Nirvana, or 21a Mary Street one of Longueville’s earliest houses is now on the market. Nirvana has been occupied by only three families since it was built in 1898; the Fox family for 68 years, the Sharpe family for 15 and the Macdonalds for 44 years. Much more than an elegant historic house, Nirvana is a distinctive home, that has played host to these three families and the many important events that have marked their lives.
The early years: The Fox family: 1898-1958
The house now at 21a Mary Street was built by K. Weidmann in 1898-99 with the intention to sell. The house, named Nirvana, was purchased by Alfred Paine Fox (1844-1924). Born in London at Saint Pancras, Fox left England sometime between the census collections of 1851 and 1861, probably arriving in 1866. He married Australian-born Eliza Morrison (1867-1896) in 1891. Prior to living in Longueville the Fox’s lived in Waverley, where their three children were born; Edith Mary (1893), Alfred (1894) and Sydney James (1868). After Eliza’s death, Alfred married Charlotte Packman (1868-1956) and continued to live in Waverley for the birth of Charles Leigh (1898) and Charlotte Lucy (1900). The family moved to Nirvana before the birth of Norman James (1904). Ethel was born in 1909, attended by Dr. Lloyd who rowed across the river from Hunters Hill. Norman stated in a visit to the Macdonald family in 1995, that he was born in Nirvana. Alfred and his brother Frederick opened Fox Bothers, a plumbing business in Pitt Street, Sydney, which imported and manufactured plumbing, galvanised iron and gasfitting supplies.
Whilst there are some records (Sands Directory) and historic survey maps, much of what we know about the house comes from a contact from Louise Varall, a close friend and neighbour of the Fox Family, who wrote to the Macdonalds in 1995 to ask if she and some members of the Fox Family could come and view the House that held many happy memories for them. Louise and Norman Fox duly visited in 1995, Edith the eldest declined as she thought it would sadden her. They brought the photograph of the house as it was in their time, prior to the subdivision of the block into three. They recalled that in the front of the house the woodwork was painted cream and green; the bricks were not painted until after Fox occupancy.
They described how they had excellent views of the river and they would sit on the verandah and watch the boats; the trees in the park have removed much of this view. The visitors described an event called Anniversary Day when the locals would decorate their houses and boats and there was a parade on the river. They recalled one year when Charlotte Fox’s brother constructed a model of a swan from wicker work with feathers of tissue paper and a yellow beak. This was attached to Sidney’s canvas dinghy and a member of the family dressed in white sat in the stern with a white parasol. They recalled Charles’s rugby career, which included some 35 games for NSW and 17 tests. He was a lock and a lineout specialist and very mobile. Charley as he was known, was appointed Vice Captain for the 1927-8 eight-and-a-half-month tour of Britain. France and Canada.
The Fox’s hosted at least four wedding receptions in the garden, for the weddings of Charlotte Lucy, Norman, one of the children of Frederick, and one a friend of the family, a tradition that continued with the Macdonalds. The bridal table was on the house level under the camphor laurel trees. The guests were seated at tables on the lower level, around the sundial, which was imported from England. It was a splendid venue with the trees in the park yet to interfere with the river views, with the native low coastal scrub populating the land between the house and the river.
The Fox’s dining room was what is now used as the living room. A huge extendable table comfortably seated the local cricket team and a team from Mudgee for lunch during a game at the local oval; the only difficulty was the door into the hall could not be used when the table was fully extended. Their sitting room (currently used as the dining room) had a baby grand piano in the alcove. There were picture rails in the sitting room and picture and chair rails in the dining room.
The breakfast room contained a large table for the homework to be done in front of a roaring fire. Coal was used coal for fires and stoves and there was a coal room somewhere in the vicinity of the rear shower room. Louise and Norman were not able to visualise the coal room and the outside lavatory, which was somewhere out the back linked by a covered walkway. The description of the garden on Stuart Street was a surprise to us as when the Macdonalds arrived in the early 1970s it was quite decrepit. The splendid gardens are evident in the one surviving historic photograph. The Fox’s described a croquet lawn and a fountain, a wisteria walk, which was a glorious sight in bloom, and there were flowering peach trees and a flowering mauve cedar. Charlotte opened the garden each year for the Returned Servicemen, which drew a good crowd.
A gardener named Arthur who lived in one of the buildings on Stuart Street associated with the property and these included stables, a large garage and a big tool room. The live-in maid was accommodated in what is now a study. When she left, Arthur recommended his fiancé Molly; when they married and new quarters were built for them, which is shown as a modest building on the surveyor’s report. These buildings were destroyed by fire in the 1950s, as told to us by the next owner.
Alfred died in 1924 and Charlotte Fox died in 1956, and only Edith and Ethel remained in Nirvana until the late 1950s. Edith, who lived to be 100 and Ethel who died in 2002 at 94, moved to Lane Cove. The family had otherwise spread. Alfred, the eldest son became a metal work foreman, presumably in the family business, married Muriel Emily and they lived in Lane Cove. Sydney was the licensee of the Star Hotel in Parramatta in the 1930s, married Elsie Smirnoff in 1932, and retired to Palm Beach. Charles became a company Director, lived on the upper North Shore with his wife Ruth Olive Hadley and died at the age of 86. Charlotte Lucy was living at Longueville up to the electoral roll of 1930 we know that she married as she had a reception in the garden but a record of her marriage and death have not been found. Norman was a wool buyer, lived in Bellevue Hill and married Violet Jessie Lean in 1933. They had at least one child Geoffrey Norman Fox; Norman was 91 when he came to visit us in 1995.
When the wallpaper that lined the hall (believed to have been put up in the 1960s) was removed in the late 1990s, a painted scene of Parisian street life was found beneath. Two near life size gaslights silhouetted in black on a dusky pink background were expertly executed between the living and dining room doors. Given the vibrant artistic scene in Longueville and Northwood this may have been done by a local.
The Sharp Family era: 1958-1973
Dr. Frank Lane Ritchie Sharp (1913 – 1974) and Edith Edna Sherlock Lycett (1913 – 1960) purchased the house in 1958. They moved from Bowral, where he had been in general practice, to Sydney to further his career as a radiologist. Edith died in 1960 only two years after moving to Nirvana. They had four children, two boys and two girls. Phillip Anthony who studied to become a medical practitioner and a surgeon, visited the Macdonalds in 2014 and it is from this visit that we know something of the history of the house at this time.
The Macdonald family era: 1973-2017
Roderick Donald Macdonald and Robin Diane Gow purchased the house in 1973. The Macdonalds have four children; Susan, Sarah, Angus and Hamish and moved from Greenwich. Robin spotted Nirvana and their first visit to the house was on the occasion of the Riverview Regatta, a big day locally, with the races commencing at Longueville wharf with the finish at the wharf at Saint Ignatius College, Riverview.
The house inspired one of the MacDonald girls to become a heritage architect. Sarah MacDonald is a well known journalist and still lives in the Lane Cove Council area.
The house is listed for sale by McGrath Lane Cove and you can find out more here.
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