William Hardy Wilson’s Neutral Bay houses

There are at least five buildings in North Sydney associated with William Hardy Wilson and/or his partner Stacey Arthur Neave.

The earliest is the cottage, ‘Walden’, built for Miss Mary Davey (sometimes spelled Davy) at the corner of Wycombe and Kurraba Road, formerly 73 Kurraba Road and now 23a Wycombe Road.

In the late 19th century the Davey family owned ‘Clee Villa’, built in 1832, and leased the waterfront estate surrounding it from the Cooper family. The land was progressively subdivided and developed but much of it remained with the Davey family. As a result, Mary, her sisters and brother William came to own many houses in Neutral Bay. Such was this property portfolio by 1915 that Mary was able to lend one of her houses, ‘Rathmore’ at 15 Wycombe Road, to the Red Cross as a convalescent home for officers returned from the Great War.

Mary was the daughter of Abraham and Jane Davey, English Quakers who migrated to Sydney in the 1830s. Although it seems she never lived in ‘Walden’, Mary’s choice of house name almost certainly refers to Saffron Walden, the Davey family’s home town in Essex which had long been a centre for Quakers. As was often the case, the immigrant’s memory of one place was kept alive in another.

It would also seem that family connections gave Stacey Arthur Neave his first chance to realise the architectural ideas he absorbed during the recent European and American tours with Wilson. For Mary Davey was Arthur’s aunt. It is the name Neave, rather than Wilson, that appears as the architect on the Building Application for ‘Walden’. Indeed, that 1910 document predates William’s return to architectural practice in Australia. Nonetheless, Wilson may well have had an influence on the original design.

In any case ‘Walden’ was possibly the first Georgian Revival house to appear in Neutral Bay, a suburb given over almost entirely to the still fashionable English Revival styles against which this revived classicism reacted. Neave’s design must have clearly evoked the architecture of an earlier time, still manifest locally in waterfront bungalows such as ‘Craignathan’.

With her sister Jane, Mary also owned nearby ‘Wavertree’, at No.65 Kurraba Road, a house of uncertain style built in 1885 by the Daveys and rented out to merchant and later insurance manager, Alexander McKnight. Here transplanted names again evidenced the strong links between the centre and periphery of Empire; for Wavertree was the area of Liverpool from where McKnight hailed.

At some point around 1914, ‘Wavertree’ was transformed into a very different house. No single document showing the demolition of one house and the construction of another survives in Council archives. A Building Application in 1914 refers only to the addition of ‘two rooms in brick’. But Council Rate and Vaulation Books show ownership passing from Miss Davey to Stacey Arthur Neave and the Improved Capital Value jumping substantially from £1210 to £2500 suggesting the substantial transformation, if not complete replacement, of ‘Wavertree’ by the 1920s. The fate of old ‘Wavertree’ is interesting given William Hardy Wilson’s later views on the need to preserve built heritage.

The new house was a large Georgian Revival structure with shuttered windows and a four columned classical portico, or sheltered entrance, similar to those early Australian house entrances sketched by Wilson. Neave remained the owner, but not the occupant, for many years.

In 1924, the local revival of the Georgian form continued a little further along Kurraba Road at No.75, a Clee Villa estate lot which Stacey’s brother Bevan Walter Neave had owned for many years. The presence of the Davey family was a clearly significant impetus for Neave and Wilson’s work in Neutral Bay. Though smaller than ‘Wavertree’, Bevan’s house was still a substantial two-storey dwelling of perfect symmetry with shuttered windows and a classical portico which featured pilasters rather than free-standing columns.

That year Wilson and Neave, with partner John Berry who joined their practice in 1920, designed another house nearby at 1 Honda Avenue, Neutral Bay. Built for then Assistant Professor Henry Tasman Lovell, who pioneered the teaching of psychology at the University of Sydney, the house typified the restraint that Neo-Georgians equated with taste. There was no columned portico. The only decorative elements were a fanlight motif in relief above the entrance and ‘string coursing’ – a single strip of rendered brick distinguishing upper and lower storeys. Set back on a deep low block, it was designed without lower floor windows flanking the door – possibly because of the location of groundfloor fireplaces. The original elevation drawing showed two small trees balancing the entrance in place of windows.

In 1927 Stacey Neave and John Berry successfully applied their Georgian aesthetic to the apartment building, 'Alcombe'. Their two storey block, at 14 Harrison Street, Neutral Bay, sat as an elegant counterpoint to the English Revival / Federation era bungalows and villas that lined that street and had already defined the character of the area. Though never dominant as a local style, the Georgian-Revival and the related Mediterranean styles were, by then, synonymous with taste and refinement.