Wyldefel Gardens is one of my favourite Potts Point buildings, and somewhere I was lucky enough to call home for a time.
Hidden away on Wylde Street, it is an oasis of calm in the middle of the city. It’s also notable for its architecture and unique design that represents the best of art deco P&O style or “Continental Moderne” architecture.
We discover the story of this iconic building and explore its origins and early days in the 1930s and 1940s.
Before the apartments: Wyldefel House
Wyldefel Gardens, at 8A Wylde Street, takes its name from the grand 1887 Victorian mansion called Wyldefel (sometimes spelled Wildifel) House that once stood on what is now Wylde Street. The building was perched on an expansive block of land that sloped down to the foreshore of Sydney Harbour.
From 1923, the house was occupied by art collector W.A. Cowle, who was known for his lavish travel and entertaining. In October 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald published an account of a cocktail party held in the ballroom at Wyldefel, to welcome Italian officers (Mussolini was in power, but this was before the Second World War).
Apparently, the garden was a highlight, as the description shows:
“Gathered on the lawns below the verandahs at Wyldefel, Potts Point, on Saturday afternoon, sailors from the Italian cruiser, Armando Diaz, sang for the many guests who attended the cocktail party given by the Cónsul-General for Italy and the Marchesa Ferrante in honour of the captain (Commander Juachlno) and officers of the ship… Lights were switched on in the gardens, and many of the guests, despite dinner and theatre appointments, lingered to admire the lovely effect of the beautiful old garden starred by clusters of lights, against the background of the harbour at dusk. The rooms and verandahs were crowded with guests.”
From Art to Art Deco
Crowle was an art collector, and a 132-page catalogue held by the State Library, from 1935, lists the magnificent furniture, art treasures, costly appointments and effects throughout the residence ‘Wyldefel’, Wylde Street, Potts Point. These all went up for auction, as a Daily Telegraph article from the same year explains:
“ART GIVES WAY TO GARDEN FLATS
The “Wyldefel” Potts Point art collection is being broken up to make way for Bavarian-style garden flats,” it says.
Cowles was selling his 30-year collection because of an idea he brought back from abroad: “the terraced buildings of the Bavarian mountains suggested to him that the “Wyldefel’s” terraced gardens would make a foundation for garden flats.”
The article explains that Wyldefel Gardens would be let on a 15-year lease, with the rent ranging from about five to seven guineas.
Each flat’s lounge room would open onto a roof terrace and, in addition to a dining and lounge room, would have “three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, a main hall, and “sun” parlour”.
The cutting-edge technology in the reinforced concrete roofs “will be covered with cream ruberoid, with a welded metal railing running round the edge. The buildings themselves will be coloured pale yellow, with bright green window sashes, doors, and roof railings.”
The timing is unsurprising: the interwar period was busy with development in Potts Point, with a variety of art deco flats constructed – not all of them popular.
The apartments we know today as Wyldefel Gardens were completed in 1936 as a collaboration between Crowle and architect John Brogan.
Originally waterfront (until the Navy reclaimed and then added to the once waterfront land in 1943), the 20 stepped apartments are arranged in a U-shape. They cascade down the sloping block, and the garden sits in between so as not to obstruct the original view from Wyldefel House.
An original brochure for the complex has pictures showing its rooftop terraces. It describes Wyldefel Gardens as “the most modern building of its kind in Australia” that “brings the very best adaptation of modern Continental home planning to our already lovely Harbour shores.”
The P&O style or Continental Moderne style that is still revered today is reflected in the flat roof, expansive curved and best glass windows, glass blocks, and curved rendered walls.
According to the real estate section of the Daily Telegraph in 1937, Wyldefel Gardens was a great example of how to create a new development without sacrificing trees: “It was built in an old garden, and every tree possible was retained.”
Architectural history, Graham Juhn described the building as “a thoroughly integrated concept, combining interior with exterior, building with terrain, yet ensuring privacy from adjoining buildings with the openness of ‘democratic’ and communal central gardens”. He called it “as much an experiment in living as it was a town planning or architectural project.”
At the time of their construction, the apartments also had a swimming pool, tennis courts and a boatshed on the water’s edge, which housed Crowle’s yacht. Crowle built himself a residence over the boatshed that he named “Once Upon a Time” (later relocated when the Navy needed the land).
Once the apartments were constructed in front of it, the original Victorian mansion was converted into a luxury boarding house. It was demolished in the 1960s to make way for more flats.
Life at Wyldefel Gardens in the 1930s and 40s
Wyldefel Gardens has always been one of Potts Point’s most coveted addresses. News reports from the social pages of the 1930s and 1940s list various well-known families or socialites leaving or returning to stay at Wyldefel Gardens. One report from 1937 mentions “Mr. and Mrs. Justly Rawlings, who returned from a fifteen months’ world tour by the Monowai last week” to stay at Wyldefel Gardens, Potts Point.
The brand new residence was the site of many glamorous events, such as Ron Webb’s 21st birthday in 1937, which was reported with the headline “Coming of age party: guest is leaving for country”. Or Walter Sheeler’s 13th birthday party in 1939 when “50 boys from Cranbrook School were entertained at a party given by Mrs W. L. Sheeler, of U.S.A., at Wyldefel Gardens, Potts Point” complete with a pink cake.
A very international crowd seemed to reside at Wyldefel. During the Second World War, Wyldefel Gardens was the site of many war efforts including cocktail parties, lucky dips and even a ladies’ tennis competition in 1940 to “raise funds for the Canadian Association’s London Relief Fund”.
One of the more memorable events would have to have been the “Beer Garden Party” for over 500 people, where the gardens were turned into a German Beer Hall complete with a proper dance floor. It was held in 1941 as one of the last celebrations before the navy resumed the waterfront land at Wyldefel Gardens. The event, which would raise eyebrows today, saw dance partners auctioned to the highest bidder to raise funds for the army’s Kaloola Recreation Hut.
“A large screen, hid the girls thus “auctioned” from the audience, and only their legs were shown as clues to their identity. The auctioneer requested his laughing audience to bid up according to the quality of the legs.”
But money wasn’t always being raised legally or for the war effort. In 1944, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a police raid at unit 9 Wyldefel Gardens under the headline “Caught at Baccarat”. Eleven men and five women were found playing the card game. “At Central Police Court today the 16 players pleaded guilty to having been found in a common gaming-house, and each was fined £2, with 2/- costs, in default five days’ hard labour.”
Wyldefel Gardens today
Fast forward to recent times, and the Australian Institute of Architects labelled Wyldefel Gardens as Nationally Significant 20th-Century Architecture. The apartments with the complex are highly prized and tightly-held.
14/8A Wylde Street is a generous three-bedroom apartment with the most amazing roof terrace complete with a lawn and a pond. With airy, sunny interiors, high ceilings, parquetry floors, marble and custom American oak joinery, this is stylish living. The original art deco character has been retained, with luxury modern features including an ensuite, designer kitchen and double parking.
If you’re interested in making Wyldefel Gardens your home, get in touch today.