Willoughby’s Most Historic Homes: A Heritage Worth PreservingMarch 15, 2021
Willoughby’s history is incomplete without an ode to its most historic homes- all rare surviving examples of a bygone era. Here’s a sneak peek into three of the area’s most-loved and oldest homes – all lived in by members of the renowned Forsyth family.
The history of our area is chiefly a story of the Forsyth family. It all began when James Forsyth purchased a large amount of land in what was then bush in North Willoughby in 1870. According to the Willoughby Historical Society, the land extended from Edinburgh Road to McClelland Street, and from High Street to Sugarloaf Bay.
Along with two of his sons, Thomas and Robert, James settled in the area and “established the Rosewall Tannery on the site of Willoughby’s Bus Depot. With a plentiful supply of water from creeks, and wattle bark — a vital raw material in the tanning process — from the nearby bush (the area that is now Willoughby Park), the tannery flourished.”
James served as Mayor of Willoughby for one year from 1885. He did well in business and real estate and retired in 1880 selling the Tannery to Robert and Thomas. “Around 1883 they had two large two-storey late Victorian sandstone houses constructed for their families in High Street Willoughby. The Robert Forsyth family resided at Tyneside, 143 High Street, while the large Tom Forsyth family lived at Rosewall, 171 High Street.
Rosewall – 171 High St Willoughby
Thomas Forsyth lived in Rosewall until 1906, and also served as Mayor of Willoughby in 1883, 1887-88 and 1893. He and wife Ann had seven children – including James Jnr Forsyth (see St Elmo below for more on James).
Today, ‘Rosewall’ remains one of the most impressive homes in Willoughby. The magnificent two-storey Victorian-style home is made of sandstone and stands proudly on High St admired by all who pass by. It was last sold on 23 August, 2013. It sits on 701 square metres of land and retains soaring ceilings, wide hallways and Kahuri pine floors. There are six bedrooms – three with ensuites and dressing rooms, a formal lounge that opens up to a front verandah, gardens at both the front and rear of the house, as well as a home theatre. Many of the stunning original details of the home can be seen in these images. The property is heritage listed.
Tyneside – 143 High Street Willoughby
Tyneside, the beautiful sister home to Rosewall, was built by Robert Forsyth in 1883. According to the Willoughby Historical Society, the Forsyth brothers’ fortunes declined rapidly in the 1890s depression. “The brothers were unable to pay their mortgage installments and were declared bankrupt. Relations between the families broke down and they formally split the business between them in 1897. Robert attempted to keep the struggling tannery going, but it closed in 1900 and, in December 1903, the bank foreclosed on Tyneside. Robert and his wife, Stephana, moved to North Sydney.”
Many will remember the excitement when this grand property went on the market in 2019. It had only exchanged hands with four owners over 136 years before it went up for sale for the first time in 50 years. Also wrapped in sandstone, the home showcases stately proportions with formal lounge and dining rooms opening to front and rear full-width cast iron lace balconies. It also features five bedrooms, two bathrooms and three-car spots, plus a pool. There is also an original bar, timber cabinetry, fireplace fixtures and timber floorboards. Willoughby residents are cheering on the current homeowners who are lovingly and painstakingly restoring Tyneside to her former glory. Tyneside is a heritage listed property.
St Elmo – 27 – 29 Laurel Street
St Elmo is also considered one of Willoughby’s most historic and significant land holdings, and was also sold not that long ago in 2018. Built circa 1890, it was the first house built on the north side of Laurel Street. It was apparently built for James Jnr Forsyth by his father, Thomas Forsyth (of Rosewall) and appears to have been gifted to him on his marriage to Minnie Hipwood. They had three children, Lewis, Stanley and Leslie. Poor little Stanley had a terrible accident while putting up a hammock in the backyard and tragically died:
“A little boy named Stanley Forsyth, aged eight years, residing with his parents at Willoughby, put up a hammock yesterday on the verandah of the house. One end was made fast to an aviary. He then got in swinging, when a bird cage toppled over on him, inflicting injuries from which he died within a few hours. At an inquest held to-day a verdict of accidental death was returned.” (Wagga Wagga Express (NSW : 1879 – 1917) Tue 6 Aug 1901).
His father, James Forsyth Jnr, is reported to have also died on the property, a few years later. “IN MEMORIAM. FORSYTH.-In loving memory of my dear husband, James Forsyth, who died suddenly on February 8th, 1903, at his residence, St. Elmo, Laurel-street, Willoughby, in his 38th year. Minnie E. Forsyth.” (From The Sydney Morning Herald Wednesday 8 February 1905 Page 6).
The home is one of the area’s most beloved. Set over two blocks, it’s a Victorian-style period home which still retains much of its period charm. According to the real estate listing, “‘St Elmo’ encompasses a magnificent, impeccably revived Victorian residence… [featuring] revived heritage details such as French polished Australian cedar joinery, soaring ceilings and chequered marble and timber floors plus bespoke hand-carved timber staircase and wrought iron gates.”
The downstairs area of St Elmo has a beautiful gourmet kitchen and open-plan informal living and dining areas. Sliding doors and bi-fold windows open up to a verandah looking out over the expansive back garden framed by a tall manicured hedge. The upstairs portion features four bedrooms and another living area – all benefiting from high ceilings and plenty of natural lighting.
Set on a rear north-facing level block, it includes an adjoining shop front and office. Bizarrely, the shop front and office is heritage listed but the older attached main home is not. Which has sadly left it vulnerable.
There is a current DA to tear down St Elmo and build two modern-style townhouses in its place. Via the Willoughby Living Facebook Group, many in the community have expressed shock and disappointment that this beautiful historical home, that adds so much to the streetscape and the surrounding area, is under threat. (You can view comments by clicking here)
Many made submissions to Willoughby City Council via the Council website DA section, and by emailing NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian via: email@example.com and the home was recently re-listed for sale! Let’s hope the new owners would love to preserve this Willoughby treasure.
For more images of this beautiful home please, click here
If you love local history and historic buildings you might also enjoy our feature on Innisfallen Castle (that’s why it’s called Castle Cove!). Click here for more.