If these walls could talk: Rose Seidler House

… they’d tell us intriguing things about those who have lived in our places.

Curator Joanna Nicholas steps inside Rose Seidler House to share some little-known, and often overlooked, stories.

If only these walls could talk. We know so much about the architect, the late, great Harry Seidler, who designed the now-acclaimed Rose Seidler House but comparatively little about the people who commissioned it, his parents, Max and Rose. There is little tangible evidence left of them in the house and few stories survive about how they lived in it.

 

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Black and white photo of dining room table and chairs with window and kitchen in background.
Dining room at Rose Seidler House, Marcell Seidler, 1951. Courtesy Penelope Seidler

Rose Seidler, matriarch

Rosa, or Rose, Schwarz married Max Seidler in Vienna in 1918. The couple moved to Australia via London after World War II, with Harry eventually joining them in September 1948, charged with designing a house for them, his first commission. Rose had managed the redecoration of her apartment in Vienna, working with an architect, and was ambitious and interested in the arts. Harry recalled fondly ‘her fastidiousness, and absolutely down-to-the-last-minute detail of perfection’1. She held fairly strong views of the house her son built for her at Wahroonga, apparently objecting to the linen cupboard being installed in the bedroom and negotiating the position of a desk and built-in radio.

Harry had brought with him boxes of the very latest furniture from New York for his parents to use. When they moved into the house in late 1950, Rose was prompted to auction her beloved Viennese dining room suite, which Harry considered the very antithesis of modern furniture. Although Harry had also bought cutlery and crockery by American designer Russel Wright for his parents, Rose refused to let go of her cherished silver cutlery and a Rosenthal tea service, and insisted Harry design purpose-built kitchen drawers for the former and a traymobile for the latter.

Penelope Seidler, Rose’s daughter-in-law, poignantly recollects that after Rose died in January 1967, the year her own house in Killara was completed, she and Harry accommodated Rose’s silver cutlery in their own kitchen by converting a cupboard under the oven into four drawers

Black and white photo of couple in street setting.
Rose and Harry Seidler (arm-in-arm) at Cortina d’Ampezzo, photographer unknown, 1936. Courtesy Penelope Seidler
Items of crockery and cutlery laid out on cloth background.
Rose Seidler’s cutlery and crockery at the Harry & Penelope Seidler House, Killara, 2014. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums
Two women looking into glass covered cutlery drawers.
Penelope Seidler showing curator Joanna Nicholas the cutlery service that belonged to Rose Seidler, 2014. The service is now housed in the Harry & Penelope Seidler House in Killara. Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

‘Well that’s the one thing that Viennese of course take great pride in, is knives, forks, cutlery … and when I came for dinner she knew that I would prefer to eat with those (Wright) implements rather than her beloved 19th century European design. But she of course loved it – and we inherited that cutlery. We love using it now!2

The hostess

Rose enjoyed living at Rose Seidler House. She was a wonderful cook, an enthusiastic gardener, and hosted countless streams of visitors, taking care to arrange homegrown flowers – such as dahlias, belladonna lilies, roses and gladioli – in the house. Her kitchen, at the time thought to be one of Australia’s best equipped, had all the ‘mod cons’. We can only imagine the delicacies Rose cooked using the tomatoes, parsley, radishes, kohlrabi and corn she grew in her own large vegetable garden.3 Rose and Harry were devoted to each other and he visited every weekend. Up until his marriage to Penelope in 1958, Rose sent Harry home with packages of food for the week ahead, Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel being particular favourites.4

Harry acknowledged that his parents ‘both lived [at Rose Seidler House] very happily for 25 years’.5 When Rose died in 1967, Max moved into a retirement village, bringing to an end the site’s most significant period of occupancy.

Group seated around dining table in front of kitchen area.
Seidler and Evatt Boxing Day lunch, Marjorie Evatt, 1959 (left to right: Rose Seidler, Marjorie Evatt, Clive R Evatt, Max Seidler, Penelope Seidler and Harry Seidler). Courtesy and © Penelope Seidler

Notes

  • 1. Harry Seidler, interview with P Vivian, ‘Harry Seidler: true values and deep-seated convictions’, unpublished thesis, Perth, 1987, quoted in Peter Emmett, Rose Seidler House Conservation Plan, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney, 1989, p25.
  • 2. Harry Seidler, oral history transcript of interview with Siobhan McHugh, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney, 11 October 2003, p33.
  • 3. Colleen Morris and Geoffrey Britton, Rose Seidler House Garden Conservation Plan, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Sydney, 2001, p19.
  • 4. Penelope Seidler, interview with Joanna Nicholas, Killara, July 2014.
  • 5. McHugh, ibid, p32.

About the Author

Joanna Nicholas, Curator, Sydney Living Museums.
Joanna Nicholas
Curator
House Museums Portfolio
Joanna is Curator in the House Museums Portfolio - responsible for Vaucluse, Elizabeth Bay and Rose Seidler Houses. She is...
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This article originally appeared in Unlocked: The Sydney Living Museums Gazette, our quarterly Members’ magazine.

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