1972–76 Clive Lucas, heritage architect
Elizabeth Bay House, one of the most sophisticated Australian architectural achievements of the 1830s, tells a very Sydney story of property and position.
With commanding views over Sydney Harbour, it gleams like a Grecian temple, and not by accident. The house was designed by architect and builder John Verge as a Greek Revival villa.
It was built for Alexander Macleay, a Scottish-born civil servant and prominent entomologist who arrived in Sydney from London in 1826 with one of the world’s largest private collections of insects. Macleay was soon (and controversially) granted 54 acres (22 hectares) overlooking Elizabeth Bay, and set about ‘civilising’ the estate’s rocky slopes, creating an internationally admired private botanic garden with exotic fruit trees and native orchid woodland walks, grottoes, and ponds – some of which still survive in the surrounding streets.
Constructed of Sydney sandstone on two unconnected cellar wings, the house reflected Macleay’s aspirations with fine proportions, a sweeping staircase and lavish furnishings. Its finely moulded architraves and joinery are Australian cedar, floors throughout are blackbutt, while the cantilevered mudstone staircase is finished with bronzed cast-iron balusters. The square entry vestibule preludes the soaring oval saloon, around which the cantilevered staircase rises to a gallery beneath the dome.
With the colony (and Macleay) plunged into financial chaos from 1840, the large estate was gradually subdivided from 1841 through to 1927, forming the foundations of Elizabeth Bay as a suburb.
Today, Elizabeth Bay House is conserved and curated by Sydney Living Museums, and has a pre-eminent place on Sydney’s heritage map. This year’s Sydney Open experience includes rare public access to the portico and servants’ rooms, and a glimpse into the roof space.
Access parts of this magnificent historic house rarely seen by the public. After an introduction in its famous saloon, climb the cantilevered staircase and step out onto the portico for sweeping views over Elizabeth Bay to Sydney Heads. Imagine the original 54-acre estate, with its private botanic garden, grottoes and meandering woodland walks. See inside servants’ rooms and peek into the roof spaces – a rare treat for public visitors.
Sydney Living Museums expert staff
This tour has a capacity of 12 people per session.
- Arrive 20 minutes before your tour start time, as latecomers cannot join the tour
- Wear comfortable, enclosed non-slip shoes
- Only bring essential items, as storage is limited
- Be prepared for some confined spaces and climbing narrow, steep stairs
- Be aged 18 years or older, with a good fitness level
- Due to the heritage nature of the site, some surfaces around the site are uneven
There will be no refunds if you miss your tour.
Sydney Living Museums takes no responsibility for items lost or stolen.
Elizabeth Bay House’s involvement in Sydney Open has been made possible by Sydney Living Museums.