Our house: histories of Australian homes
2 - Abbeyleix Flats
Victoria Parade, Manly, New South Wales
Abbeyleix Flats, 1997
'Flats are growing at King's Cross at the rate of 2000 per year. There are still people who will regard these figures gloomily. They associate flats with open-air cafes, night-life, wine-drinking, and other curious concepts of 'Continental' depravity.To the sociologist, the spread of flat life is of extraordinary importance.It indicates an escape from the servitude of suburbia. At an inquest in London last week, a doctor said that a woman who had killed herself was suffering from "suburban neurosis" - a gloomy sense of isolation and apathy. It is a grave social problem', he said.'The Danger of "Suburban Neurosis', Daily Telegraph, June 1938.
Manly is one of Australia's oldest and most famed public 'watering places' and pleasure grounds. Resolutely promoted by developers, civic worthies, ferry companies and real estate agents, the British-style resort was to figure prominently in the rise of beach culture from the second half of the nineteenth century until the 1920s when the myth of the beach fully emerged. As the Manly and Port Jackson Steamship Company's popular slogan trumpeted, the place was 'Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care'. Manly residents, like the throngs of tourists, were drawn by the appeal of sun, sand, surf and sea. Such attractions were heightened after World War I following the liberalisation of local bathing by-laws in 1903 and the introduction of surfboard riding in 1915.
A development after the Great War in domestic architecture added a further enticement as it did in other fashionable seaside locales - flats. Offering a chic and casual lifestyle for singles, young couples and retirees, a huge wave of flat (and bungalow) development washed across the municipality, burying the Victorian village under a 1920s red and brown brick suburb. During that decade, around 400 flats were built in Manly. Of all new flat construction in Sydney municipalities, Manly's was the sixth highest in this period. A similar number were to be built in the following decade.
Some observers loathed flats: they were associated with a degenerate Europe and with brutish Germans. Debates about the social advantages and disadvantages of living in flats regularly flared in the first half of the twentieth century. CEW Bean, the official war historian during World War I, contended passionately in his 1918 book In your hands Australians that it was 'immensely, overpoweringly important to the Australian nation that its city folk should live in their own houses around the towns, and that every house should have its garden ...We want, for all we are worth, the individuality and the variety of our home and family life'.
By the early 1930s, conservative locals in Manly were campaigning to have a ban placed on flat building; this had radically altered the built environment, brought a new crowd of people to the area and increased congestion. But many people liked flats. So too did developers, who were particularly attracted to three-storey apartments. Fire safety regulations allowed walk-up flats to a maximum of three floors; anything over this height required the installation of lifts. This money-saving restriction most probably influenced the decision to build 'Abbeyleix'.
Abbeyleix Flats entrance in 1997.
Situated a few hundred metres to the east of the Manly Ferry Wharf and facing Manly Cove, Abbeyleix is, as it was in the 1920s, close to shops, theatres and outdoor recreational facilities. In 1931 the old cargo wharf was converted into an amusement pier which attracted a large number of tourists. A dressing pavilion was built at the baths to accommodate 4000 bathers. These amenities and the close proximity to ferry transport to the city contributed to the locality's popularity as a residential area.
Construction of the Abbeyleix Flats began in 1924 for Charles George Warburton and Eliot Warburton. They remained in the Warburton family's ownership until 1952 when they were sold to Ada Gatward as an investment. Six years later Gatward transferred the title to Abbeyleix Pty Ltd, a share holding company. The share holders included Gatward and a number of Sydney solicitors and chartered accountants.
The three-storey, red-terracotta tile roofed building consists of six two-bedroom apartments, two on each level. The units are serviced by a central stair with access from Victoria Parade. The building's facade has changed little save for the closure of balconies with bay windows facing Victoria Parade. There is a brick infill of a semi-circular arch above the windows on the lower floor units. (The basketweave pattern of the infill has rated a mention in a heritage assessment.)
The two lower units were enclosed prior to 1959 while the top floor bays were filled during the early 1970s. An external laundry was originally built at the rear of unit two to service all apartments. This was incorporated into Gatward's unit two in the 1950s, when a new communal laundry was built at the eastern rear of the building. At the same time, and reflecting the impact of the motor car on street parking in the area, Gatward had a double garage built for herself. With the exception of unit two and hinting at the atomisation of post-industrial life, all units now have laundry facilities incorporated into bathrooms.
Internal stairwell, Abbeyleix.
Another significant modification undertaken in the 1950s entailed converting the building from gas supply to electricity. The original gas fittings are still in place in unit six. Electrification also led to the functional demise of the art deco fireplaces, none of which are in operation today. Contemporary concerns over Sydney's built heritage have curbed further major revampings. 'Heritage' interiors are now valuable and the external appearance of the building is afforded some protection from its listing in a major 1986 heritage study.
Initially, the occupants of Abbeyliex were tenants. From 1926, when the first leases appear to have been signed, until 1932, the Sands Directory lists two married women, Mrs Nicholle and Mrs Evans in units two and six respectively. Miss Dick, a 'single woman' , lived in unit one for six years from 1926. Up until 1973, only three units were owner-occupied. Today, there is a legal requirement in the company regulations that all units are occupied by the owners. This was intended to make 'Abbeyleix' exclusive. Most of the current occupants are retirees, one of whom has been a resident for 38 years.
Unit four - a plan of which is shown - was leased by Mrs O'Dea from 1926 to 1928 and again in 1931. It was not owner-occupied until 1993. This may explain why the unit has retained most of its original internal features: while maintaining the property, the landlord did not expend capital on developing it. The current occupants - Dr Nick Pearce and Helen O'Grady, a professional couple who work in Sydney - have been in residence since 1995.
This flat has two bedrooms, a lounge room and a sun room that is a converted balcony. Its original features include an ornate fibrous plaster ceiling, timber picture rails, architraves and skirting boards. The ambience of the place has also largely been preserved. On a clear day, sunlight floods the front, north-facing rooms. With 180 degree views of Manly Cove and a busy street, the bay window connects internal spaces with the outside world. Tourists can be seen leaving the ferry wharf and walking along the beach. Boats which are moored in the Cove are regularly sailed by their owners. Such pleasant distractions lift the home office which, set up in the enclosed balcony, seems 'a thousand miles from care'.
Acknowledgements and Bibliography
Photographs: Rick Mitchell.
Ashton, Paul, 'Inventing Manly', in Max Kelly (ed), Sydney: City of suburbs, University of NSW Press, Sydney 1987.
Roe, Jill, ed, Twentieth century Sydney: studies in urban and social history, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney 1980.
Spearritt, Peter, Sydney since the twenties, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1978.
Paul Ashton is lecturer in public history at the University of Technology, Sydney, and an executive member of the Professional Historians Association NSW Inc. His books include The accidental city: planning Sydney since 1788.
Suzanne Mitchell is currently studying for an MA in Applied History at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is managing editor for Nurture, a quarterly magazine for Christian-parent controlled schools.