little did he know this hobby would take on a mind of its own.
With a growing following both locally and internationally, Elio’s Instagram bio puts his humble pursuit of great architecture and its stories simply; it reads: “not a photographer, architect or historian, I love the history and the houses of North and West Melbourne.”
Since speaking with North West City News in February last year, Houses of North and West Melbourne has grown from 1400 followers to more than 10,200.
Like everyone else in lockdown, I needed an outlet, so I started taking photos of houses,” Elio said. “It started with just the photos, then I started doing research into these buildings.” “I could find information here and there, but even with heritage-listed buildings, the information I found was outdated.”
Working for a large IT firm with clients across Asia Pacific, Elio quickly turned his research and technology skills into tools to find out anything and everything with regards to local heritage.
Using programs like Trove, Find A Grave, Wikitree and heritage databases, Elio has discovered a mountain of information with even the most miniscule of leads.
Take his nearby neighbours on Erskine St, for example.
They have lived in their home, formerly the Grand Duchess Hotel, North Melbourne for more than 40 years.
“I knocked on the door and said, ‘hey, I’m your new neighbour and I wanted to post your house on this page,’ they couldn’t believe it was me and said they followed me and let me into their house,” Elio said.
“I talked with the owners, Sue and Michael, about the history of the building and how they had found a framed photo left from previous owners by renowned Australian portrait and fashion photographer Athol Shmith.”
“The photo was of the Gulle family, who ran an Italian grocer from this home in the 1950s, which they found in an old cupboard.”
According to Elio, his followers, of whom 80 per cent he said lived in Melbourne and the rest in countries like the US, UK or New Zealand, were predominantly aged between 20 to 45 years old; a demographic you wouldn’t typically associate with a love for history.
In what started as an appreciation for local architecture and its history, has quickly turned into countless hours of research, enquiries from locals ask Elio to research their houses, propositions from local real estate agents and flood conversations with residents old and new, telling the stories behind the facades.
“It’s a lot of fun for me. It’s a stress release from my job, it’s a great way to meet people throughout the neighbourhood and incredible to find the stories behind these houses,” Elio said.
“It can get exhausting posting every day. So, I try to do Wednesday to Sunday.”
“There are a few photos that have gone insane. I posted Udom café in Victoria St; that photo got 80,000 views. Both the photo and the story behind it attracted a lot of interest.”
“I don’t know if it was related to my photo, but the next day after posting it, they were sold out of everything. If I can help local businesses, that’s a great by-product.”
While there is a finite number of houses to be photographed, Elio said he had barely scratched the surface when it came to houses in North and West Melbourne.
Whether it be stumbling across John Monash’s old home on Dudley St, or the Museums taxidermist, who lost a house full of stuffed animals during a fire, there are still plenty more stories to come for Elio.
And to have all these stories, all this information, and all these houses archived in one centralised space, our neighbourhood is incredibly lucky and indebted to Elio Sarpi.
Thank you, Elio. •
Caption: Elio Sarpi and his wife and editor Courtney Barrett outside the Duchess Hotel, Eskine St, Mr Price’s Food Store, Lambert Family Home 421 Queensberry St, and Udom House on Victoria St.