This house hunt almost didn’t eventuate, because it is pretty much impossible to find a parking spot in Elizabeth Bay. After circling the block for twenty minutes, and running late for something else, I nearly ended up speeding off in frustration. The house’s charming good looks kept me motivated, though, and I eventually found a parking spot, parked my car a metre out from the curb on a three metre wide street, and sprinted for the mansion.
If you like your Colonial architecture to come with a good backstory, Elizabeth Bay House is right up your alley. While it looks stunning, its interiors were left unfinished due to its builder, Alexander Macleay, running out of cash. It’s been used as an opulent family home, an artists’ squat, a popular reception venue and, from the 1970s onwards, a museum run by the Historic Houses Trust. The HHT offers a great snapshot of the tale in its online introduction to the building: “Can’t afford your dream house? Neither could Colonial Secretary Anthony Macleay.”
The circumstances surrounding this riches-to-rags tale are complex, but essentially involve Macleay falling out of political favour and being forced to resign from his position as Colonial Secretary. The family lived in the unfinished house – said to be Sydney’s grandest for a brief period – for six years, before economic issues forced the family to move.
The fact that the house wasn’t been completed is evident, to me, in only one respect – the stairs, and parts of the upper floor, consist of concrete. Aside from this (which can be forgiven in era where polished concrete floors are trendy), the house seems to have been completed to extraordinary standards, with the ceiling exemplifying the house’s level of detailing.
The house is generously proportioned, with a basement level (which contains the home’s cellars) reminiscent of an underground lair. While slightly spooky due to its exposed stone walls and floor and heavy wooden doors, the basement is one of the mansion’s most likeable elements – it provides utility and additional space to a building that would have had a significant staff.
While the house is worth seeing for the view alone, the melancholy historical context of a man who wanted to construct the Colony’s greatest building but ran into fiscal misfortune while doing so is haunting and riveting, particularly when you’re walking up the unfinished stairs and are, accordingly, directly faced with Macleay’s adversity.