Saturday, October 23, 2010

Darlinghurst: Heritage Items: Hilton

- Register of the National Estate, City of Sydney Council Heritage List
Australia's first Hilton is located at 278 Liverpool Street, and in a nice bit of synchronicity, the three-storey mansion, which was built in 1854 by a man who dabbled in painting, is today the premises for art dealer Robin Gibson.
Scotsman John Rae came to Australia in 1839 and initially worked as an accountant for the North British and Australasian Loan and Investment Company.
But Mr Rae was an ambitious and brilliant man and by 1843 he was appointed the first full-time clerk's position with the now City of Sydney Council, pocketing a salary of 300-pounds.
During his time with the council Mr Rae made important contributions to the areas of public health administration and the Sydney Corporation Act.
In 1857, three years after building Hilton, as a home for his wife and six children, Mr Rae took a 250-pounds pay-rise to become secretary to the Railway Commissioners.
He must have excelled in his job because four years later he was appointed under-secretary for public works and commissioner for railways, which came with an 800-pound salary - not bad for those wild colonial days.
In train-spotting circles Mr Rae is best known for creating the first profit and loss accounts of any railway system in the world. These accounts, which were compiled within the railways' annual reports, earned Mr Rae international recognition: when he travelled to Europe in 1879, the Poms presented him with a free railways pass, while the Germans provided him with a special train and staff.
Mr Rae wasn't just a numbers man, he was also a deft hand with a camera and a paintbrush, creating many works viewed from the windows of his mansion, Hilton.
A notable 1877 watercolour by Mr Rae captures cows grazing on the corner of Liverpool and Forbes streets, and was probably taken about the same time as this photo.
Another watercolour shows William Street as a goat track leading up to St Mary's Cathedral, which was originally built in 1821 and destroyed by fire 44 years later. (The cathedral was rebuilt in 1882 by John Young, who also designed Sir Henry Parkes' Annandale mansion, The Abbey. It was rumoured Mr Young stole gargoyles from the church to use on Parkes's building. St Mary's spires were added in 2000.)
There is a fascinating trove of Rae's photographs and watercolours archived online by the State Library of NSW, which include scenes of Newcastle, Wollongong as well as Sydney's first streets and buildings. The archives also contain an excellent photograph of the Victorian Georgian-style, Hilton, in its heyday that you can look at here.
The industrious Mr Rae was also a keen writer and his last published work, in 1898, was a biography of engineer John Whitton, tantalisingly titled, Thirty-Five Years on the NSW Railways.
Two years later, at the age of 87, Mr Rae died and was buried at Waverley Cemetery, in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
I don't know what became of Hilton, or who lived there over the next eight decades, but in 1981 it sold for $240,000 and became home to the Robin Gibson Gallery.

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