A Model of Future Living, The Age, Wednesday 11 March 1998

Locked in a former lunatic asylum doesn't sound like fun, but for busy parents and children it is a world apart at Willsmere.

Life is relaxed, happy and secure. It is almost a paradise for families.

There are sprawling lawns - but you do not have to mow them; there are groves of trees but you do not have to prune them; there are flower beds but you do not have to plant them. You do not have to renovate, cars are diverted from play areas and the swimming pool has no deep end.

You cannot just wander into Willsmere. The estate is surrounded by security fencing and there is an intercom at the main gate. If someone on the inside does not vouch for you - you don't get in.

Schoolchildren are taken to and from school by bus and dropped inside the security gates. Willsmere estate's Irish caretaker, Brian Malone, doubles as the bus driver.

Youngsters roam safely around the fenced grounds unsupervised. There are other kids to play with, a tennis court, table-tennis tables (in a former dungeon), a gym, a function room and the pool.

Hundreds of people are living like this at Willsmere, which was once a lunatic asylum and then a psychiatric hospital. Its historic tower building peeps over the grand trees and looms over the Yarra valley at Kew. It is a well-known landmark to people plying the eastern freeway or golfing at Yarra Bend.

The palace-like development was built between 1864 and 1872 in the Second French Empire style. The surrounding elevated 10 hectares of garden create an oasis of quiet, belying its proximity to the city centre scarcely six kilometres away.

Adjoining Yarra Bend Park, the spaciousness is enhanced by hundreds of acres of natural bushland along the river as well as a number of neighboring golf courses. The place is amazingly quiet with an almost monastic calm. Even when the school bus has unloaded its human cargo, the noise is minimal as the children disperse across grassy courtyards to their homes.

Central Equity Ltd, the building company that has made its mark on Melbourne with the development of medium-density housing, bought the Willsmere property in 1993. Construction of 102 new townhouses around the perimeter of the property and 156 apartments in the old buildings was completed by Christmas 1994.

Willsmere is classified by the National Trust and the restoration and development of the site complied with the Historic Building Council guidelines.

The developers spent between $1.3 million and $1.5 million reslating parts of the roofs of the historic buildings. Old slates were used where the roofs are visible. New slates were used where they could not be seen.

Caribbean is the name given to an enclosed courtyard area where the veranda posts are downpipes. A bluestone and brick structure called the Privy is used as a store-room for bicycles. Old fever tents were turned into a function room and a gymnasium, free to the residents.

Old trees, including cedars, are cable checked on an annual basis. And car parking is at the rear of the apartments so motoring does not encroach on the courtyards. Traffic has been diverted around the perimeter of the estate, making it safer for children to play.

Views of the surrounding Yarra Valley and the city are panoramic from almost every unit. A huge chimney stack from the original laundry makes a picturesque backdrop along a brick pathway.

Peter Timms, general manager of Central Equity and of Melbourne Inner City Management, the company that manages and markets Willsmere, says apartment and townhouse prices mainly range from $200,000 to $275,000. "There's a limited supply of one-bedroom apartments available from about $175,000," he said.

Apartment 190 is a three-storey townhouse with three bedrooms and car-parking for two cars outside the back door. It's for sale for about $238,000.

The school bus, paid for out of body corporate fees, figures largely in Willsmere parents' view of the lifestyle in the compound. The school bus goes to Kew junction, stops at Kew Primary and Sacred Heart, Kew. Willsmere children attend Trinity, Xavier, Ruyton and MLC. They are delivered back inside the gate.

Tony Gillon, a Willsmere resident says this has meant that his wife Shelley can "virtually work full-time whereas before she was restricted by the need to be there after school."

Project manager Gerard Coutts, 37, and his wife Louise, 34, a health services worker, rented a two-bedroom apartment in the historical section of Willsmere for 14 months before they decided to buy in April last year. Their three-bedroom, 16-square apartment is part of the old dining hall. "It's very pleasant and spacious," Mr Coutts said.

He finds the community of families very supportive. "If we'd bought in a suburb, it would have taken us four or five years to get to know people, but here we got to know people very quickly. There are four or five other children the same age and in prep at Kew Primary as our son, Stephen."

"We had been used to a life generated by our backyard and a list of 20 things to do. This lifestyle doesn't have the ties of suburbia and there is a lot more family time. We think we'll be here for a while."

Visiting residents at Willsmere for the first time could be a bit daunting. Visitors park at the front of the old buildings. At the front entrance they punch the resident's apartment number into the intercom. Residents can activate the front door allowing the visitor entry. On the side wall past the entrance is a box containing maps of the complex. The visitor can pick up one of these and find his way to the resident's apartment. "It's only difficult the first time," Tony said.

He said his family has not had any problem with interacting with other families with children. "There's enough kids and they each fit in with each other," he said.

Thirteen-year-old Amy, just in from school, said: "We need more kids."

Tony said the lack of motor traffic meant it was a better environment than an ordinary street. "The children aren't being jumped on all the time by parents telling them `don't go on the street'. They've got 25 acres of gardens here."

Residents are allowed to have pets provided they do not create a nuisance to other people. "It's a common-sense thing," Mr Gillon said.

"We have some good social relationships with other residents. If you're not busy, there's always someone around to have a barbecue with on a Saturday night and you don't have to worry about baby-sitters for the children. There are electric barbecues in the rotundas and you don't have to put two bob in either."

Mr Gillon has nothing but praise for the sporting facilities. "I've never had to wait to get on an exercise bike in the gym and I've never seen all the tennis courts in use at the same time."

Body corporate fees, plus a "sinking fund" levy, graded according to the size of each property, are $1800 to $1900.

Loretta Shirley, 38, an accounts manager, and her husband Gerard, 40, a chief executive officer, moved into their Willsmere townhouse on 31 December, 1994, the same day as the Gillons. Loretta is Shelley Gillon's sister.

The Shirleys had also been renovating a Victorian house and have moved about in tandem with the Gillons. Their children are aged 16, 15 and 11.

"We got fed up with renovating and the kids are into sport," Loretta said.

"We like the security aspect of living here. We don't have to look after a garden, which gives us more quality time with our family."

By Angela O'Connor