Saved from demolition in the 1980s, Tusculum represents a highpoint in Regency architectural design in Australia. It is one of only three houses designed by the fashionable colonial architect, John Verge (1782-1861) to have survived in the Potts Point area - along with Rockwall and Elizabeth Bay House.
In the early 19th century Sydney’s expanding population and distinct lack of social and physical distance between the classes led the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Ralph Darling to seek out higher ground to better serve the social aspirations of the emerging merchant class. The elevated position of Woolloomooloo Hill, with views towards the bay and proximity to the city, were recognised by Darling (who held office between 1825 and 1831) as a fine place for Sydney’s professional elite to be ensconced.
Darling’s agreement to the creation of the new neighbourhood was exclusive and required houses be expensive and their gardens a thing of great size and beauty. From 1828 Darling granted allotments of land on the condition that all plans met set criteria. These included that the house be worth more than £1000, face the city and that architectural designs be submitted for approval by the Governor himself.
Alexander Brodie Spark was a free settler who applied for land on Woolloomooloo Hill. An educated Scottish merchant with business acumen, A.B. Spark quickly rose in rank and riches within the colony. At a time when his import and shipping business was at its most buoyant A.B. Spark wrote of building a house in a letter to the Colonial Secretary, Alexander McLeay, dated 1 January 1827:
Being desirous of procuring a small building allotment in the vicinity of Sydney, and understanding that there is a spot of disposable land to the east of Woolloomooloo Bay…1
Spark was eventually granted land on Woolloomooloo Hill in September 1828, at which time he had already acquired a number of land allotments including along the Cooks River where John Verge would also design Tempe, his favoured residence. Although now financially burdensome, the merchant pressed ahead with his nine acres of premium land at Woolloomooloo Hill and employed Sydney’s most sought after architect to draw-up plans and oversee Tusculum’s construction. The build itself was a protracted one, mostly due to straining purse-strings, but in 1831 work was underway and proceeded intermittently until it was completed to a liveable standard in 1835.
There is some suggestion that Spark never intended to live at Tusculum as he soon vacated the property, leasing it to William Grant Broughton (1788-1853), Australia’s first bishop. Shortages in the housing market obliged the bishop to take up the offer but not without bemoaning the missing water pump and lack of a proper pantry.2 The bishop’s rent was adjusted to cover additional work on the house and in 1836 Bishop Broughton moved in. John Verge was tasked to oversee modifications to the building, one of which was to expand several rooms by building out onto the verandah.
The grounds were greatly enhanced under Bishop Broughton’s charge and developed into a garden appropriate of the 19th century. However, during the nationwide depression of the 1840s A.B. Spark was forced to sell Tusculum in 1841 and the following year the property was subdivided for the first time. Still a tenant at Tusculum, Bishop Broughton wrote to a friend about losing his garden in the break-up of land:
It is the more tiresome as we are just now beginning to enjoy the fruit of the labour which I have been for five years bestowing upon my garden…a source of enjoyment and amusement.3
Towards the end of the 1840s Tusculum was put up for auction. In a newspaper notice, dated 6 September 1848, the description of the house and property reads as follows:
"The house, which is built of stone, occupies a nearly central position in the land which belongs to it, and is surrounded by garden, lawn, and shrubbery. The views on all sides are truly beautiful, and the neighbourhood is unquestionably most desirable. The house has verandah, and entering on the ground-floor is good hall, out of which opens the drawing-room and the dining room, each measuring about 26 feet by 18, and communicating by large folding doors, on the same floor is also study, store-room, butler's pantry, and servants' room. On the second floor are four good bed rooms, besides dressing room; below is the kitchen, also servants' room and cellarage. The coach house and stables are substantially built, the latter having three stalls, and the former servants’ room attached, and loft over all.
Mr. Mort feels that any comment upon a property so well known as the above would be a mere waste of words, he would simply point out to intending purchasers that the opportunity for purchasing such an estate is of very rare occurrence, and as it will be sold to the highest bidder, the chance should not be lost. The three acres of land, upon which the property stands, will alone give back to the purchaser in a few years time double his purchase money, for it must be remembered that the most active business portions of the city are rapidly taking in the whole of this neighbourhood. The present rental of the property is £300 per annum, and the Lord Bishop of Sydney holds his tenancy until the 8th February next."4
The beneficiary of the sale was the emancipist William Long (1797-1876) who moved into Tusculum in 1852 with his wife, three daughters and son, bringing an end to the Bishop Broughton’s 16 year affiliation with the house. Throughout the 1850s William Long made a number of enhancements to the structure and façade, including modernising the shingled roof with slate tiles, upgrading the windows and chimneypieces and extending the stables and the house on the south east corner. The Doric colonnades were replaced with Ionic versions of cast iron and wood and extended to include both floors. In an effort to embellish the house moulded stonework was ordered from Italy and added to several rooms.
Following William Long’s death in 1876, his son, William Alexander Long (1839-1915) inherited the title. W.A. Long was an elected member of the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales from 1875-1880, but his business dealings soon soured and the house was subsequently let to a number of approved citizens including the Mayor of Sydney, W.P Manning (1845-1915).
Eventually the house was auctioned and the land further subdivided and sold off in allotments. New streets were created that changed the appearance of the property with this drastically reduced curtilage. Where Tusculum had once sat comfortably within its generous acreage, it was now confined by encroaching residential development.
As Sydney moved into the 20th century, Tusculum and the surrounding land passed though many hands. Between 1928 – 1939 Tusculum was leased as a private hospital and during the Second World War, momentarily served as a base for the American Red Cross.5 In order to accommodate the unique needs of an infirmary, changes to the layout were undertaken including the addition of an operating theatre and sterilising room, while an air-raid shelter was also added to the basement – once the domain of Tusculum’s domestic kitchen staff.
A long period of neglect followed that led to both human interference and natural infestation of the building. Facing serious decay and demolition, in 1983 under the Heritage Act, the NSW Government took control of the property in response to growing recognition of the importance of Verge’s surviving buildings.
The Royal Australian Institute of Architects (RAIA) undertook the extensive conservation work under the guidance of heritage experts Clive Lucas & Partners. Combined with specialist research provided by the Historic Houses Trust, Tusculum’s integrity as a grand colonial villa was again renewed.
The Australian Institute of Architects (formerly RAIA) are Tusculum’s current occupants and carried out further renovations to the property between 2011 and 2013 in response to ongoing deterioration of fabric caused by damp. The property is extensively used for professional, business and public events.
- Quoted in Abbott, Graham J and Little, Geoffrey, The respectable Sydney merchant, A. B. Spark of Tempe. Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1976, p38.
- Shaw, G. P. (George Peter) Patriarch and patriot: William Grant Broughton 1788-1853, colonial statesman and ecclesiastic. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic, 1978, p113.
- Ibid G. P. Shaw, p.142.
- The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sep 1848
- Kass, Terry. The history of 'Tusculum', 1-3 Manning Street, Potts Point, a report for the Heritage Council of New South Wales, under the terms of a contract dated 4 July 1983, p27.
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