Late in 2014 the NSW Government quietly added one of Glebe’s best known historic houses to its For Sale list of publicly owned properties.
Bidura, 357 Glebe Pt Rd, was for sale by tender; November was the deadline for bids and in February this year the identity of the new owners was disclosed.
Bidura had been sold to ACC Development, owned by Lina Jin and Yuelai Zhou, through a sequence of businesses including Gold Land Investment Corporation, based in Pyrmont. The winning tender was just over $33 million.
Coming hard on the heels of the uproar caused by the sale of publicly owned housing in Millers Point, Glebe residents were understandably concerned about the future of Bidura.
It was difficult not to feel pessimistic.
To understand why the future of Bidura matters – not just to Glebe residents, but to everyone interested in how Sydney’s past has shaped Sydney’s present, and hopefully will influence its future – we should turn to the house and the family that first called it home.
The house was designed and built more than 140 years ago by Edmund Blacket who, with his young wife Sarah, sailed from England in June 1842, directly after their marriage on May 27.
The Blackets arrived in Sydney on 4 November, after a patience-testing six-month journey that Edmund describes with humour in his diary, excerpts of which appear in the book ‘My Name is Blacket’, by Nick Vine Hall, a direct descendant.
Within three months of their arrival Blacket was making steady progress as an architect. His letters of introduction had included one to the Anglican Bishop, William Grant Broughton, and in January 1843 Blacket completed the designs of his first church, at Patrick Plains, now Singleton.
He became Diocesan Architect for the Church of England in 1847, while continuing with his private practice. During his working life Edmund Blacket designed or was associated with the design of over 80 churches, one of the most notable being St Andrews Cathedral in Sydney.
In 1849 Blacket was appointed Colonial Architect, a post he held until 1854, when he resigned to concentrate on perhaps the most important and challenging job of his career – the design of Sydney University’s first buildings.
Blacket’s powers of persuasion convinced the Building Committee that the university deserved far more ambitious designs than they had envisaged. A ‘Grand Hall’ was added to the main building and tower and it was agreed to build in Pyrmont sandstone rather than the brick originally specified.
Costs rose, critics were vocal – but in 1857 the first ceremony was held in the still unfinished Great Hall and criticism turned to praise and pride. Sydney now had a tertiary institution in the grand Gothic style of many of England’s traditional universities.
The Blackets and their four young children had moved to Glebe in 1852, and in 1857 Blacket bought the land on which he built the house we know now as Bidura.
There he lived with Sarah and their eight children – the youngest was born in 1860 – and Blacket’s practice continued designing houses, churches, banks, schools, shops and offices.
But in 1869 the life of the Blacket family changed dramatically – after a period of recurring ill-health Sarah died in that September. The following year the house he had built with the woman with whom he had travelled to the other side of the world was sold. Edmund and his children moved to Balmain.
Blacket had served on the Glebe Borough Council since it was established in 1859 – at his retirement in 1870 it was resolved ‘That this Council desire to express their deep regret at the resignation of Mr. E. T. Blacket … and to record their high sense of the valuable services he has rendered to the borough during the eleven years he has held a seat on the Council’.
Edmund Blacket died 1883 and was buried with Sarah in Balmain. When the Balmain church was demolished the ashes of their remains were placed in St Andrews Cathedral and their tombstone moved to St Stephen’s, Newtown, one of the more than 80 churches he had designed.
Six successive owners are recorded as living in ‘Mr. Blacket’s house’, as it had always been known – the name Bidura was most likely bestowed on it during the 30 year period the Perks family lived there – until in 1920 the property was bought by the New South Wales Government for use as a residence for State wards.
An excellent précis of all the owners of Bidura and their time in the house can be found in the two articles written by Glebe Society historian Lyn Collingwood for the Glebe Society Bulletins from October/November (8/2009) and November/December (10/2009), available on the Glebe Society website.
