Finest House in the Colony

  • that men may rise on stepping-stones*

of their dead selves to higher things

alfred, lord tennyson, in memoriam

* *

TERRA NULLIUS—If you walk around the East of Sydney these days, you can easily forget what country you are in. The quarter based around Kings Cross is as cosmopolitan as they come: here the New Australia meets for focaccia by day and streetcorner cigarettes by night, while the traffic crawls past buskers and whores and teenage girls from private schools. The Cross is on the top of a hill, right between the business center and the green, wealthy suburbs of the East—yet strangely enough, in this city of views, you can’t see to the harbor. 

 All the kids meet at the Coke sign, a big red vintage billboard that somehow got a heritage protection and now can never be replaced. There’s a hi-tech screen beside the old one, though, so really there are two Coke signs: one advertisement and one landmark. But they’re both owned by Coke just the same.

The places here all have an indigenous name or the name of some British person. Kings Cross starts at the corner of William Street and Victoria Road; follow Macleay Street and you get to the headland in between Woolloomooloo and Elizabeth Bay. Here there are million-dollar views of the water; great houses jostle with dingy apartment blocks for sunlight and air like an overcrowded nursery. Their owners drink espresso on the balcony and complain that development on the other side has been ruining the vista.

Down in Elizabeth Bay, all eyes focus on one house: It’s called Berthong and we locals don’t know anything about its history, except that Rupert Murdoch sold it to Russell Crowe for nine million dollars and that’s a lot of money. Farther up the hill, hidden away on one of the tortuous little streets that lead to and from the Cross, is a plain white rectangular villa with an unfinished collonade and a block of shaggy garden just across the road. Outside there are two little benches, a hanging lantern from another age, and a block of tall French windows. The sea is wild today; the gnarled old gum-trees in the park are swaying to and fro. And it’s cold, sunny-cold, the kind of cold that makes people stay outdoors for as long as they can. 

A sign in the yard says, Elizabeth Bay HouseThe finest house in the colony. The front door faces the mouth of the harbor: if a ship were to come in past the old Macquarie Lighthouse, bearing men or news from the homeland, it’d be visible here as soon as anywhere. But now the yachts are everywhere and they rock in the breeze, making it impossible to focus even briefly on the water. 

* *

the fault is great with man or woman / who steals a goose from off a common
but what will plead that man’s excuse / that steals the common from the goose?

the tickler, london, february 1821

WALLA MULLA—In the 1820s, Old Sydney Town was still no more than a town. Twelve thousand people lived in one thousand houses, and the unlit nighttime streets were fitfully patrolled by soldiers, who were partly paid in rum. It took eighteen months to get letters to and from England. Where the ramshackle buildings wore thin there were troupes of bushrangers and a wild, forbidding bush all around.

Alexander Macleay arrived in January of 1826—eleven years before his work colleagues came around for drinks after firing him; nineteen years before his son kicked him out and took over his debts; and twenty-two before he died in a carriage accident where his horses ran wild and bolted on a visit to the Government House. 

Macleay was short, red-haired, and imperious; he was also rather fat. After making his money in the wine trade, he entered the British civil service and held down a handsome salary in the War Office and the Transport Board. The Scot was also broke, however, having spent all his money on a country house and on England’s best entomological collection. He arrived on The Marquis of Hastings, a convict ship—and waiting for him was the governor and a post as Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. 

One of his daughters, Fanny, wrote to her brother in Cuba that Sydney was a vile hole, detestable … even the trees are as ugly as you could imagine trees to be. They were a long way from anything. There were two banks in town and the nearest bishop was in Calcutta. That year, Alexander Macleay saw the first street lamp ever lit in Sydney—it was a dimly burning oil lamp, but in his virile mind it represented nothing short of progress.

Sydney society wasn’t sure what to make of the Macleays. The diarist George Boyes wrote his impressions: He is an honest looking man for a Scotsman, good-humoured and shakes hands with everyody as if he was glad to see them. As for the daughters—the young ladies, as they are called by courtesy—they were short square built women and, I suspect, a little bow-legged like their Papa. From London, Justice Baron Field wrote what seems like a warning: They will be very nice about morals.

Macleay was very close to the colonial governor, Ralph Darling; they were both politically conservative and both belonged to the evangelical faction of the Church of England. Together the two old Tories became wildly unpopular with Sydney’s radical young press. Macleay had made an effort to become involved in the Sydney cultural scene: he joined the Benevolent Society, the Sydney Auxiliary Bible Society, the Australian Religious Tract Society, the Agricultural and Horticultural Society, the Subscription Library, the Auxiliary Mission Society—and the Racing and Jockey Club. But he was hounded for his other involvements, especially his use of government connections to amass eight thousand hectares of agricultural property in his first three years—thus monopolizing the colony’s market for butter. In 1831 Darling got called back to England, but before he left he made a grant to Macleay of fifty-four acres of the Crown’s best harbor-front land: the Elizabeth Bay Estate. 

