In our part of the world, few locations can compete with Rockwall Crescent, which sits right at the heart of Potts Point.
Join me on a walk down the crescent, which runs off Macleay Street, to explore its unique history…
A colonial past
In the 1830s, Governor Darling had earmarked Darlinghurst – as much of the inner east of Sydney was then known – for grand plans. There were many windmills standing along the ridge area called Woolloomooloo Hill (or Darlinghurst Ridge) that powered the early colony’s industrial base. However, given its prime position, Darling saw a future built around residential development. He planned a series of villas and mansions along what was Darlinghurst Road and Macleay Street.
In 1828, an original grant was made where Rockwall Crescent lies today. As this early map shows, its namesake, the villa “Rockwall”, was set back from Macleay Street and stood a short distance from Elizabeth Bay House.
The land was owned by J. Busby, and its eight acres stretched from Macleay Street all the way to Woolloomooloo Bay, where fish markets took place on reclaimed land.
According to Heritage NSW, Colonial architect John Verge designed Rockwall and a nearby cottage in 1830. The villa was constructed between 1831 and 1837 in what was to be “a two-storey Colonial Regency style villa/townhouse in sandstone blocks with cedar fittings and joinery throughout”. Before it had even been finished, the plans were altered as a new owner, merchant HC Sempill, took possession.
Then a year before it was completed, another owner Thomas Urmson Ryder took possession. In 1837, when the villa was built, he put half the estate, including Rockwall, up for public auction. He sold the other half as “Thirty allotments of Garden and Building Ground” in the first subdivision of the original grant.
When it was finally finished, Rockwall was described as a “stuccoed brick construction of five bays with encircling verandah at ground floor, broken by Doric columned porches on the east and west sides”. It was also noted that “the oval geometric hall and staircase are similar to Elizabeth Bay House, on a smaller scale”.
You can see its original walled garden and the house in this 1840 watercolour in the State Library.
Creating Rockwall Crescent
Ryder’s original dissection of the Rockwall estate seemed to set off a wave of subdivisions. In the 1840s, several Potts Point estates were split up, spurred on by a financial crisis in the colony. Then, in the 1870s, a series of heavy taxes caused another flurry of subdivisions in the wider area.
An 1882 subdivision map shows lots for auction along both sides of what was then Rockwall Street, with St Vincent’s “Convent” present at the end of the cul de sac (it had been established in the 1850s – more on this below).
An accompanying brochure from the time promotes the Rockwall Estate as “the healthiest, most accessible, and aristocratic portion of the City of Sydney”.
“This valuable property has now been subdivided into building sites,” it continues before describing Rockwall itself as a “commodious residence”. They weren’t exaggerating either. The block of land on which Rockwall sat boasted a 100-foot (or 30-metre) frontage to Rockwall Street.
Rockwall Street is advertised as being “one chain wide”. This referred to the old units of measurement related to the typical quarter-acre building lot, which measured one chain by two and a half chains. Both street frontages and roads were usually one chain wide, equivalent to 20.1 metres. Laneways were typically half a chain wide (equivalent to 10.1 metres).
Later, the City of Sydney archives record a meeting from 1886, where the Finance Committee recommended Rockwall Street be renamed Rockwall Crescent. It was supported by a petition of residents, presumably because in London, at least, ‘Crescents’ and ‘Squares’ tended to denote more upmarket addresses.
A memo from the City Surveyor at the time noted that the street was straight (unlike a typically curved crescent) but did not object.
The landmarks of Rockwall Crescent
Today, Rockwall Crescent remains relatively unchanged in many respects. It is one of a few streets in the area with a central row of trees and gardens in the middle, giving it a charming, leafy feel.
There are also several major landmarks along Rockwall Crescent.
Number 5: “Rockwall”
The street’s namesake, this home has been through many incarnations with several alterations and additions taking place over the century and a half that Rockwall has stood. In the 1870s and 1880s, the home was used as a girls’ school, Belmore College and then as Ailanthus College for Girls from 1904 to 1913.
Between 1925 to 1957, it was occupied by the Nurses Club before becoming a hotel. The building later became part of the Chevron Hotel, then the Landmark Hotel.
In 1979, the National Trust heritage-listed Rockwall but over the years it fell derelict. In the 1990s, Rockwall was restored to a private residence, which is how it remains today.
Rockwall is one of just five villas remaining from the original 17 built in the 1830s to Darling’s vision, making it special.
Number 7: “Rockwall Apartments”
One of the newer buildings on Rockwall Crescent, the Rockwall Apartments is home to 111 apartments, many of which have amazing city and harbour views. The building is well regarded, having been developed by Mirvac in 1996. Facilities include a heated pool, gym, sauna and secure basement parking.
St Vincent’s College
While the very end of Rockwall Crescent is the “back door”, with the school’s address technically on Victoria Street, “Vinnies” is a landmark and was subdivided from the original land grant.
St Vincent’s College is the oldest registered Catholic girls’ school in Australia. It was originally founded as the co-ed Victoria Street Roman Catholic School by the Sisters of Charity in 1858, a year after St Vincent’s Hospital was established at the same site.
In 1882 it reopened as a private independent girls’ school after the hospital moved to Darlinghurst.
Numbers 2 and 4: Political fame
Adjoining St Vincents are two distinctive red brick terrace houses dating from the late Victorian era. Number 2 was once lived in by John McElhone, a merchant and politician. He served as a local alderman for the City of Sydney Council as well as a NSW MP. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in “about 1881, McElhone had built a four-storied house in Rockwell Crescent, Potts Point, near the Woolloomooloo steps named after him.”
Numbers 6-14: The Brunswick Terraces
This row of terraces, known as the Brunswick Terraces, was constructed prior to 1884 (except for number 14). As heritage consultant, Andrew Woodhouse, writes, many were nostalgically named after English localities, such as Kendal (number 10) in the Lakes District.
Number 20: A classic Rockwall Crescent Terrace
Number 20 is one of a group of three terraces running from 16-20, which was called the “Pamela Terraces”. Currently on the market, number 20 is a grand three-storey, four-bedroom end-of-row terrace with city views, parking for two cars, and a stellar location. In 1887, it was known as “Percyville”, but by 1890, it had been re-named “Yanowinna”.
Visit us on Rockwall Crescent
We’re also lucky to call Rockwall Crescent home. While our own office technically has its address at 75 Macleay Street, you’ll find our front door just around the corner, opposite Zinc Cafe, on Rockwall Crescent, near the corner of the laneway. Come say “hi”.
If you’re looking to buy or sell in Potts Point or Sydney’s East, contact my team today.