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demolished houses of Sydney

Hughes, J. Demolished! insites, newsletter of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW Winter 1999

Take any one of the major roads out of the city – north, south, east or west – a block of home units or a row of town houses usually signals the site of a demolished house – thousands of houses have gone.

How many more single cottages, streets of houses, even whole suburbs have been buried or mutilated by freeways or swept away by the tide of demolition to meet the growing demands of education, commerce and industry?

The exhibition Demolished Houses of Sydney takes you on a journey along these major roads to the extremities of our great metropolis – with the occasional side trip or two – and through a representative sample of Sydney's demolished houses shows what has gone and why. Not all of them will be missed.

The houses — ranging from humble to grand were built between 1788 and 1968 and demolished from 1845 to 1998. A number were the work of well known architects such as Francis Creenway, John Verge, Edmund Blacket, Walter Burley Griffin, J. Horbury Hunt, F. Clynn Gilling, C. Bruce Dellit, Harry Seidler and Ken Woolley. Others were typical of a type or style and as such represent similar losses from other suburbs. There are others of no architectural distinction, but were of historical or social significance to their local communities.

Of the eponymous houses – those that named the suburb – gone are Annandale, Brookvale House, Cherrybrook, Drummoyne House, Ermington Park, Fairfield, Ingleburn, Lakemba, Leppington, Redfern Lodge, Strathfield House, Waverley House and Waverton and the list goes on...

Photographs of the houses have been gathered from public and private collections. Foremost are those of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, the Royal Australian Historical Society and the National Trust of Australia (NSW). The substantial number from local studies collections of local government libraries and from local historical societies reflects the increasing importance as pictorial sources. The Historic Houses Trust's Resource Centre has provided photographs reproduced from a collection of negatives donated by Barry Wollaston; a series of Brooksby, Double Bay by Harold Cazneaux, and those by Charles Bayliss of the magnificent ballroom at Chatsworth, Potts Point, decorated by Augusto Lorenzini, whose collection of original designs and sketches is a recent Trust acquisition.

The photographs span almost 150 years: from those of the 1850s of Drummoyne House by Professor John Smith to the series of Breffni at Warrawee in 1997, requisite to its demolition approval. Others range from fuzzy indistinct prints, the only ones known for some significant houses, to masterpieces by Cazneaux and Dupain. For some houses initially selected or recommended for inclusion in the exhibition no photographs could be found. Surprisingly, not all were 19th century houses. Some were built as late as the mid-20th century survived for only twenty or thirty years and now gone, without a visual record of their existence.

A significant proportion of the houses in the current exhibition formed the Sydney component of Demolished Houses of New South Wales, an exhibition curated by James Broadbent and Joy Hughes, mounted at Elizabeth Bay House in 1988. It was an exhibition that evoked varied responses: enjoyment of the comprehensive collection of photographs drawn from the major cultural institutions, and sadness even depression – that they depicted such an extensive loss of our built heritage. But overriding those emotions was a sense of optimism, that now with more stringent legislation, with significant buildings protected by their listings in local environmental plans, with the bicentenary heightening awareness of our heritage, that widespread demolition was a thing of the past, that the 1960s swathe of destruction could never be repeated.

Ten years later that optimism has gone, replaced by cynicism and a feeling of powerlessness in the community to preserve the character of its suburbs not just the preservation of its heritage buildings, not just a limit on high-rise units or spread of town houses, but the retention of its streetscapes and vistas.

In almost every suburb, unified or picturesque streetscapes of modest houses are now being disfigured in the construction of monolithic residences out of scale with their surroundings, overcrowding, overlooking and overshadowing their neighbours. And to some degree, and only in parts of Sydney, the powerlessness to preserve the character of suburbs is stated by local government authorities, which reject development proposals that blatantly exceed the current building regulations, but through lack of funds are unable to fight the appeal taken to the Land and Environment Court.

Included in the Historic Houses Trust's portfolio are properties saved from demolition. The Green Bans imposed on The Rocks by the NSW Builders Labourers' Federation in 1973 in support of The Rocks Residents Group, prevented the whole sale demolition of the area by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority. Susannah Place was saved although three of the terrace's houses, left vacant for the next eleven years, suffered major damage through lack of proper maintenance.

Lyndhurst at Glebe, the Trust's present headquarters was one of thousands of houses marked for demolition for an expressway through the inner western suburbs in the early 1970s. The 'Save Lyndhurst Committee' campaigned for an alternate route and for the restoration of the house. The election of the Wran Labor Government in 1976 and its decision to abandon the expressway ultimately saved the house. And Hyde Park Barracks, the venue for the Demolished Houses of Sydney exhibition narrowly missed demolition in the late 1920s when a proposal to erect a new Anglican cathedral on the site fell from favour.

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