Monday, October 24, 2011

Darlinghurst Blog: Villas of Darlinghurst: Elizabeth Bay House

Detail from Elizabeth Bay, by Conrad Martens, 1838
Elizabeth Bay House: allotment of 54 acres granted to Alexander Macleay in 1828.

Elizabeth Bay House is one of only five remaining homes from the original 17 ''gentlemans's villas" that were the first buildings to be developed on Wolloomooloo Hill aka Darlinghurst in the 1830s. 
But it is one of only three that survive in their original condition without serious modifications. The others include Barham (1833), inside the grounds of SCEGGS, and Tusculum (1831-1835), on Manning Street in Potts Point. 
The other two - Telford Lodge (1831) and Rockwall (1837) - are barely recognisable and have been extensively modified or partially demolished and I'll write about them another day for my Villas series. 
Elizabeth Bay House was built for Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary, who was granted 54 acres  on a site chosen for its vistas across Sydney Harbour (below). 

The greatest thing about Elizabeth Bay House today is that it's owned by the Historic Houses Trust and is open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. So last month I took advantage of a special Shop Local! offer to view the house for only $4 - half the normal entry fee. 
The only problem was that when I arrived with my blogging friend, Sarah, her daughter Billie and partner, Miles, the woman behind the front desk refused to give us the discount, saying she knew nothing about it.
There were a few Shop Local! fliers on the front desk so I pulled one open and showed her the $4 special, but even then she said, ''It would be okay if you had a coupon, but you've just come in off the street, so you'll have to pay the full price."
There was no mention of any coupon so we continued to haggle with her until she eventually phoned head office and they agreed that there was no coupon and we should be allowed in for the special price. 
It was a rather unsavoury episode and didn't make us feel all that welcome. 

But I was glad we only paid $4 because if I had paid the grand sum of $8 I would have felt that I needed to get my monies worth by reading every little boring plaque scattered about the house. And as much as I enjoy reading about history, it was much more fun to just roam carefree about the house and admire the woodwork and enormous scale of the rooms, especially the swooping Marulan stone staircase in the central saloon of the home, which is an engineering marvel and has been the site of many professional photography shoots. Marulan stone is a mudstone quarried in the Southern Tablelands region of NSW. According to the guidebook, ''each tread is a single piece of stone cantilevered from the wall and rests on the step beneath it (the protruding stones can be seen within the saloon cupboard)''. 

Scottish-born Macleay was a passionate and extravagant man who spent liberally on landscaping his homes and his entomological collection, of which his main interest was lepidoptera - or moths and butterflies. He accepted the Australian post due to financial necessity. 
In 1795 he had entered the British Civil Service as chief clerk in the War Office and was later secretary of the Transport Board, but when the board was disbanded in 1818, Macleay was out of work. 
With mounting bills for his homes in Westminster and Surrey - which was undergoing landscaping improvements - as well as big spends for his entomological collection and investment losses through his brother's bank in Scotland, Macleay began borrowing money from his eldest son, William.
But in 1825, his former colleagues rallied and secured him the Australian post, which came with a 2000 Pound salary and an official residence that was initially rent free. 

Macleay arrived in Sydney in 1826 with his wife and six daughters (of a total of 17 children) but was so enamoured with the place he eventually persuaded other family members to join them, including his son William and grandchildren Arthur and Georgiana Onslow, who were the children of his India-based daughter and son-in-law, Rosa and Arthur Onslow. 

In those days Macleay's bug collection was recognised as the largest in private possession. Naturally, he brought it with him to Australia and it possibly had pride of place in his library (below), which at the time was the largest room in an Australian house, reflecting the importance Macleay placed on his books and natural history collections. The entomological collection is now held in the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.

