Finest House in the Colony

A Sydney man at the turn of the century could become a gentleman in one generation, raised on the golden stilts of social mobility. The self-made man and landowner looked around and saw a roaring city rising out of the bush; all his wealth and progress appeared to be the tangible result of his own endeavor. Books on etiquette were printed and mixed-class marriages occurred in great number. Then all at once it froze: the foreshore real estate was all bought up, social circles were welded closed, and the parvenus set about defending their new position with a newly exaggerated class consciousness based on social propriety and the ownership of land. 

In 1911 the Macleay family sold the Elizabeth Bay House to George Michaelis, a successful leather merchant in town who was prominent in the local Jewish community. The later Macleays had worked to repair the house’s reputation for antisocial behavior with a series of English-style garden receptions and opulent balls. Yet Michaelis sold the house to be divided into flats and resold—and then, just like that, the finest house in the colony was finished. 


the world is only too literally too much with us right now

john fowles, the french lieutenant’s woman


ELIZABETH BAY—The house fell into ruin. Most of the apartments didn’t get bought when they were offered for sale in 1928, and many remained unsold throughout the Great Depression and the 1940s. In wartime, the harborside locale became a liability; rumors ran wild about the Japanese invasion that always seemed to be imminent. The Cross was the meeting place of choice for soldiers coming ashore and their girls; it quickly became a local capital of vice and organized crime. 

Artists came to “squat” rent-free in the house, and the drunken caretaker turned a blind eye to their loud and raucous parties. They lived there for nothing, using candles for light and working undisturbed in the ruins of colonial splendor. This was the hub for the Sydney Charm School of painters, whose figurative artworks show a rather neoclassical concern with form and color as ornament, and who were very quickly uncollected after the war when Australian art veered towards the abstract and expressionist. Donald Friend belonged to this school; he was a self-declared middle-aged pederast who drew beautiful male nudes, wrote brilliant diaries, and had a series of rather public relationships with much younger men in both Sydney and Bali. Once he asked: Is one’s personal view of geography entirely colored by sexual fantasies? In 1942, Friend saw the first-ever foreign attack on Sydney, as three Japanese midget subs entered the harbor and shelled the city. Friend watched through the big French windows, pushing his eye against the crack in the boards, marveling at the brilliant display of Eastern pyrotechnics and wondering where the thunks were landing. Watch him gaze, and try to think what he thinks when he writes that this moment made him enlist in the Australian military.

Sydney grew up that night, and suddenly subs were everywhere in the murky harbor. When victory came, the Cross remained the Cross—and was the backdrop for crack’s Australian debut in the 1980s—while the harbor front downhill slowly rebuilt its storied reputation. The shore became replete with garish modern homes—since there were and are practically no zoning restrictions—and into these mansions came the new Australian moguls of business and media.

The Elizabeth Bay House was rented out for private functions; its bookcases were removed so the Library could be turned into a Ballroom. It was restored as a historic building and opened as a museum modeled on Alexander Macleay’s residence. Aside from the house, only a tiny garden remains of the Scot’s vast realm. It leads onto a flat, obedient block of a park, wedged between apartment buildings that spill hastily down to the water. All is new.