An unarguably important period of the property’s history is that during which State wards lived there.
Comments by former residents can be found at https://www.glebesociety.org.au/?buildings=bidura. Scroll down to the Comments section, where many former State wards have left remarks. Some are happy, the majority are not; but together they form an integral part of the social history that Bidura represents.
… and Bidura’s future?
Some comfort came from the Sydney Morning Herald’s February 15 report of the sale, quoting one of the new owners, Lina Jin:
‘We want to keep the front two buildings but demolish the office building, which is old and very solid. It is not very appealing and we plan to build a more modern, nicer block of apartments for the area. We are locals too, and I want to make sure we build something respectful to the area.’
These are encouraging words for the Glebe Society which, in the ’80s, had protested – unsuccessfully – against the construction of the Concrete Brutalist multi-storey Remand Centre and Children’s Court on the land behind the house. That building went ahead – a jarring contrast to the graceful Victorian Regency design of Bidura itself, with its wide front garden, shady trees and low picket fence fronting Glebe Point Rd. The news that the life of what locals refer to as ‘The Bunker’ is near an end is tempered only by concern for what might replace it.
The new owners have a background of extensive property development in China and have been residents in Australia since 2004, becoming citizens in 2009. To find out more about their plans for Bidura the Heritage Subcommittee hand-delivered a letter to Golden Land Investment Corporation’s Pyrmont office – by a stroke of luck into the hands of Ms Jin herself – requesting the opportunity to view Bidura and find out more about the plans for both the house and the 1980s building behind it.
Within days we were contacted by Nigel Fox, Development Director for Gold Land, with an invitation to visit the site and find out more about the firm’s plans for the site as a whole and for Bidura in particular.
Alterations due to modern workplace regulations sit oddly on a building designed for life in the second half of the 19th Century (see photos on page 10). Wear and tear, plus early and unsympathetic alterations, hide much of the charm hinted at from Bidura’s street view. The ‘bones’ of the building are intact, but not even heritage paint colours and the survival of many original internal features can disguise the fact that for almost 100 years the building has been used first as an institution and currently as offices.
The new owners have engaged the architectural firm of Graham Brooks & Associates as heritage consultants for the project, and hope to consult with Council within the next month.
Initial indications are that the house and separate ballroom, listed by City of Sydney Council as a Local Heritage Item and protected by LEP 2012, classified by The National Trust and listed by the State Government, will be restored (following Heritage guidelines) with a view to commercial or professional use of the main building, while some type of hospitality use could be chosen for the adjacent ballroom.
The Glebe Society will of course be following all developments with interest – and trusting that what was a disturbing start to Bidura’s next chapter becomes a positive future of which both the community and owners can be proud.
|Some of the original interior features of Bidura, now used as offices that have to meet current workplace requirements, have survived the 190 years since the house was built – in the dining room a marble fireplace; French windows and shutters leading from the ‘downstairs’ service rooms to the garden; some stair balusters and the handrail, lustrous with years of use; one of the arches that divide the reception area from the dance floor with its elaborate ceiling in the ballroom; a roofed walkway still links Bidura to the ballroom, but direct access has been fenced off, the steps removed. (images: Erica Robinson)|
References: Australian Dictionary of Biography; Lyn Collingwood The Glebe Society Inc. Bulletin, Aug/Sept and Oct/Nov 2009; Nick Vine Hall My Name is Blacket; Morton Herman, The Blackets; Freda MacDonnell, The Glebe: Portraits and Places; Max Solling, Grandeur & Grit, A History of Glebe; National Trust of Australia (NSW); Sands directories; State Library of NSW, Mitchell library; The Sydney Morning Herald: http://news.domain.com.au/domain/real-estate-news/nsw-government-reveals-33-million-bidura-buyer-after-months-of-secrecy-20150213-13dlx4.html; Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/; NSW State Government Office of Environment & Heritage; City of Sydney Council LEP 2012