March 24, 2011

Saving Christina Stead's House

Stead house as viewed from the harbour 

Watsons Bay Residents welcome the move by Woollahra Councillors to defer a vote on the development of an 1879 waterfront house in Watsons Bay, which was home to the world renowned novelist Christina Stead and her conservationist father David Stead, to seek expert heritage and planning advice.

Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, who lives in the United Kingdom where he plays for Fulham Football Club, bought the house at 14 Pacific St in 2009 with his wife Paloma.

At a meeting at Council Chambers on Monday March 21, Cr. Susan Wynne of the Development Control Committee proposed an independent heritage report into the site and design, which was endorsed by councillors.

During debate, Cr. Nicola Grieve raised strong concerns about the major excavation work proposed underneath the historic site. She noted that residents were concerned about the disruption from traffic and noise from such a large excavation in a small one-way street.

Deputy Mayor Peter Cavanagh said he would be voting against the plan regardless of further reports because it was a “monstrosity”.

Award-winning novelist Christina Stead spent much of her early years in the house and it inspired her most famous novel, ‘The Man Who Loved Children.’

The plans lodged by architect Nick Tobias of Tobias Partners, erase key elements of the classic 1879 two-story weatherboard house, inserting a two-story pavilion across the frontage onto Pacific Street.  

A modern glass structure planned for the harbour side of the property is discordant with the classic weatherboard nature of the original house.

The extensive excavations proposed, of some 1,000 cubic metres of rock and soil under the house and its surrounds are designed to provide a basement, a three-car garage, and a large swimming pool. You can see the designs at the Tobias Partners' website 

The proposed excavations would destroy the historic gardens established by Christina Stead’s noted conservationist father, David, who was founder of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia. Mount Stead in the Blue Mountains was named in his honour. Christina Stead’s stepmother, Dr Thistle Harris Stead also lived at the Pacific Street house. Thistle was a botanist and conservationist, who published 12 books and is best known for "Wild Flowers of Australia”  

Christina Stead has enjoyed a recent rise in sales after author Jonathan Franzen described her 70 year old novel, ‘The Man Who Loved Children’,  as a masterpiece deserving of far greater international recognition in an essay in The New York Times last year.

Patrick White described Stead as ‘a novelist of genius’ and she is honoured in the NSW Premier’s Reading Awards, which named its main fiction prize as the Christina Stead Prize.

Amongst the other losses proposed in the development at this historic residence is a Port Jackson Fig tree and Canary Island Date Palm and the surrounding historic gardens, which were established by David Stead during Christina’s adolescence. The destruction of the gardens is proposed to make way for a swimming pool.

Watson Bay Residents is calling for a more considered design for the development to preserve the considerable heritage relevance of the Stead residence. The group is lobbying for a scheme which avoids excessive excavation and one that preserves the historic gardens at the site.

"The existing beauty of the Stead House in its landscaped setting is a memorable view from Watsons Bay Wharf and Promenade and for the many visitors arriving on boats and ferries,” Watsons Bay Residents’ architectural expert Colin Still, FRAIA explains.  “The design additions as proposed visually kneecaps the base of the building’s two-story colonnade facing Watsons Bay. Futhermore the view corridor currently available from Pacific Street to the Harbour is obliterated by further additions."

In the sweep of 19 waterfront houses visible on the Cove and Pacific Street waterfront in Watsons Bay, only the Stead house and its neighbour at number 12, retain any hint of history.  

Although Woollahra Council has a Development Control Plan for Watsons Bay to maintain the fishing village streetscape, Watsons Bay Residents is concerned about the discrepancies in its application.  There are many recent examples of inconsistencies in Council heritage and planning advice, which means that redevelopment of historic waterfront properties such as the Stead House and the now demolished Villa Porto Rosa on Camp Cove, are held to less stringent guidelines than houses and cottages in the streets behind.  

Watsons Bay Residents looks forward to working with the applicant, council staff and Woollahra Councillors on an acceptable solution for the site.

Watsons Bay Residents is a local group which is passionate about preserving and enhancing the Watsons Bay and Camp Cove precinct.

“The village community of Watsons Bay and Camp Cove is arguably one of Sydney’s most historic sites. Local and international visitors comment on its exceptional architectural and natural features that embody so much of the 18th and 19th Century settlement of Sydney.”

“WBR’s position on developments in the precinct is both rational and well-informed. WBR co-operates with architects and developers to preserve the essential character of the precinct. We will, however, strenuously oppose disproportionate development that is inconsistent with Woollahra Council’s Development Control Plan for this historic precinct.” interim convenor of the group, Roger Bayliss said. 

IPeople oppossed to the development can email the Mayor of Woollahra Isabelle Shapiro and follow us on twitter @savesteadhouse 

14 Pacific Street was home to Christina Stead, her botanist father David Stead and her stepmother Dr Thistle Harris (Stead). It was also home to Christina's niece Elizabeth Stead a Sydney novelist.
According to Woollahra Council's assessment below the site is historically important. 

The subject site contains a substantially altered two storey weatherboard house originally constructed in 1879/80 for John and Elizabeth Harmer (it is unknown if they ever lived there) and was for much of its early existence a rental property named "Ontario", "Lloella", "Brighton", and "Inglebrae," names which reflected its various occupiers.
The statement of significance from the draft heritage inventory sheet states:
14 Pacific Street demonstrates a moderate degree of historical significance at a local level through its ability to describe the character and patterns of development in the area at the end of the 19th century. As the home and sometime workplace of a succession of members of the Stead family the place demonstrates a high degree of historical associational significance at a local level, namely David G. Stead, conservationist and author, Christina Stead (daughter), author and Dr Thistle Harris (wife), conservationist and botanist. ‘Boongarre’ demonstrates a high degree of representative significance at a local level as an example of a late Victorian weatherboard residence located on the harbour. Whilst the building has been significantly altered it still contributes to an understanding of the earlier character of the Watson’s Bay Conservation Area

The draft inventory sheet identifies that the house and sometime work place demonstrates a high degree of historical associational significance with the following members of the Stead family:
o    David G. Stead, (1877-1957), pioneer in the study of fisheries in Australia and conservationalist, Stead was a scientific educator and an advocate for conservation. Appointed a scientific assistant in the Fisheries Commission in 1902, stead took tireless interest in every aspect of nature and specialised in ichthyology. He published "Fishes of Australia (1906) and "Edible fishes of NSW (1908). In 1914- 15 he investigated American and European fisheries for the government and from 1915 to 1920 he was general manager of the state Trawlers Industrial Undertaking. He helped found the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia and was an active member of many other wildlife and preservation societies
o    Christina Stead (1902-1983) one of Australia's most significant female writers of the 20th century. Her most famous novel, “The Man who Loved Children” was published in 1940. Stead lived in America and Europe from 1928 to 1974 where she was highly regarded among influential literary circles, especially in America. She published 14 novels in a career spanning more than 50 years. Her last novel, “I’m Dying Laughing” was published in 1986 after her death.
o     Dr Thistle Harris (Stead) (1903-1990), botanist and conservationist, best known for her book "Wild Flowers of Australia", first published in 1938. Dr Harris, former secondary school teacher, pioneered appreciation of Australia's native flora and was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to wildlife conservation. She wrote 12 books, her last, "Trees", was published in 1980 when she was 77. After her husband's death in 1957, Dr Harris was instrumental in founding the David G. Stead Memorial Wildlife Research Foundation and establishing the Wirrimbirra Sanctuary with a field studies school at Bargo