View of Middle Harbour from the Sugarloaf


Location: North Shore
Eight kilometres north of the Sydney central business district on Middle Harbour, Castlecrag is a suburb of historical significance as it was designed and created by architect Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion, as an experiment in communal and community planning and living, and for "the liberal intellectual, Theosophical, Anthroposophical and Natural history views of its inhabitants".

The Griffins' design followed the priciples of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Early homes in Castlecrag were built using natural stone to blend into the environment with the focus on creating "the human touch" as distinct from mass production. Later homes were built with bricks using Griffin's patented Knitlock system. Griffin named his garden suburb after a towering crag of rock overlooking Middle Harbour, known locally as Edinburgh Castle. The streets in the southern older, portion of the suburb were named after parts of castles: The barbette, The Barbican, The Barricade, The Bartizan, The Bastion, The Battlement, The Bulwark, The Citadel, The High Tor, The Outpost, The Palisade, The Parapet, The Postern, The Rampart, The Redoubt, The Scarp, The Tor Walk and Sortie Port. There are also Tower, Casement, and Turrett Reserves.

Castlecrag is built on the second of three steep-sided peninsulas which occur on the western side of Middle Harbour upstream from The Spit. At the tip of the Castlecrag peninsula is the Sugarloaf, a dramatic hill rising aboves the harbour. The lower reaches of Middle Harbour and the suburb of Seaforth on the opposite shore are all visible from a small reserve high above the harbour near the end of The Sugarloaf, however views of Castle Cove and Sugarloaf Bay are limited because home occupy most of the peninsula.

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The Griffins' Garden Suburb
Chicago born architect Walter Burley Griffin is most remembered for designing the City of Canberra however his legacy also lives on in the Sydney suburb of Castlecrag. During his time working as Associate of the famous US architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Griffin entered and won the Federal Capital Competition for the design of Australia s Capital. This led Griffin and his wife Marion Mahoney, also an architect and graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of technology, to move to Australia in 1912 to oversee the project. They were accompanied by Walte's sister, Genevieve, and her architect husband, Roy Lippincott. Though they operated an architectural practice in Melbourne, the Griffins had fallen in love with Sydney's magnificent harbour on the first day they saw it and since their arrival had lived and owned properties with harbour views at Cremorne, then Neutral Bay and Greenwich.

In 1919, after endless struggles and confrontations with the authorities, Griffin resigned as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction and moved back to Sydney. In that year the Griffins formed the Greater Sydney Development Association for the purpose of developing new harbourside suburbs on land around Middle Harbour. It was the realisation of an idea probably conceived on their first visit to Sydney in 1913. They hated traditional suburbia with rows and rows of similarly shaped houses and had often voiced their disdain of the blandness of developing suburbs of the day such as Strathfield and Concord.

Theirs was not going to be an ordinary subdivision, rather a model of the garden suburb concept that was very much in vogue. But what they conceived was not so much a suburb as a planned community with roads, homes and community services in harmony with the landscape. They inspected land at Longueville, then Beauty Point, but were captivated by the beautiful forested promontories of Middle Harbour. Much of the land was owned by the developers who had built the Cammeray Suspension Bridge whose subdivision north of the bridge had fallen on hard times in the economic depression of the 1890s. Griffin secured 263 hectares of virgin land with 6.44km water frontage for the incredible price of $25,000. It included all of present day Castlecrag, part of Castle Cove and most of Middle Cove.

Castlecrag Ampitheatre

The first of three planned subdivisions was Castlecrag Estate. Located in Edinburgh Road and The Parapet, Griffin designed the road and allotment pattern which follows the contours of the land by walking over the terrain, planting markers for the surveyors to follow him as he went. Streets within the subdivision were given names which related to mountain castles so as to compliment the name of the subdivision and the rocky terrain. Council approval was granted for the subdivision in April 1921 and seven months later a limited number of the 110 lots in the first subdivision went on sale. By the end of 1922, six houses, some shops and an estate office had been completed.

