It’s special, even by Sydney’s sparkling standards — designed by a celebrity architect, in a blue-chip location with bedrooms to burn.
Tresco, a stately sandstone home which dates to 1868, has stood the test of time on its original Elizabeth Bay site as the Harbour City exploded around it.
It’s also on the market for $50 million — more on that later — but the 150 years of high society stories this Victorian manor and its cascading gardens hold are priceless.
Tresco was owned by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and used as the official residence for senior officers for almost 100 years until it was bought privately in 2004.
While it has served as the scene of many glittering gatherings, its most famous visitor was in 1986 when Prince Philip was the guest of honour at the RAN’s 75th birthday celebrations.
For Sydney’s society, Tresco’s fabled parties — or “at homes” as they were known — were among the hottest invitations in town.
They were a chance for naval bigwigs and their wives to hobnob with government officials and international diplomats.
Newspapers gushed with details of flower arrangements and table decorations after every soiree or afternoon tea.
Those descriptions were perhaps only surpassed in colour by the breathless recounts of guestlists and what they were wearing.
But not everything always went to plan, and on Friday, October 1, 1937, a party for “senior service” was in full swing on the HMAS Penguin, and many of the highest-profile guests were assembling at Tresco, preparing to make the journey.
However, the weather was deemed too bad to attempt the short journey, so the party had to stay on land.
Meanwhile, those who made it to the ship were making the most of a very damp situation.
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed “strenuous efforts” to protect the decks from the rain with tarpaulins failed, with guests dancing “anywhere that a dry spot could be found”.
“The most effective wet weather outfit was worn by Mrs G. I. D. Hutcheson, who covered her black gown and white coat with a transparent cellophane red riding hood cloak,” the report said.
It was not just adults having fun at Tresco.
A report in The Daily Telegraph detailed how the mansion was “practically given over to the small people” for a children’s party in July 1923.
“Potato races, slipper races, musical chairs (with prizes) for all, followed by tea served in the billiards room filled the hours very happily for the little ones,” the report said.
Some of the best parties were held by Jean Alison Showers — the wife of Rear Admiral Henry Arthur Showers — who lived at Tresco in the early 1950s.
At one in November 1953 the manor’s dining room was decked out to celebrate a Thanksgiving meal for high society.
In contrast to the official RAN crockery and ceremonial stuffiness of such occasions, the Sydney Morning Herald noted a daring nautical-themed centrepiece of driftwood festooned with trailing ivy and red hibiscus.
A celebrity architect
Tresco was built for entertaining and, in that respect, not much has changed in the past century and a half.
The original fireplaces and towering ceilings are dominant features in its formal dining rooms and lounge rooms, while bay windows show off the stunning harbour views, particularly in the family room.
Two renovated kitchens make catering for large parties easy, and more recently, part of what would have originally been stables has been converted into a large wine cellar.
The heritage-listed house was designed by leading architect Thomas Rowe, who was responsible for several landmark buildings in NSW, including Newington College in Stanmore and Sydney Hospital in Macquarie Street.
It was built by Italian stone masons and is widely regarded as one of the city’s pristine examples of a Victorian villa.
Mr Rowe lived in the home until 1884, when it was bought by George Westgarth, who was responsible for building a new east wing and landscaping the gardens — the only major additions and alterations.
Cedar-moulded joinery is a feature of its expansive interiors, as are double hung sash windows and French doors.
A slate roof, cast-iron balcony balustrading and a turned timber staircase highlight Tresco’s enduring elegance.
But while much of this residence reflects a bygone era, there is development approval for an extension to the house and a heated infinity pool.
Although who would want to add to the house, which already has seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and two studies — not to mention a two-bedroom caretaker’s flat above the garage — remains to be seen.
The master bedroom, with its expansive harbour views and balcony, dressing room and marble bathroom, is particularly stunning.
The property also has three deepwater moorings, a private jetty, a boat house and its own ocean pool.
Tresco on its original waterfront block, which was created after an 1867 subdivision. (Supplied)
‘Her hair went white in a single night’
Aside from glittering social gatherings, tragedy also formed part of Tresco’s history.
On July 8, 1899, Thomas John Dwyer — a 23-year-old groom working in the house’s stables — was killed after falling from a horse.
“He mounted, and rode up and down the road once or twice, when the animal slipped on the metal and fell, rolling on his rider,” a report in the Evening News said.
Mr Dwyer fractured his skull in the incident, and died after being taken to St Vincent’s Hospital.
Two decades later, Rear Admiral John Bryan Stevenson and his wife Olive called Tresco home, but their time at the house was tinged with sadness.
Mrs Stevenson’s mother, from Tasmania, was killed in a plane crash in France.
A newspaper report at the time noted: “So great was Mrs Stevenson’s anxiety and distress that her hair went white in a single night.”
The property, bought by the RAN in 1902 for £8,000, is back in private hands, and currently owned by Janette Waterhouse, who is married to businessman David Waterhouse.
It is on the market for $50 million with two prominent Sydney real estate agents.
If there is a question about whether that eye-watering price tag could ever represent value, perhaps Mrs Showers summed it up best, when interviewed by Sydney’s now-defunct The Sun newspaper in December 1951.
“We enjoy the garden and swimming pool so much that we made no plans, but set out to spend Christmas quietly at Tresco,” she said.