THE FINEST HOUSE

After the governor, colonial secretary Alexander Macleay was the most important public official in the colony of NSW, with a salary and aspirations to match. In 1835 he started to build the ultimate trophy house on a magnificent waterfront site near the fashionable suburb of Woolloomooloo Hill, now Potts Point.

Macleay’s property covered an expansive 54 acres of prime harbourside real estate, with spectacular views east up the harbour towards the heads. It was in fact the textbook picturesque location, surrounded by rugged sandstone outcrops and cliffs, rich vegetation and bustling activity on the water – all desirable features for a gentleman keen to show off his position and taste.

Macleay engaged the most fashionable architect in Sydney at the time, John Verge, who had already designed a number of handsome villas for other wealthy colonists. Before arriving in Australia in 1828, Verge had been a successful builder in London and was able to build to a style and standard not seen before in Sydney – and indeed, in the few years he spent here, he built several houses that are still regarded as the pinnacle of colonial era design. To Macleay’s instructions, Verge produced a design for a splendid ‘marine villa’ in the Greek revival style, which was then at the peak of popularity.

AT VERY CONSIDERABLE EXPENSE

Now surrounded by apartment buildings in the middle of one of the most densely populated suburbs in Australia, Macleay’s house was originally designed as the centrepiece of an extensive landscaped garden that cascaded down the slopes to the waterfront. 

Macleay would have been familiar with the ideas of picturesque design that were widely followed in early 19th-century gardens. His site at Elizabeth Bay provided the perfect opportunity to demonstrate those ideas and, like his fine house with its splendid interiors and furnishings, show evidence of his gentlemanly taste and refinement. He was also an enthusiastic amateur botanist and naturalist, building up a large collection of specimens that were housed in his library, the biggest room in the house.

AMBITION BEYOND MEANS

As we now know from his family papers and other sources, Alexander Macleay was financially over-extended several times during his life. It is likely that one of the main reasons he took the position of colonial secretary with its dependable salary was so he could retire debts from his over-ambitious lifestyle in England.

Arriving in NSW, Macleay quickly put other colonists and officials offside by making a land grant to himself at Elizabeth Bay, a decision supported by Governor Ralph Darling but which became a source of annoyance to him. Nor did Macleay enjoy good relations with the next Governor, Richard Bourke, who eventually orchestrated Macleay’s ‘retirement’ from his post in 1837, aged 70 years. The loss of his salary just as he moved into his grand new house made Macleay financially vulnerable, especially as he was also involved in land speculation in other parts of NSW, often controversially. With the widespread rural recession in the 1840s, Macleay, like many over-ambitious landowners, found himself forced to sell his grand house to survive.

In 1844 Alexander’s eldest son, William Sharp Macleay eventually stepped in to save his father from bankruptcy, taking over his extensive debts but forcing him in the process to leave Elizabeth Bay House. William had arrived in Sydney in 1839, aged 47 years and took up residence with his parents and sisters at Elizabeth Bay House. Active in the Linnean Society like his father, William was a distinguished naturalist and cultivated a circle of friends in the scientific world both in Sydney and abroad, and continued developing his father’s specimen collections.

For the remainder of the 19th century and well into the 20th, Elizabeth Bay House had a chequered history. With the property subdivided, the gardens were reduced to a small fragment and the house became home to a succession of tenants and served as a reception centre. By the 1950s the grand rooms of the house had been subdivided into flats – and Potts Point had evolved from a suburb of genteel villas and expansive gardens into one of low-rent flats, with a slightly unsavoury reputation as an enclave of artists and bohemians, including for a time, the well-known artist Donald Friend.

HERITAGE VALUE

Elizabeth Bay House was one of the first buildings in Australia to be recognised for its heritage value. As long ago as the 1950s, its state of damage and disrepair spurred the conservation movement. In 1961 the National Trust, a community-led organisation, started a process of listing and publicising important historic places, and Elizabeth Bay House was one of the first 50 places named. Around this time, the photographer Max Dupain made a series of exquisite photographs of the house recording its faded grandeur, and these have become iconic in their own right.

Elizabeth Bay House

Open Friday, Saturday, Sunday

10am-4pm

 Adult $12  | Concession $8  | Family $30 

Members and children under 5 FREE

7 Onslow Avenue, Elizabeth Bay, NSW 2011

+61 2 9356 3022

sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/elizabeth-bay-house

It was still another 16 years until the house was extensively restored and refurbished and became one of the first properties acquired by the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museums). 

Today as you stand in Macleay’s entrance hall with its fine cedar doorways, the walls painted to resemble coloured marble, you may catch a glance into the comfortably furnished drawing room or the stately dining room. Passing through the Greek revival doorway ahead reveals a truly astonishing space – the three-storey high elliptical saloon and staircase leading to the spacious bedrooms above. Through a discreet door to your right is Macleay’s library and study, the largest room in the house and the centre of his other life as a botanist and natural historian; a room which speaks so eloquently of the interests and aspirations of a colonial gentleman.

Macleay’s role as colonial secretary is now little more than a minor footnote in history but his house is an outstanding legacy. His story, that of ambition over-reached and personal financial loss, is a great Sydney story – a story which resonates as strongly in our own time as it did in the early 19th century.