What made Castlecrag unique from other developments of its time was the covenants all purchasers were made to enter into. These covenants required to Griffin approve the design of all homes. Among other things they placed restrictions on roofing materials and required a commitment by owners to contribute to the management and upkeep of the reserves Griffin had set side throughout the subdivision. The use of natural vegetation in landscaping was promoted and the building of fences on property lines was discouraged, as much to retain the natural environment throughout the subdivision as to create a sense of community.

Griffin offered shareholders in his company a free block of land if they built a house. Five shareholders took up this offer. The subsequent homes built for them which were probably for investment only, as they never occupied them. These homes became the 'demonstration houses' built in the first years of the estate, 1921 and 1922. Designed by Griffin, they were a radical departure from the typical Sydney suburban home. Compact in design, they had flat roofs and were built of concrete and stone. The concrete walls and roof used the Knitlock prefabricated segmental reinforced concrete system developed by Griffin during his years in Canberra which made them easy and cheap to assemble. The Knitlock sections were manufactured in a shed on the corner of The Rampart and The Redoubt, on the southern side.

The Griffins moved into one of the demonstration homes in 1923 and played a major role in the community. Marion had a strong interest in theatre and played a leading role in the festivals held by a Sydney arts and philosophical society. She was the brains behind the creation of the Haven Scenic Ampitheatre located on the corner of The Scarp, which was chosen for its topography and acoustics. The plays, concerts and poetry readings she and fellow Castlecrag resident Luke Drummond organised were held there and attracted artistic people from all over Sydney. Marion coerced many a Castlecrag resident to assist her in creating elaborate stage sets featuring classical columns for the performances of Greek tragedies like Iphigenia (Euripides).

In spite of the enthusiasm of those who did get caught up in the ideals of the Castlecrag project and bought land and built there, until the stringent terms and conditions of the covenants were relaxed after the Griffins moved to India in 1935, land purchases were mainly for investment and few homes were built. A combination of factors contributed towards the slow growth of Castlecrag and the lack of public acceptance of the Griffin's revolutionary interpretation of the garden suburb concept. Banks showed an unwillingness to approve loans for Griffin houses and publicity surrounding a number of legal battles between residents and the developers over the covenants turned many prospective buyers away. The emergent wealthy middle class which the Griffins hoped would have found their 'new age' garden suburb appealing showed a preference for no-risk north shore railway suburbs like Roseville and Killara where they were not bound by restrictions on the size or type of house they could build or how they could or could not landscape the surrounds.

The depression of the 1930s slowed down all development in Sydney and brought the less popular subdivisions like Castlecrag to a grinding halt. The idea of communal involvement in the performing arts was quite radical for conservative 1920s/30s Sydney and Castlecrag was looked upon as a haven for artistic types rather than a community of ordinary citizens. The residents along with their suburb became somewhat of a curiosity for people to visit and marvel at rather than join in. Castlecrag saw its greatest period of growth in the 1940s after the influence of Walter and Marion had gone. The bush environment that had been an essential part of their masterplan was retained but few homes complied to the developers' ideal and brick and tile, the pet hate of the Griffins, became the norm.

The fourteen homes which were designed and built by Griffin were to be the only ones of their kind and remain today, along with the Griffin-designed Castlecrag shops (now called The Griffin Centre) the Haven Ampitheatre, the narrow, winding streets and the islands of stone and bush at their intersections, as a legacy to the Griffins and their garden suburb utopia. Following is a list of these homes built by the Griffins. Should you visit Castlecrag to see them, please remember that today they are all private residences and are not open for public viewing. They are private property and entry without permission in trespassing. Please respect the privacy of the occupants at all times.

