We live on the Cook’s River, about 10 kms south of the Sydney CBD, and a couple of kilometres upstream of Botany Bay. A 15 minute run downriver from our place brings you to the point where the 6 roaring lanes of the Princes Highway cross the stream. On the far side, a clump of trees climb a sandstone abutment, below which sits ‘Tempe’ – a house of elegant, Italianate proportion, facing the river, as it has since its construction in 1836.
It’s actually one of the oldest houses in Sydney. A sandstone villa built for Alexander Brodie Sparks – the Brad Cooper of his time – who also owned Tusculum House, a fine mansion which still stands in Potts Point and now houses the Australian Institute of Architects. Tempe House was designed by architect John Verge who also created Elizabeth Bay House for Alexander MacLeay, Camden Park for the Macarthurs, and even ‘Waitangi’, prefabricated in Sydney and shipped to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand to serve as the home of the first British Resident, James Busby. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed outside that particular Verge creation in 1840.
While Verge’s other houses remain the stuff of Historic Trust canapes and cocktails conviviality, Tempe House has fallen on hard times.
Flogged to Caroline Chisholm in 1862 for use as a girl’s school, she in turn willed it to the Catholic Church who, in 1881, turned into a Home for Wayward Girls. For many years it housed Magadalenes condemned to do commercial laundry as their unlikely, repent-at-leisure penance for pre-marital sex, before the Vincetian Fathers set it up as a Retreat House. Qantas – whose major Australian operations base lies but a kilometre away at Sydney Airport – bought it to use as a Training Centre in 1983, but that never happened.
Currently it sits forlorn and scruffy between highway and developer’s heaven. The new Wolli Creek Cityrail interchange station is immediately to its west while a massive new Meritonopolis satellite city is rising on its southern boundary.
Scarily, its future appears to be cast as the Ye Olde Town Square focal point of this new – you guessed it – dynamic development, which appears to promise all the authenticity of a Lucy Turnbull built environment cleansing scheme.
I try to look on the bright side: it will be saved, it will Live On. But it won’t really. It’s just going to be wedding reception hire facadism. You’d almost like to see the house sneak away one night and re-establish itself somewhere on a ridge in the Southern Highlands and live happily ever after. But real estate, notoriously, lacks that gypsy spirit.
I’ll miss taking a mid-run breather on the red gum crest above the house and wandering on the scrubby lawn, imagining what was. I think I’m getting old…..