A First Class Residence in Macquarie Street
History House, the home of the RAHS at 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney was designed in 1871 by the architect George Allen Mansfield for his uncle George Oakes, a well-known pastoralist and politician. The house was the last in a row of quality Victorian town houses to be built on the west side of Macquarie Street between Bridge Street and Bent Street. It was probably completed in 1872. Mansfield’s 1871 drawing of the front elevation of the house for George Oakes is titled ‘a first class residence in Macquarie Street’.
Mansfield is best known for his school buildings such as the Crown Street, Cleveland Street and Sussex Street schools and for major institutions such as the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Mansfield was instrumental in establishing architecture as a profession in New South Wales.
As originally built, the house was a typical Victorian upper middle class town house; a gentleman’s family residence. On the ground floor were a fine entrance hall, drawing room and dining rooms and on the first and second floors, a study, bedrooms and dressing rooms. The front verandah and balconies commanded a view over the Botanic Gardens and harbour while small balconies at the back of the house provided additional light and through ventilation. A back wing at right angles to the main house contained the service areas and servants’ quarters. A second staircase in this wing provided access to the house by doors on the half landings of the main stairs so that the servants could move about the house unobtrusively. The basement, which contained the kitchen was accessible not only from the front of the building but also from Phillip Lane at the rear.
From Club to Doctors’ Rooms
By 1879, Oakes’ house had become the premises of the Reform Club of which Oakes was a founding member. After Oakes’ death in 1881, ownership passed to his son Arthur. From 1892 until 1922, the house was used as a boarding house, as were many other such buildings in Macquarie Street. In 1922, the house was purchased by Dr George Armstrong and was used as medical practitioners consulting rooms.
Dr George Bell
In 1927, the distinguished surgeon, Dr George Bell, purchased the house and used it both as his residence and as consulting rooms. By 1952, while Dr Bell continued to use the house for consulting rooms, he and his wife no longer resided there. By 1969, when the Royal Australian Historical Society acquired the house, it was occupied by a syndicate of doctors, including Dr Bell, and was called Wickham House. It was structurally sound but many internal alterations and additions had been made to divide the large rooms into consulting rooms and offices, white painted partitions and linoleum concealed much of the beauty of the original structure.
The first History House at 8 Young Street, Sydney
In 1901 when the RAHS was founded, the Society had neither the funds nor the ambition to own a home of its own. Instead, the RAHS met in a number of different venues and was eventually provided with rooms in the Department of Education building in Bridge Street. During 1941, the Society acquired its own premises in a former wool store in Young Street. By 1957, it was apparent that the site would eventually be required for a large-scale redevelopment plan proposed by the AMP Society. After very lengthy negotiations, and when the AMP Society had eventually acquired all of the other sites in the area bounded by Phillip, Young and Bridge Streets, the RAHS resolved to move. Wickham House was available for purchase and was acquired for the Society by the AMP Society on an exchange basis for the Young Street premises.
The second History House at 133 Macquarie Street, Sydney
Restoration and construction work was carried out at Wickham House in order to make the house suitable for use by the RAHS. The back wing, formerly the service wing and servants’ quarters was demolished to make way for a lift and fire stairs and an auditorium and first floor extension was constructed. The main public rooms of the house were restored for use as reception rooms and the first and second floors were converted for use as offices, library and a museum. The Society moved in to its new home in 1970 and the house was renamed ‘History House’. Over the years necessary work has been carried out to maintain and enhance this important and now rare example of the town houses which once graced much of Macquarie Street. The external fabric has been repaired and the drawing and dining rooms, once again used as public rooms, have been redecorated and furnished in a manner appropriate to the period of the house. Original colour schemes in these rooms were discovered and restored in 1985.
Much of the beauty of the house lies in its fine timber work. The staircase, doors and door cases are made from cedar and the entrance hall is floored with a parquetry design made from a dozen different species of timber.
History House is protected by a Permanent Conservation Order issued by the Heritage Council of New South Wales, is classified by the National Trust and is listed by the Australian Heritage Commission on the Register of the National Estate.