The Griffins' Castlecrag Homes
GSDA No. 1 Dwelling

GSDA No. 1 Dwelling: 136 Edinburgh Road (lot 17 and part of lot 18) 1921 The first of two stone houses designed by Griffin and built by the Greater Sydney Development Association near the entrance to the suburb as object lessons in the style of house design intended by the developers. It established the essential elements of the Griffin houses - single storey, geometric form with flat roof, cave-like exterior stonework, large living room oriented to the harbour view with a dominant Ashlar stone fireplace, small kitchen with built-in cupboards, walk-through pantry, coarsely rendered interior walls with recessed picture rails. After completion, the house was used as the GSDA design office of HJ Hudson, the engineer responsible for the detailed surveys and road construction on the estate who had worked with Griffin at the Federal Capital Office. The stone garage was added in 1928, The house was sold to Nell Hankins with the vacant lot next door in 1943.

GSDA No. 2 Dwelling: 140 Edinburgh Road (lot 19 and part lot 18) 1921
The second of two demonstration homes financed by GSDA shareholder, Sir William Johnson, Federal Member for Lang and long-serving Speaker of the House of Representatives. Similar to the No. 1 dwelling with the kitchen facing the street and random stone walls throughout, but oriented differently. The Griffins lived here for a short time after first moving into the suburb. Marion Griffin again lived here after returning from India. It was sold in 1928 to George Wilkins for the high price of 1,500 pounds.

Johnson House: 4 The Parapet (lot 56) 1922
Financed by GSDA shareholder Julius Grant, a Melbourne based theatrical producer and manager who shared a common interest in theatre with Marion. The home was rented out until the Griffins moved in from GSDA No. 2 in 1925 and lived here until 1936. Often called the Griffin's House, they never owned it and had no more influence over its design than other Griffin houses in Castlecrag. After the Griffins left for India, it was rented to numerous people including Malcolm Whittaker, headmaster of Roseville Public School. Of symmetrical temple-like design, the house features a free-standing fireplace, a cave-like entrance porch and a series of French doors opening directly onto the garden.

Malley House: Cnr Edinburgh Road and Sortie Port (lot 96) 1923
Believed to have been financed by King O'Malley, a GSDA shareholder and former Member of Parliament who was the driving force behind the establishment of Canberra as the national capital. The house design is an adaption of the Cheong House at 14 The Parapet. It enjoys similar features which include a picture window with views to The Spit at the entrance to Middle Harbour. It was rented to a number of occupants prior to its sale to Dr Edward William and Lorna Clarissa Rivett who used it as a hospital and dwelling. During its years as a hospital, it was added to on several occasions and extensively remodelled so that little remains of the original house today.

Moon House: 12 The Parapet (lot 54) 1922
Financed by GSDA shareholder Chin Wah Moon, a herbalist in Melbourne's Chinatown, but bought back by Griffin soon after completion. It was known as the 'house of gables' because of its prismatic window frames which form a band around the eastern side of the house. Built into the slope at the rear of the site, it was originally a single storey residence. The top level was added by Griffin's partner Eric Nicholls in the late 1920s when he and his wife Molly were renting it. Nicholls also added an air raid shelter which has since been demolished.

Cheong House

Cheong House: 14 The Parapet (lot 53) 1922
Financed by Chinese community leader and GSDA shareholder Rev. Cheok Hong Cheong, it was rented for many years before being sold. The house is set well back on its block, oriented to the harbour view and features windows highlighted by stone voussoirs, like sunbursts, which extend beyond the the parapet.

Felstead House, 138 Edinburgh Road (lot 99) 1924
This Knitlock house was the first privately commissioned home in Castlecrag. Built for Melbourne based businessman Theopholis Pyrie Felstead, it is different in character to the other Griffin houses, being pavilion shaped with pitched roof and wide eaves. Built around a square atrium which was originally a Japanese garden with stone lantern (it has since been covered), the home is light-filled with a sense of openness, its broad windows taking in the magnificent dress circle views.

