A couple of month’s back I was contacted by a Daily Telegraph journo, doing a story about Sydney’s ‘Gatsby-style’ mansions. Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby had just hit the screens and the media was searching for evidence that 1920s Sydney had glamour to match that of New York.
I felt like a party-pooper because I had to tell her that the 1920s was not a great decade for mansions in Sydney. On Long Island, New York – where Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional West Egg was located – they were springing up, but in Sydney more mansions were being demolished than built. It’s perhaps telling that the movie location for Gatsby’s pile was not a mansion but the former St Patrick’s College at Manly (with some digitally added turrets and spires).
Mansions – seriously big houses – to some extent live outside of architectural history. We like to think that architecture can be an expression of the people who live and use it and this is nowhere more true than with mansions; they are the ultimate personal statement. The focus with the history of a mansion is usually on who paid for it or lived in it, rather than who designed it and its connections to architectural history.
So the history of mansions is a history of rich people and their taste rather more than part of the history of architecture. Australia was not short of mansions during the second half of the 1800s when the new society rode the sheep’s back to prosperity. Many among the squattocracy owned both a rural homestead and a city mansion. Among these were the White pastoral family, who boasted grand homesteads (Kirkham and Belltrees) at Camden and Scone as well as Cranbrook at Bellevue Hill, Sydney.
During the 1920s manufacturing, retailing and entertainment became major wealth-generators but many of these enterprises were corporate rather than family businesses so fewer mansions resulted. Meanwhile the rural gentry were struggling to staff their town mansions, as women could now find jobs in retailing or manufacturing. The servant shortage saw many mansions replaced with grand apartments at the Astor, Kingsclere and similar new addresses. In 1911 there were 1,022 houses in NSW with more than 15 rooms. By 1933 this number had fallen to 643, and the vast majority of these large houses – 496 – were not in Sydney. In other words, the mansion was surviving primarily in the form of station homesteads, and even these existed in diminishing numbers.
It’s not surprising that one of Sydney’s few new mansions of the 20s was Boomerang at Elizabeth Bay, built for the music publishing and entertainment entrepreneur Frank Albert. During the middle decades of the twentieth century Australian society displayed an unusually egalitarian spread of wealth, and new mansions were correspondingly rare. This has changed since the 1980s – perhaps the most spectacular example of the resulting mansion boom is ‘Aussie John’ Symond’s 35-room new pile at Point Piper.
There is a further twist to this story: 1920s USA was rushing with great speed into the modern world of cities and popular entertainment. Long Island was a popular address for newly-wealthy entertainment personalities including the Marx Brothers, Sid Caesar, Ring Lardner and Fitzgerald himself. But from 1919 to 1933 the US also had laws prohibiting the production and sale of alcoholic drinks. You wouldn’t know this from reading or watching The Great Gatsby – every one seems to be drinking most of the time, an accurate reflection of the spectacular failure of Prohibition. However an important undercurrent of the story is that Jay Gatsby’s parvenu wealth is not above board; Gatsby made his money by buying up drug stores and using them to sell illegal booze.
Prohibition created millionaires and mansions; Australia’s restrictive liquor laws didn’t have quite the same effect. Kate Leigh was Sydney’s most successful sly-grog merchant of the 1920s, running a chain of after-hours bars. But she lived in a Surry Hills terrace and spent more time at Long Bay prison than in any mansion. Later on a few smart entrepreneurs including Abraham Saffron became wealthy out of our restrictive drinking and gambling laws but were mostly careful about advertising their wealth –