Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney

Back in February 2020, just as a certain coronavirus was making itself known, I bought a Sydney Living Museums pass, which gave me (from memory) access to eight of the houses and museums on their list, at a very reasonable price. Sadly. I’m not sure this pass still exists.

Even since, I have been meaning to turn each of these visits into a post! It has taken my upcoming Voss Readalong to finally put one together.

The first few chapters of Voss are set in 1845 Sydney. The Bonner family, and their niece, Laura Trevelyan live in one of the grand houses on the Elizabeth Bay side of Potts Point.

This is where Voss first meets Laura. There is talk of the gardens and their extensive array of shrubs, the ‘formidable study in his stone house‘ and the cool hall. As Voss leaves the house to return to Sydney town proper, we see ‘on that side of the Point there were several great houses similar to the Bonners’, from which human eye could have been taking aim through slits of shutters….the houses of the rich dared the intruder, whether dubious man, or tattered native tree.

Patrick White may or may not have had Elizabeth Bay House in mind when he was writing about the Bonners’ home. It was not an Open House in the 1950’s and most of the other big estates had been sold or divided up by this time.

Either way, I hope these photos give the readers of Voss a little glimpse into what 1850’s Sydney would have looked like to those with money.

After the governor, colonial secretary Alexander Macleay was the most important public official in the colony of NSW, with a salary and aspirations to match. In 1835 he started to build the ultimate trophy house on a magnificent waterfront site near the fashionable suburb of Woolloomooloo Hill, now Potts Point.

Macleay’s property covered an expansive 54 acres (22ha) of prime harbourside real estate, and took in spectacular views east up the harbour towards the heads. It was in fact the textbook picturesque location, surrounded by rugged sandstone outcrops and cliffs, rich vegetation and bustling activity on the water – all desirable features for a gentleman keen to show off his position and taste.

Macleay engaged the most fashionable architect in Sydney at the time, John Verge, who had already designed a number of handsome villas for other wealthy colonists. Before arriving in Australia in 1828, Verge had been a successful builder in London and was able to build to a style and standard not seen before in Sydney – and indeed, in the few years he spent here, he built several houses that are still regarded as the pinnacle of colonial era design.​ To Macleay’s instructions, Verge produced a design for a splendid ‘marine villa’ in the Greek revival style, which was then at the peak of popularity.

Source: Sydney Living Museums webpage

Elizabeth Bay House was never completed. Financial difficulties halted the final stages of work (an encircling colonade in particular).

The house was built using Sydney sandstone, the timber floors with Australian Blackbutt. The spiral staircase has Australian cedar joinery and castiron bannisters.

Recently it was discovered that the house was perfectly oriented for the winter solstice sunrise – the rising sun enters through the front door, through the vestibule and out the rear door, hitting the sandstone cliff face at the rear of the house. 

I fell in love with the dome and took way too many photos of it from every conceivable angle!

*All photos are mine except for art work – Elizabeth Bay and Sydney from Mrs Darling’s Point Road | Conrad Martens | c1848, Sydney Living Museums


2 responses to “Elizabeth Bay House, Sydney”

  1. […] For an example of a Potts Point home from this era see my post on Elizabeth Bay House here. […]


  2. […] an example of a Potts Point home from this era see my post on Elizabeth Bay House here. – Thanks for this! What a beautiful house. Nothing like I […]


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