If you like your colonial architecture to come with a good backstory, Elizabeth Bay House is right up your alley. While it looks stunning, its interiors were left unfinished when its builder, Alexander Macleay, ran out of cash. It's been used as an opulent family home, an artists' squat, a popular reception venue and, from the 1970s onwards, a museum run by the Historic Houses Trust.
The circumstances surrounding this riches-to-rags tale are complex, but essentially involve Macleay falling out of political favour and being forced to resign from his position as colonial secretary. The family lived in the unfinished house – said to be Sydney's grandest for a brief period – for six years, before economic issues forced the family to move.
The fact that the house wasn't completed is evident, to me, in only one respect: the stairs, and parts of the upper floor, are concrete. Aside from this (which can be forgiven at a time when polished concrete is a style choice), the house seems to have been completed to extraordinary standards, with the ceiling exemplifying the high level of detailing.
The house is generously proportioned, with a basement level (which contains the home's cellars) reminiscent of an underground lair. Despite slightly spooky exposed stone walls and floor and heavy wooden doors, the basement is one of the mansion's most likeable elements. And it provides utility and additional space to a building that would have had a significant staff.
While the house is worth seeing for the view alone, the melancholy historical context of a man who wanted to construct the colony's greatest building but ran into misfortune while doing so is both haunting and riveting.
Read more of Monica Kovacic's local architectural musings at The House Hunter.
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