With 54 acres of bushland at his disposal, Macleay immediately began establishing a botanic garden of imported plants to complement the native vegetation and the green space became quite an attraction with its rustic bridges, terrace walls and grottoes. 
According to one of his local nurseryman, Thomas Shepherd, Macleay didn't clear the land of natives, but selectively inter-planted his exotics to preserve the existing trees and shrubbery.
''From the first commencement he never suffered a tree of any kind to be destroyed, until he saw the distinct necessity of doing so,'' Shepherd wrote.
Today, one section of the garden remains just across the road at the front of the house and is known as Arthur McElhone Reserve (below; although the plants and landscaping are not original). There is also one grotto left if you know where to look (skip about 100m south of the house down Onslow Avenue, and follow the public path between the flats, Eltham and Tradewinds). 

The photograph above was taken from a first floor window, which had the junior member of our tour party, Billie, entranced. She probably could have stood there for an hour - quite an achievement for a two-year-old. But who could blame her; it looks like paradise and you can understand why Macleay convinced his extended family to join him in Sydney. 

The design of the house was as equally celebrated as its gardens and harbour views. The enormous two-storey, Greek Revival villa, with cellar, was designed by John Verge's architect firm and considered one of the most ''extravagant constructions of the day, with costs totalling around 10,000 Pounds'', according to the Villas book.
Plans for the home were developed in 1832 but construction was delayed until 1835 (possibly due to money being devoted to the development of the garden) and the house was not completed until 1839. Verge had retired by then, so there is some question surrounding his involvement in the design, with the possibility his employee and successor, John Bibb, may have played a greater architectural role. Scottish builder-architect, James Hume, was also brought to Sydney by Macleay and may have contributed to its design.

The villa design means the rooms are arranged around the central saloon or stair hall and allowed for "architectural experimentation with shaped interior spaces'', according to the guide book. As such, the rooms are shaped as ovals and quadrants. The ground floor rooms with their large French windows emphasise the relationship with the garden, Macleay's pride. 

But with all the love and passion Macleay dedicated to the development of Elizabeth Bay House and its gardens, he wasn't able to enjoy it for long. In 1837, Governor Richard Bourke forced Macleay to retire from his position, losing his 2000 Pound salary. In the 1840s, when the economy crashed in the new colony of Sydney, Macleay found himself further in debt. In late 1844 the house was mortgaged as Macleay's debt to his son, William, reached 18,195 Pounds.

The Macleays were forced to sell off furniture to settle some debts and in 1845 William took over the Elizabeth Bay House mortgage and assumed control of the estate. 
After less than six years in his ''grand, unfinished house'', Macleay then moved to his country property, Brownlow Hill, near Camden, southwest of Sydney. Macleay died in 1848 at Tivoli, the Rose Bay home of his daughter and son-in-law. 

William Macleay, an education commissioner, moved into the house in 1845 and lived there alone for 20 years. But ''lacking the aesthetic sensibility of his father, gave no thought to completing the building'', so that a planned Doric colonnade for the terrace surrounding the house was never built. 
I think the house still looks amazing, which brings to mind a Leonardo da Vinci quote: ''Art is never finished, only abandoned.''

William sounds like a curious character and according to the guidebook, during his time at Elizabeth Bay House, the residence ''was closed to all but the small circle of scientists and colonial intellectuals with whom (he) associated'', while ''the boundary of the estate was marked by signs warning potential trespassers of guard dogs.''
William died in 1865 and the house was inherited by his brother George who remained in London. George subdivided the estate and sold off lots on 99-year leases. In 1875, he subdivided again, leaving only 18 acres of the original 54 acre estate and in 1882, another sale left just 3 acres of garden around the house. 

George and William's cousin, William John Macleay and his wife, Susan, were tenants of the house from 1865 to 1903. Susan was the daughter of Edward Deas Thomson, Alexander Macleay's successor as Colonial Secretary, who owned another one of the original villas, Barham.
William John was also a keen entomologist and had taken over the care of Macleay's vast collection, building the ''Macleayan Museum'' on an area that is now the lower corner of Ithaca Road and Billyard Avenue. William John donated the collection to the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney in 1888 and was knighted for his generosity. He died in 1891.

