5 Wallaringa Ave, Neutral Bay
‘Nutcote’ was the home of artist and children’s author May Gibbs, from 1925 until her death in 1969.
During her time there she produced hundreds of comic strips featuring her already popular and iconic Gumnut characters, Bib and Bub, and wrote several other children’s books.
The land had been part of the Spain family property, whose house ‘Wallaringa’ was one of the original villas along the Neutral Bay foreshore. Gibbs’ choice of architect, BJ Waterhouse, is not surprising. He had completed many fashionable homes in the Neutral Bay / Shell Cove area. However, the style settled upon by Gibbs and Waterhouse was very different. ‘Nutcote’ is an example of a compact villa in the Mediterranean style and, as such, was a departure from the architect's typical Arts and Crafts English Revival inspired designs. Given Gibbs’ own English ancestry, one might think that a house that reflected the traditions of ‘home’ would have been an obvious choice. Indeed a preliminary sketch by Waterhouse in 1923 shows a hybrid type of dwelling, one with the high pitched roof of an English-inspired home but including the triple arched loggia that was kept as part of the final design, and that so readily gives the Nutcote a Mediterranean aesthetic. The completed house was finished with the rough rendering of an Italian or Spanish villa.
‘Nutcote’ was a small dwelling by the standards of those Waterhouse was used to designing. But it served the modest needs of Gibbs and her husband OJ Kelly well. With no children Gibbs requested just two compact bedrooms, a studio, living room and dining room. The kitchen was tiny, reflecting May’s lack of interest in matters culinary. Although never wealthy, May’s desire to devote as much time as possible to her art meant that she did employ domestic help - a house-keeper who cleaned and cooked but most certainly did not ‘live-in’ as others often did.
The balcony with its loggia gave wonderful views of Neutral Bay and, from the late 1920s, the rising form of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as it emerged behind Kirribilli. Though the grounds extended down to the foreshore, it seems that May spent most of her time in the ‘long, long’ manicured garden that continued back up to the garage where she parked her Dodge sedan, the vehicle that took her to the Blue Mountains for trips to study the bush that was central to her art and writing.
May Gibbs bequeathed her house to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF. Unable to retain real property UNICEF then auctioned the house. It was bought by a development company and leased until 1987. During the 1980s plans were drawn up to either demolish the house and/or subdivide the property. Growing awareness of the significance of Gibbs contribution to Australian culture, led to an attempt to protect the house and grounds with an Interim Conservation Order (ICO). The May Gibbs Foundation was established at this time to co-ordinate the campaign to save ‘Nutcote’.
The owners challenged the ICO. A commission of inquiry and the New South Wales Heritage Council approved limited development of the site. North Sydney Council, however, refused development consent and decided to resume, or compulsorily buy, the site for use as a museum commemorating the work of May Gibbs.
However, in the absence of sufficient funding for resumption, ‘Nutcote’ was placed on the market with development approval. Certain of the site’s heritage significance and the probability that this would be compromised if sold to a developer, North Sydney Council then resolved to buy ‘Nutcote’ for $2.86 million. The sale was finalised in March 1990. As a result 'Nutcote' did not join the long list of North Sydney’s lost houses.
When attempts to secure public and private assistance to cover the cost of acquisition were unsuccessful, Council settled upon perpetual ownership of the property – leasing it to the newly formed Nutcote Trust to be run as a museum. Only then were funds for restoration forthcoming from Federal and State bodies.
Nutcote has operated as a house museum commemorating the life and work of May Gibbs since 1994.