When the colony was founded, Governor Arthur Phillip set aside most of the foreshore as a great Sydney Commons. Elizabethtown was a fishing village reserved for a composite group of indigenous inhabitants of the harbor area. After an outbreak of smallpox and the violence of the settlers, only three of the Cadigal people were left. Their hunting paths, their religion, and their stories are all etched into the coast—but impossible to see. While the convicts bickered and starved, the Eora nation lived from food and water sources that the English all ignored. This is the condition of being a non-indigenous Australian, writes Peter Carey. To know the land itself is like the index to a bible which we cannot understand. Which is more: it is a repository for a shame that is always in discussion but is never quite articulated.

The bush bewildered the convicts, but for the half of them that escaped, it was at least a refuge from the whip. Imagine the silence in the old port town, with the tide waves slapping on the dock some way off and all the bushes rustling, everywhere rustling, from prisoners on the run or from natives in the wild or from god-knows-what creatures lurking in there. No wonder the settlers cleared all the land they could get their hands on—if only just to stop the whispering. 

The whole area was signed over to Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary, in the late 1820s. The locals used to call the place Walla Mulla, which can be translated as either place of plenty or place of blood. The grant was selected for its unparalleled outlooks. To the West, the squalid huts of the town must have seemed beautiful and bustling. To the East, the harbor mouth was in full sight: winding bays and heads, wooded thick with hardy gums and punctuated with crops of sandstone that were weathered to some strange, arcane design. It was near the town, and the wild was far enough away that it would only ever be part of the scenery. Picturesque—it was the perfect place for a villa.

il faut cultiver notre jardin

voltaire, candide

* *

THE FINEST HOME—When Macleay had his grant written out, he went straight to work—but on the garden, not the home. Plans were drawn up for the house but they had to wait some years while the Colonial Secretary paid for his bugs and his plants. The supervising architect, John Verge, was an Englishman who went out to the Australian countryside but couldn’t afford the development he wanted so he designed neoclassical villas for Sydney’s colonial middle class instead. Elizabeth Bay House was to be his greatest work, the finest house in the colony, and so it was. A Greek Revival villa made of white stone quarried on site; local cedar joinery with refined detailing and stylized plant motifs; grand arches and a Brussels weave carpet. The domed salon was considered the best-designed room in Australia, one of three oval domes ever built: each step in the spiral staircase is a single piece of Marulan mudstone cantilevered from the wall, and the oval dome lantern on the top floods the room with Australian sunshine. 

But the Macleays ran out of money and the plans were never completed. The vast Doric colonnade never got built, and the marble on the arches is simply painted onto the stone. One of the doors in the oval room opens onto a flat brick wall; it was only put there for symmetry. And they had started building the “Morning Room” on the wrong side of the house, because the declination of the Sun is opposite in the southern hemisphere.

Still, Alexander Macleay was obsessed with natural science. His collection of lepidoptera was among the world’s best, and in the 1820s he had the biggest entomological collection there was. He paid fortunes at auctions, personally sponsored field collectors, and conspired for hours with colleagues from the Linnaen Society about where the next find* *would be found. But he never published any research and he never made donations. As a good nineteenth-century man of science, he believed that every living thing could be catalogued and compared according to a certain framework—it was just a matter of defining that framework. 

And so it was for his garden, which won him a great reputation for taste and dedication. The Sydney Gazette in 1831: five years ago the coast was a mass of cold and hopeless sterility, which its stunted and unsightly bushes seemed only to render the more palpable. It is now traversed by an elegant carriage road and picturesque walks. Visitors write of a pristine sense of order in Macleay’s carefully-tended lawn, botanical garden, shrubbery, rustic bridges, and terrace walls—and beyond that, the still-wild Sydney harbor receding into beautiful abstraction. He refused to destroy local plants unless he absolutely had to; he much preferred integrating the natives and the exotics. The garden at Elizabeth Bay was picturesque: a Landspace Movement oil-on-canvas, complete with paths and a record-book that had four thousand entries.

See the pudgy Scot walk through his collections with a hat and a cane, checking that each specimen is still in its rightful place, trying not to think about his growing debts. Perhaps there’s a breeze, as well, and maybe all the plants are trembling just a little in their lots. *jacaranda mimosifolia citrus aurantium cinnamomum camphora. *Mango paw-paw blue-gum willow. The water down below shimmers in the sun, and the old man sweats in his coat. 