Guy House: 23 The Bastion (lot 304) 1925
A small two bedroomed stone house built for freelance commercial artist Robert Guy and his wife Beth. He paid 330 pounds for the house and land in 1925. It features a free-standing stone fireplace and room divider, large glazed areas which give it a feeling of spaciousness and has stone wrap-around piers, a classical reference common in Griffin houses. Marion griffin called the house the 'Temple of Aphrodite'.

Mower House: 12 The Rampart (lot 158) 1926
A compact two bedroom house, the first of a group of six planned for The Rampart and the first Knitlock building featuring a flat roof. Its original owner was 21 year old Ellen Mower who had the house built for her. Her guardian forced Griffin to buy the house back from her shortly after its completion because the roof leaked, a common fault with the flat-roofed Griffin homes. Set back on the block on difficult terrain and almost invisible from the road, the house features a flat concrete roof and roof garden, window panes with abstract tree-like motifs and cylindrical glass light fittings. This was one of Marion Griffin's favourite homes and was referred to as 'Casa Bonita' by her. The house has been substantially modified to meet demands for space and difficulties encountered with roof drainage.

Rivett House: 148 Edinburgh Road 1928
Built for Dr E.W. Rivett on the opposite corner to his hospital, the house was the subject of a court case between Griffin's development company and Rivett (Rivett won) over the building's design which was completed contrary to the covenant and the original plans submitted to and approved by Griffin. Its interior walls were rendered brick instead of stone and the flat roof of the original design was scrapped for a pitched roof with Marseilles tiles. The rest of the house including its original layout which had been created by Griffin remained unchanged.

Creswick House: 4 The Barbette (lot 197) 1929
A two bedroom, flat roofed Knitlock home, the first of three small houses built on top of the ridge in The Barbette that were staggered to allow views past each other to Middle Harbour. It was built for A.E. Creswick, a member of the Theosophical Society who lived in Burwood. Walter and Marion bought the house from Mrs Creswick shortly before its completion after she took legal action against them because of faulty workmanship. Marion was one of a number of people who lived in the house until it was sold by her to James Stickenwich in 1944. It features French doors down three sides and Knitlock pillars projecting above the parapet, a feature which led the Griffins to refer to it as 'the House of the Seven Lanterns'.

Wilson House: 2 The Barbette (lot 197) 1929
Intriguing small stone house built for Roy and Beryl Wilson, Roy being a salesman for GSDA. Known as the Long Griffin, it is of linear design with an octagonal living room complete with a massive stone fireplace at one end. The windows aare framed by stepped concrete prisms. A self-contained dwelling was added later when the loggia to the garage was filled in to create rooms.

Fishwick House: 15 The Citadel (lot 331) 1929
The most celebrated of the Griffin houses at Castlecrag, it was built by Thomas Wilson Fishwick, a representative of an English manufacturer of roadmaking equipment, on land bought by Mrs Elizabeth Bell in 1927 for $405. Fishwick spared no expense on the house and gave Griffin a free rein in its design. Griffin rose to the occasion, producing a house quite different in character from all others at Castlecrag, with its castle-like appearance and emphasis on the horizontal features of the eaves and portico and a large counterbalanced window that raises completely out of view providing a link with the bushland and harbour view. During the second world war the house's occupants were visited by the security police who accused them of sending signals through the Heads - until they were shown how the light reflected off a full length mirror on their wardrobe door!

Cheong House

Duncan House: 8 The Barbette (lot 194) 1934
A small house built of stone and Knitlock which is integrated perfectly into the landscape. It was the last Griffin house to be built in Castlecrag. Commissioned by Frank and Alice Duncan, it was the fourth Griffin house in which the Duncans lived. Sited at the rear of the block on the edge of the escarpment, it was the third house to be built in The Barbette and, like the others, enjoys sweeping views to Middle Harbour. It features French doors, a flat roof and stone corner piers with panels of Knitlock with windows in between to combat the leaking roof problem common to all Griffin-built flat-roofed houses.

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