Sir John Sulman (1849-1934)

John Sulman was one of several British-trained architects who emigrated to Sydney in the 1880s and became highly influential in architecture and planning.

In 1914 Sulman moved to ‘Burrangong’ at 11 Warung Street, McMahons Point – a dwelling so-named by a previous resident after a rural district in New South Wales. ‘Burrangong’ was a large late-Victorian Italianate house with excellent views of the harbour and city. Sulman’s previous self-designed family home had been farther north up the train line at Turramurra. With its wall-hung shingles and half-timbered gables, ‘Ingleholme’ reflected a very different English Revival aesthetic to ‘Burrangong’. In this Sulman shared a heritage with fellow immigrant architects Walter Liberty Vernon and Edward Jeaffreson Jackson. Indeed daughter Florence Sulman became active in the New South Wales Arts and Crafts Society. Nonethless, John Sulman would live at his 'continental' harbour-side house with his wife Annie until his death in 1934. The choice may have reflected his many professional commitments and the consequent need to be close to the city. Sulman immediately added a garage to 'Burrangong' – possibly to house the car that would take him to his newly-acquired Blue Mountains retreat far to the west of the city.

When he moved to North Sydney, Sulman was already a high profile architect and planning theorist. In 1890 he had been considered for the job of Government Architect, a position that he declined and that went to Vernon. An influential lecture delivered that year, ‘The Laying out of Towns’, made the case for a ‘spiderweb’ street layout rather than the standard classically-inspired chessboard grid. It anticipated the later concerns of planners and architects by emphasizing the needs for picturesque variation and beauty in town design. A series of articles on ‘The Improvement of Sydney’ appeared in the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1907. Here Sulman advocated a harbour tunnel rather than a bridge but conceded that a bridge may better cater for diverse transport needs. He discussed the acquisition of Balls Head – recently transferred to the Government from the privately-owned Berry Estate – for the North Shore Bridge access and for wharfage.

Sulman, then, was familiar with North Sydney and the issues of harbour transport when he moved to ‘Burrangong’. Interestingly, in 1916, he appears to have reversed his opinion of Balls Head when he wrote of the need to counter its ‘uglification’ – made imminent by the recent lease of industrial foreshore there – by declaring it a public reserve (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 July 1916). He was almost certainly in contact with his former apprentice Donald Esplin who had lived in nearby Wollstonecraft since 1907 and was, by 1914, enjoying a flourishing local architectural business. Donald and son Thomas worked on the Sulman house in 1936.

Sulman was elected President of the New South Wales Town Planning Association in 1913. He advised on the controversial design of the new capital Canberra in 1915 and, again, as chairman of the Federal Capital Advisory Committee between 1921 and 1924.

Sulman was knighted in 1924. In 1930 he established an award for architectural merit in New South Wales. The ‘Sir John Sulman Medal’ has been awarded annually since 1932. It was won in 1960 by North Sydney architect Bryce Mortlock, and in 1981, 1983 and 1991 by Harry Seidler and Associates.

Sir John Sulman died in North Sydney in 1934.