The State Library of New South Wales is a fantastic resource, even in lockdown.
I recently heard about a gem of a book available through their website called ‘Where to live – A.B.C. Guide to Sydney & Suburbs’. The entire thing has been digitised and can be read online, and it’s a fascinating window into the Sydney real estate market of a hundred years ago.
Where to live – A.B.C. Guide to Sydney and Suburbs
‘Where to live’, compiled by M. A. Harris, is an A – Z account of Sydney’s suburbs, covering everything from architectural styles and types of housing to notes about the kind of people who lived in each area. It was published in 1917, a year that stands out as one of the unprecedented Australian casualties in the First World War and social and political upheaval on the domestic front.
While Sydney’s population in 1917 was around 775,000; today it is around 5.4 million.
The book was intended to save home buyers and real estate investors time spent trudging from suburb to suburb trying to decide where to buy. Much like an interiors magazine or real estate lift out today, it’s full of advertisements for real estate agents, tradesmen, now-outdated building materials like asbestos sheets (‘you can saw, nail and plane them’ – oh dear) and vogue home fixtures such as ‘oscillating portal wall beds’. These could be opened out onto a verandah or into an inside room and then folded back into the wall to save space during the day. Unlike the asbestos, they didn’t catch on.
Some things stay the same, though, and the book dedicates a good amount of space to the opportunities for property investors in and around Sydney. The author writes, ‘for the Investor, there is nothing more secure than real estate’ and there would be many who would echo this sentiment today.
What was our neighbourhood like in 1917?
So, what does ‘Where to live’ have to say about our local area?
It describes Darlinghurst, Elizabeth Bay, Potts Point and Rushcutters Bay as ‘popular and stylish’ – no change there then. Just as they are today, they were valued for their proximity to the city (‘only 10 minutes to the GPO’). The area was apparently popular with visitors, ‘business and professional men’. Darlinghurst was the only one of the four suburbs to have any shops or amenities – Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay and Rushcutters Bay were described as ‘purely residential’. The new neighbourhood of Kings Cross was given plenty of praise for its recently constructed ‘picture palace’, modern shops and ‘very fine hotel’.
Then as now, Elizabeth Bay and Rushcutters Bay were described as ‘two of our many picturesque harbour views’. Rushcutters Bay was praised for its cricket ground and sports oval, and Elizabeth Bay was admired for its reserve facing the water (perhaps Beare Park?) where one could cool down on a hot summer’s evening.
Real estate in Potts Point in 1917
Potts Point’s revered Art Deco buildings were yet to be built, but the book’s author admired both the then-new 4, 6 and 8 storey blocks of flats along Bayswater Road and the ‘glorious’ homes at the bottom of Macleay Street. Although there was no building land to be had in Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay or Rushcutters Bay, there were still one or two vacant blocks in Darlinghurst. Hard to imagine now! Interestingly, it seems the area’s real estate was as tightly held then as it is now – the author says there are few houses for sale. There were, however, ‘splendid investments’ to be had in boarding houses, flats or houses ripe for conversion into flats.
Portraits of some of our best-loved buildings
‘Where to live’ includes portrait-like photos of some of the homes in our area as they were in 1917. There’s a photo of ‘the fine home of Mrs Gibbs, Billyard Avenue, Elizabeth Bay’, also known as Berthong. Today Berthong is one of Sydney’s finest waterfront mansions whose previous owners include the Murdoch family and Russell Crowe. There’s Rhodesia, a block of flats built in 1914 on Macleay Street but since demolished. And there’s Hampton Court, 9 – 15 Bayswater Road, Potts Point, which at the time ‘Where to live’ was published was another fine block of flats. In later years it became the Hampton Court Hotel, welcoming guests like Elizabeth Taylor, the Bolshoi Ballet and AC/DC. Now, it’s The Hampton, a stylish and desirable residential building once more.
You can read more for yourself at the State Library’s website. And if you’re looking for something to pass the time in a lockdown they also have some fascinating lectures and seminars online for adults and kids.
If you’re interested in buying, selling or investing in Potts Point, Darlinghurst, Elizabeth Bay or Rushcutters Bay, get in touch with my team today.
Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales website