Woollahra Style Suburb of Sydney – Shabby to Chic Conversion

The leafy loveliness of Woollahra at Sydney in New South Wales has been the home to passionate poets, including Australia’s icon Banjo Patterson. He spent five years there among writers, artists, master builders and cabinetmakers, councilors, judges, doctors and members for parliament.

Later opera singers like Dame Joan Sutherland, would sing out its praises far and wide. Today the area has its own council that looks after Woollahra, and the surrounding suburbs that make up the Municipality and the Woollahra village precinct.

This stylish suburb of Sydney sports some of the most expensive and exclusive houses in Australia. While that is all fine, it is the charm of its terraces and nineteenth century worker’s cottages that abound around the Queen Street, Ocean Street, Moncur Street and Jersey Road area of Woollahra that are for me still the most appealing.

Full of character, they exude the aspirations and expectations of a better life for their original immigrant owners, who came to Australia bringing their numerous skills and talents to bear on the evolution of European art, design and the development of  culture in the colonies.

Like so many other suburbs, following two world wars in the 20th century, by the end of the 50’s Woollahra’s many building’s were looking very shabby indeed. It was however full of mature trees and houses, which were aesthetically pleasing, architecturally sound and historically important. I first encountered this lovely precinct for practicing the art of fine living in the mid to late sixties 60’s travelling through it by bus on my way to the city. While its exterior looked sad, as an interior designer in training at the time I could see it had great bones.

26-28 Carr Street CoogeeI was very fond of heritage style housing, having grown up in an old block of Federation style flats, with spacious rooms, high ceilings, architectural detailing and lovely practical additions like milk and bread boxes. I made a pact with myself that one day I would do my best to live at Woollahra, at least for some part of my life. It was in the late 80’s, having raised my family on the leafy north shore, when I found myself finally in a position to return. I discovered it busy transforming itself from being shabby back to being very chic indeed.

It was in 1825 when Captain Piper built his classically inspired glamour house, Henrietta villa overlooking Sydney Harbour in a style that completely eclipsed the Georgian style house built for Sydney’s founding governor Sir Arthur Phillip. Captain Piper was a man of means, a Scottish born military officer who built his villa on land granted by the Governor to him in 1816.

The elegance of the Villa Henrietta became part of Australia’s early urban legend. It set a precedence of style that would later become synonymous with the municipality that grew up around where it had formerly been built. Located within 5 kilometres of the central business district, the suburb of Woollahra in Sydney took its name from a house built on the site of the old Henrietta villa after it had been demolished early in the 1850’s.

Named by its owner Daniel Cooper (1821-1902), the first speaker in the legislative assembly of New South Wales, Woollahra House took its name from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘camp’, ‘meeting ground’ or ‘a sitting-down place’, used by the natives for the name of point of land where it was stood.

The name was no doubt given to the whole area in 1860 in deference to the Coopers, who owned most of the land it comprised. This meant that Cooper and his descendants became mainly responsible for the establishment and progress for the suburb named after their house.

From the late 1980’s to the late 1990’s I lived for a decade in Woollahra. While there I renovated a three storey terrace. It was at the end of a row of two storey terraces with the same design and beautifully curvaceous wrought iron balconies. As was traditional at the time it would have been the home of the property speculator who built them all. It was sited just off Jersey Road, which was originally called Point Piper Road and built by Captain John Piper to give access to Henrietta Villa on Woollahra Point, which is today’s Point Piper.

His road followed the present day Jersey Road, Ocean Street, Ocean Avenue, William Street, Double Bay and New South Head Road. It was positioned to avoid the reed swamps in Rushcutters and Double Bays and only renamed Jersey Road in 1900 in honour of the Earl of Jersey, who had been the NSW State Governor from 1890 to 1893.

Living at Brisbane in Queensland from 1999 to 2009 I must say I very much missed Woollahra’s quiet style, the elegance of its stylish shopping emporiums and the robust liveliness of the debate and gossip of the Queen Street antique dealers.

I most especially missed Susan Avery‘s unique skills with flowers, which  has made her a legend in her own lifetime. She is still located on Jersey Road, where for 25 years now she has been known for her innovative and stylish events and has an unrivalled reputation for quality. Recently the council granted her permission to improve the footpath verge outside her shop, which adds greatly to the character of the area.

The proliferation of shops that exist today along the delightful Queen Street precinct which runs from Oxford Street all the way to Ocean Street began their journey when English Regency design style expert, William Bradshaw opened his antiques shop at 96 Queen Street in 1957, having moved from pole position in Market Street in the city.

There were great advantages. He could live upstairs and work downstairs, which he did for over fifty years, as had also been the normal turn of events during the nineteenth century, when this whole area was home to a huge variety of merchants and trades, many of whom were involved in building the nearby Victoria Barracks.

Bill was always ready to spin a yarn over a cup of tea with cake in his upstairs parlour. He had a witty repartee which could disarm anyone really, and he became the ‘father’ of the Sydney Antique world in Australia during the 20th century. ”He was an extraordinary adversary,” Martyn Cook, a neighbour and fellow dealer, said about him after he died in 2009. ”I opened a business near him and he certainly wasn’t what you would call the string section of an orchestra.” said Cook

Bill Bradshaw’s arrival began the renaissance of Queen Street Woollahra as a shopping village, which for over three decades would become dominated by the antiques and art trade as well as interior design businesses that all moved in to join his. Most notable among these over a twenty year period were antiques dealers Martyn Cook and Georgina and Frank Howell of Howell & Howell, the international design house Colefax & Fowler and Modernism experts Francis Laverack and Rodney de Soos at Copeland and de Soos.

England was considered home by so many Australians right up to and including the 1960’s with home making, design and house building ideas of the time gaining inspiration from traditional English furniture and cooking.

Adventurous new Australian home makers suddenly wanted bold fabrics, modern furniture, radical designs in kitchen and home accessories from Scandinavia, Germany, Italy, France and America.

Interior designers moving into the precinct included the colour visionary and interior designer Marion Hall Best (1905-1988). She was at the forefront of disseminating ideas from European modernism and transposing it into interiors in Australia.

She filled her Woollahra shop with: Eero Saarinen tables, Knoll chairs, Mies van der Rohe, Pierre Paulin, Eero Arnio and Joe Colombo furniture, brightly coloured Marimekko fabrics, gorgeous jewel coloured hand woven upholstery silks from Thailand, with colourful Flokati rugs from Greece and tufted wool rugs from Portugal.

Then there was Artemide light fittings from Italy, and fine woven grass wallpapers from India.

Best caused shock waves with her use of colour until the arrival of designer Barry Little to also lilve and work in Queen Street. He introduced Asian lacquered furniture and grass wallpapers into subtly coloured interiors, providing choice.

Ros Palmer would be a later and very colourful character, whose arrival along with English interior design house Colefax and Fowler, ensuring that style in Woollahra gained a capital S.

leo at WharfThe Australian Style was first truly born at Sydney in 1970 with the publication of the first House and Garden book of that name and with the arrival home, following a sojourn at London, of Leo Schofield and his then wife Anne.

They brought back with them tons of creative ideas and bags of class, moving into Queen Street Woollahra to inspire and generate its revival as a fashionable retail precinct.

Despite much opposition from locals they transformed a terrace house on the street, with a retail premises downstairs for Anne’s burgeoning jewellery business with incredible style.

Leo was an advertising and marketing guru at that time and he and Anne helped put this delightful sleepy suburb well and truly back on the map.

Together they fought a long battle to restore the former tobacco bond building at 40 Queen Street, where Anne Schofield still trades in antique jewellery today.

Leo later renovated one of Queen Street Woollahra’s landmark houses, St Kevin’s, an Arts and Crafts style house to die for on the Queen Street strip.  He filled it with fabulous examples of antique furniture designed to suit this ‘modern’ style. His all stainless steel kitchen was way ahead of its time and would have had current celebrity chef Mat Moran salivating.

Leo Schofield and Anne were true leading lights and very active in ensuring that the heritage of the place became valued, and appreciated. They were both also involved in all the fabulous Queen Street Fairs that promoted local businesses, which started in 1971. He was president of the Queen Street and West Woollahra Association for a time.

Over 200 stalls lined the street between Oxford Street and Ocean Street annually for years in a festive atmosphere that was very much enjoyed; that is until the locals got tired of the increasing number of people who arrived from other parts of Sydney creating mayhem and spoiling it for everyone else. They just suddenly ended its glory days and council supported run, which left many people sad as it had all been such fun.

The Bay Tree kitchen shop was one of its most delightful additions in 1969. It was sited first off the main drag in the quaintest corner shop in town, later outgrowing that space and being moved up to Queen Street into a space in Anne Schofield’s fabulous Bond Store by current owner Susie Louden.

When I was living on the north shore of Sydney, when my children were in their formative years,  if I wanted anything for my kitchen I always headed over to Woollahra to the Bay Tree as it was the first to stock Pillivuyt, Magimix, Le Creuset and Apilco in Australia, as well as the first to bring Maldon sea salt in as well.

This week I revisited Woollahra again for the first time in a few years and headed straight to the Bay Tree. Sharing a passionate love of food with Susie I called in to see her and discovered that the ‘rage’ fashionable kitchen purchase items of the moment are crocheted milk jug covers, just like my grandmother made, coming complete with coloured beads around the side to weight them down.

The second hottest item according to Susie is aprons. Domesticity its seems having been reborn. I was reminded that amazingly everything old does eventually become new again.

After saying Hi to Susie I headed off down Queen Street. WOW, it had changed all over again. I found myself among a superior frock fest and was nearly run down by hoards of so-called yummy mummies. They were all dressed up to the nines and passionately pushing high-performance perambulators.

It was indeed worrying to observe so many of them on the phone, completely ignoring their stylishly dressed offspring, who were yelling their lungs out to be noticed in a street where they must now compete for their mother’s attention with celebrity dress designers. Good heavens I thought and was immediately thankful that I didn’t have to contend with texts and phone calls myself when I had my three little sons under five.

For over four decades the antiques dealers had been a force to be reckoned with on Queen Street at least until Bill Bradshaw died in 2009 and Martyn Cook left in 2010. The few left now include Anne Schofield Antiques, Michael Greene Antique Jewellery and Ian and Belinda Perryman and their beautiful antique rugs and textiles. That’s not surprising, as they both work well with costume.

Despite all the fashionable folly happening in the rest of the street there are only a few of the old timers left, like the local newsagent and chemist, who have not yet ‘upgraded’.

A few of the fabulous food shops at Woollahra continue to dominate and these days include Simon Johnson, providore of fine food, who inhabits the now London based Appley Hoare’s old and wonderful premises.

However it is Victor Churchill’s butcher store that surely must take the cake for the most stunning conversion into the coolest butcher shop in Australia (no pun intended). Gone was the sawdust from the floor that caught the blood from the freshly cut meat for my families Sunday lamb roast. WOW certainly wasn’t enough to say as I peered through its all new heritage style window.

Established in 1876 this amazing purveyor of premium quality meat supplies both Sydney and Melbourne’s finest restaurants, including Jacques Raymond, Vue De Monde, Cutler & Co, Movida, Rockpool Bar and Grill, Flower Drum, Grossi Florentino, The Stokehouse and Taxi Dining Room with some of the finest meat yet available, and now they offer the same selection to everyone.

I was pleased to know that my favourite Australian Chef extraordinaire Matt Moran has recently taken over the beautifully located Chiswick Gardens restaurant sited in a glorious garden on Ocean Street. It earned its stripes previously as Pruniers when owned by stylish Greek food and entertainment guru Tony Geminis from 1971. Tony did a great deal to confirm its reputation as a namesake of the famous and enduring Parisian establishment he named it after. This house and garden had been acquired in 1938 for use as a public park. The main house was demolished at this time, while the stables were converted into a kiosk and caretaker’s residence that eventually evolved into the restaurant premises it is today.

Then there is my own families favourite, the Bistro Moncur sited in the Woollahra Hotel. It was founded by another of Sydney’s iconic chefs Damien Pignolet. His delightful space with its black and white wall mural has now become a very famous eating establishment.

It was great to see our families favourite dishes the double baked French Onion souffle, and the brilliant Grilled Sirloin Cafe de Paris are still on the menu.

When Pignolet added his fabulous restaurant into the art deco styled favourite Woollahra Hotel watering hole he wisely retained the ‘back bar’ as it was, the sort of place you would find an Aussie wearing his dark blue Bonds singlet, shorts and boots grabbing a beer on his way home from a hard day at the coal face. However today its reputation is posh, at least when compared to one of Woollahra’s oldest watering holes, the sport oriented Phoenix Hotel, which is further along Moncur Street. It still resists change and doesn’t have a website for us to promote, but like the suburb, has risen many times from the ashes to cater for Woollahra’s always changing crowd.

The relaxed atmosphere, the charm of village shopping, the home of up to the minute style leaders such as iconic Australian based South African born favourite Collette Dinnigan ensure it remains fabulous. Her fashionable frocks (amazing lace dresses; beautiful bridal gowns; lingerie and diffusion collections) complement the cool architectural style of Martyn Cook’s former elegant antiques emporium. With the door left open these days to make it more accessible.

The friendly service, the relaxed atmosphere, the excellent French food and its leafy loveliness still makes Woollahra not only the style suburb of Sydney, but also a special place to visit. It’s shabby to chic conversion is certainly now seemingly complete.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012



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