Above all else, the Elizabeth Bay Estate made a powerful example for those who saw it as an icon of colonial progress. In the Sydney Gazette, Macleay was congratulated as the first to show how those hillocks of rock and sand might be rendered tributary to the taste and advantage of civilized man. He deserved the boon, and has well repaid it. Over the next few years, ever more land was reclaimed from the Commons and from the indigenous peoples of the Eora nation; in the early colonial mindset, at least, it was finally time to do something with the place.

there are few things more pleasing than the contemplation of order and useful arrangement, arising gradually out of tumult and confusion; and perhaps this satisfaction cannot anywhere be more fully enjoyed than where a settlement of civilized people is fixing itself upon a new or savage coast.

governor arthur phillip, 1788

BLEAK HOUSE—In 1837, the finest men in the colony—including Macarthur and Campbell and even ‘China’ Jones—visited Elizabeth Bay House with a note for Alexander Macleay. That day, he had been hauled out of his job: unceremoniously dismissed, he called it. The deputation came to his house with an address signed by many of his colleagues, and it moved the old gentleman to tears. They stayed for refreshments in an adjoining room, then they called it a night. Macleay stayed at home, now bereft of a salary.

But the garden wasn’t finished, and there was still work to do on the collections. His eldest son, William Sharp, had been loaning him money ever since they arrived—the insect drawers, bulbous plants, and garden parties had to be paid for somehow. When William Sharp was in Cuba, his sister had been sending him letters written criss-cross just to save on paper and postage. His father was going mad from his collector’s obsession. Something had to be done.

Now, imagine this: William Sharp Macleay, the timid intellectual recluse, sitting with his father and telling him he had to go—pack up and leave, old man, we have to make sacrifices and you can’t help yourself, so just pack up and leave, please and thank you. Perhaps the old man cries, this isn’t your home. Then he leaves like he knows he must and swears not to speak to his son ever again. Was it in the Library, the biggest room in the entire continent? Or in the Morning Room, detailed in fine local cedar but designed for the English sun? Watch the son going over all the collections that evening: four hundred and fifty drawers, now his, each one full of specimens labeled by species and location in the scrawling formal hand of the absent patriarch. Papua Victoria Rio New Zealand. Did he look out at the garden when he realized, with a shudder, that now he was the man of the house—the man that owned all the family debt? 

William Sharp was a man of science, as well; he entertained Thomas Huxley and wrote a book that earned a line in Darwin’s diary. Intellectuals were the only people he entertained: he lived alone for twenty years, cut off from Sydney society, building a wall along the beach so that no one could enter his property. He dedicated his time to academic work, hypothesizing classification systems made of circles and fives because the natural system is the plan of creation itself, the work of an all-wise, all-powerful Deity. The mathematical rhapsody of William Sharp did not go far in England, where a greater revolution of metaphysics was in the works. Yet every night he worked, building up his system, trying to find something like the fingerprints of God in the quivering, gnarled bush. God was a mathematician—it was still mid-century, Sydney was small, and the Macleay family villa was surrounded by estate.

When William Sharp died in 1865, his brother George Macleay inherited the property and realized immediately it would have to be subdivided. If I were in the colony, George wrote to a friend, or even likely to see it often, I should not have the heart to dismember it in this fashion. But George, who was living in London, did indeed have the heart to do so: the estate was gradually leased out until only three acres were left of the original grant. 

Unlike his older brother, George lived long enough to see that Sydney was beginning to change in the deepest of ways—and beginning to place new demands on its land and its elites. Convict transportation had ended in the 1830s and most Sydneysiders had arrived, free, by boat. Sydney’s population trebled from 1791 to 1801, making it the second largest “white city” in the Empire. Eighty-five percent of Australians were living in cities, so the history of Australia had already become a history of socialized, urban man—and already the Aussie bush was something that only existed in the imagination of most Antipodeans. The advances of Victorian Australia in science and technology had changed everything, from health to transport to the new urban middle class.

According to the colonial statistician, the average working class Australian in the 1890s was better paid and better fed than the German, the Italian, or the Englishman. The inner cities were terrible slums, however, with pitiful public health and infrastructure. Local barrister John Fitzgerald complained that Sydney had become the worst paved, most badly drained, most incongruously built, and the most selfish and backward represented city in Australia. As squalor and pestilence rocked the city center, the fortunate and the bold fled out to the suburbs and the aspiring middle class rushed down to Elizabeth Bay, to Walla Mulla, place of plenty place of blood, bidding high for a piece of the good life.

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. 

But the roads still wind down the paths set out by the colonial gardener. If you take the main road through Kings Cross you veer left in a wild dog-leg at the top of the hill, crowded with commuters by day, taxis and young drunk flesh in the night. When the colony’s surveyor-general was away on an exploration trip in 1831, Macleay secretly arranged for the planned road through his grounds to be built around the perimeter of his estate instead. The dog-leg is his legacy to the city that he grew to love despite its frightful isolation. (The one named Macleay St., by the by, is wide, straight, and beautiful.) And if there are lighter signatures of Australia’s deeper past, they have been buried in the silence of the soil—lost to the trees that shake in the wind and the cloudy harbor water.