Friday, July 20, 2012

Of Sydney's Ghosts and Gargoyles

The Abbey is a heritage home at 272 Johnston Street in the suburb of Annandale, Sydney, Australia. It is listed on the Register of the National Estate and the New South Wales Heritage Register.
The Abbey, Johnson Street Annandale, Sydney NSW, circa 1880s

A poster advertising land for sale at Annandale in the late 1880's
I was born in View Street in 1942, (extreme right of picture) just
below The Abbey in Johnston Street.

Layout map of John Young's Buildings in Johnston Street

The Abbey was built by John Young, a builder who had migrated from England to Australia. After working for some time as a builder in Melbourne, Young moved to Sydney and continued a successful career. In 1877, he bought land in what is now the suburb of Annandale, where he had visions of creating a garden suburb that would rival exclusive harbourside suburbs like Darling Point. He proceeded to build an extraordinary group of eight homes along a ridge near Rozelle Bay:
The Abbey,
Kenilworth, Hockindon, Highroyd  and Greba,

Rozelle and Claremont (now demolished) of which no images could be found, however, the Claremont was an identical building to The Abbey.

The Abbey was the most outstanding of these homes, an "imaginative, romantic house loosely modelled on a Scottish manor". It was designed in a variation of the Victorian Free Gothicstyle and incorporated stencil work, hand-painted panels, timber architraves, a Gothic vault and a tower with gargoyles. (Young was the principal builder of St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, and it was rumoured that he had stolen gargoyles from the cathedral to use on his Annandale homes.) He also used reinforced concrete, which was quite an innovation in those days. Since Young was a Freemason, the house was decorated with Masonic symbols. It was completed in 1882.

Its got its own Masonic tradition; there's a whole series of numbers in it, he says of the house. Normally a high-rise building is exactly the same from one floor to the next, but when Young was building this, he made sure all the walls were a little bit different, all off-centre, so no floor was a replica of another. Heritage Architect David Springett believes intricate patterns on the front of the house may also be Masonic.

Young built the home to impress his wife and encourage her to return from the UK. She did not return and they never lived in it. The Abbey was occupied by housekeepers while Young lived in a house called Kentville, near Rozelle Bay, which has since been demolished. From 1887, the ballroom and stables of The Abbey were used as a boarding house for private schools.

In 1924, the house was subdivided and converted to flats—the beginning of a long period of decline. In 1959, it was acquired by radio engineer Lancelot Davis for the sum of £4500 for his son, Sydney surgeon Dr Geoffrey L R Davis. Dr Davis, an associate of the bohemian Sydney, continued to lease out some of the original separate units for two decades while proceeding with a long-term restoration of the house.

The house was subdivided and turned into flats in 1924. The grand old dame was rescued by Sydney surgeon Geoffrey Lancelot Davis, who paid £4500 cash for the house in 1959. Dr Davis leased out the flats to folksy artists, members of “The Sydney Push” while he began a lifetime of work to restore the creation.

The Sydney Push was a predominantly left-wing intellectual sub-culture in Sydney from the late 1940s to the early '70s. Well known associates of the Push include Jim Baker, John Flaus, Harry Hooton, Margaret Fink, Sasha Soldatow, Lex Banning, Eva Cox, Richard Appleton, Paddy McGuinness, David Makinson, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Frank Moorhouse and Lillian Roxon. From 1961 to 1962, poet Les Murray resided in Brian Jenkins's household.

The Push operated in a pub culture and comprised a broad range of manual workers, musicians, lawyers, criminals, journalists and public servants as well as staff and students of Sydney University—predominantly though not exclusively in the Faculty of Arts. Rejection of conventional morality and authoritarianism formed their main common bond. From the mid-1960s, people from the New South Wales University of Technology (later renamed the University of New South Wales) also became involved.

The Davis family occupied The Abbey for 50 years. Dr Davis died in 2008. In May 2009, the contents of the house were auctioned off by Lawson Auctioneers. The house itself was sold in November, 2009, for $4.86 million. This was a record for Annandale, although it fell short of the $5 million the vendors had been hoping for. It surpassed the $3.35 million paid for Kenilworth in 2007.

The former Royal George Hotel building, Sussex and King Streets, Sydney, 
photographed in April, 2004. In earlier years, the Sydney Push met in the
"back room", at ground floor left.

Gervase Davis claims the house is haunted. He says he has felt various presences from time to time, and a lady in white has been seen occasionally. Ghost hunters with "ectoplasmic machines" investigated the house in the 1970s. Francesca Davis believes that cats could sense the presence of spirits and her hackles would rise when such a presence came into the room.

The house was sold in 2009 and the new owners set about restoring the house to its original gothic splendour.

The Abbey is now listed on the Register of the National Estate and the New South Wales Heritage Register. 

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