From 1891 to 1911 the house was owned by James William Macarthur Onslow, great-grandchild of Alexander Macleay. You really need a family tree with the Macleays as there are so many of them.
Anyway, because the previous owner, George, had been based in London, the house was quite neglected, so Macarthur Onslow embarked on a maintenance program, which included new plumbing, the introduction of gas lighting, two new bathrooms, a servants's bell and a new portico.

From 1903 Macarthur Onslow leased the house to leather merchant, George Michaelis. In 1911, Michaelis purchased the house for 800 Pounds, becoming the first owner who was not from the Macleay family. He stayed on at the house, with his wife and three children until 1926, when he sold it to retailer Sir Sydney Snow. 
Snow, whose eponymous shop was on the corner of Pitt and Liverpool streets, paid 40,000 Pounds for the house before cannily on-selling it to Elizabeth Bay Estates Limited for 60,000 Pounds. (From 1929-1931, Snow was deputy chairman of Associated Newspapers Ltd, owner of the Sun newspaper.)
The final subdivision of the estate took place in 1927 with 16 being lots being put up for auction by Stanton & Son and Richardson & Wrench. Five lots were sold and were no doubt developed into the deco apartment blocks that exist around the house today. The remaining 11 blocks were sold again in 1934 and the late 1940s, when more apartment buildings were developed. 

The actual house failed to sell at auction in 1927 and that's when the squatters moved in. This period, when the ''Charm School'' artists occupied the house, was detailed in an exhibition, Kings Cross: Bohemian Sydney, that was held at Elizabeth Bay House in 2003. 
Artists that lived at the home in this period up to 1935 included Donald Friend, Rex Julius and Wallace Thornton, who held wild parties in the decaying mansion. 

In 1935, Elizabeth Bay Estates leased the property to a Mr and Mrs A. Hall and a Mrs L. Minnett, who ''renovated and redecorated the house as a venue for fashionable receptions'' and it ''featured in Sydney's social pages as a glamorous setting for wedding receptions, parties and balls'', according to the guide book.
In 1940, Evangeline Olga Murray, wife of realtor James Daniel Murray, purchased the house and immediately began renovating the home into 15 apartments, which was carried out ''sympathetically and without any damage to the original fabric of the house''.

In 1959 the house was declared an historic building whose preservation was ''essential for reasons of historic or architectural interest'' under the County of Cumberland Planning Ordinance.
When Ms Murray died in 1963, the Cumberland County Council purchased the home and the following year, when the council was abolished, it became the responsibility of the State Planning Authority. 
The authority commissioned repair works to the roof, dome and portico and in 1973 dedicated $275,000 to the building's restoration, but the costs rose to $750,000.
In 1977 the house opened to the public and in 1981 - along with Vaucluse House - became one of the first properties acquired by the Historic Houses Trust.

Yes, this is a very lengthy post, but that is mainly because there is so much information available about Elizabeth Bay House, its history, architecture and the families that lived there. The Historic Houses Trust has compiled a wealth of detail in its guidebook that I have barely touched on here. 
There are also countless plaques and information boards around the house and even an educational video (above), which can be viewed in the drawing room. The video features a bunch of school students on a bus to visit Elizabeth Bay House when one of the girls travels back in time and becomes a member of the Macleay family. 
You would need about one hour to wander around the house and about two hours if you have the patience to sit through the video and read all the information boards. But it's definitely worth a visit to the house, if only for the marvellous staircase and saloon. To make a day of it, stop by Lizzie Bay Gourmet, on the corner of Elizabeth Bay and Ithaca roads, where you can stock up on food supplies for a picnic in Macleay's old garden (Arthur McElhone Reserve, below) across the road from the house. 



Violet Tingle said...

People have been having problems commenting on this, but it seems to work.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Great photos. Great locale.
Sadly missed.