Got a spare $10 million? The Abbey, a Gothic pile in the inner city suburb of Annandale, is up for sale. Hidden behind high sandstone walls, the fifty room mansion has been empty since the death of its owner Dr Geoffrey Davis in 2006.

The Abbey on Johnston Street, Annandale (Historic Houses Trust)
The Abbey on Johnston Street, Annandale, c1890s (Historic Houses Trust: Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection ; L91/27-1)

The Abbey was built in 1881 by John Young who was then Sydney’s highest ranking Mason. The house reflects Young’s Masonic leanings, with its exterior adorned with ‘lions, quatrefoils, chimneys, turrets, a cloister and a tower with copper cladding’. Young never lived at The Abbey and by 1924 it had passed out of family hands and was subdivided into apartments. Dr Davis purchased it for a song in 1959, and leased out the flats while he slowly restored the building. Today it is home to some of his family members (who live in the former servant’s quarters), a couple of cats and a bunch of ghosts, including a mysterious lady in white who is said to haunt the tower.

The Abbey is one of a handful of grand houses in Sydney built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which have been abandoned, and in some cases, left to rack and ruin. Others which have met a similar fate over the years are Rippon Grange in Wahroonga, Stickland House in Vaucluse, Linwood Hall in Guildford, Yasmar at Haberfield and Newington House within the grounds of Silverwater Gaol. Then there are the former farm estates on the fringes of the city, such as Bella Vista Farm and Glenfield which are now in the path of rapid suburban development.

Rippon Grange was built in 1898 for Frederick Sargood. Designed by the architectural firm of Sulman and Joseland, it was a recognised Arts and Crafts masterpiece of its day. The manicured gardens that surrounded the house, and added to its character, featured croquet lawns, tennis courts, orchards and vegetable gardens. By 1935, the gardens had been subdivided, and the house was sold to Ernest Williams, the founder of Woolworths. He would later gift Rippon Grange to the NSW State Government as a hospital to treat children with Polio (or infantile paralysis), and it was to be named in honour of his son who died in the Second World War. By the mid 1950s, Rippon Grange underwent alterations, and was put to use as a hospital for children with intellectual and physical disabilities. This use continued until the 1990s, until the government sold Rippon Grange  to developers a few years ago. Plans are now afoot to redevelop the site, to the consternation of the local community.

But the story of Rippon Grange is not an unusual one. All the mansions mentioned above (except The Abbey) have been in the ownership of the State at some point in their history, with most of them having spent periods of time ‘abandoned’. So why are they no longer being used as residential accommodation, given the housing shortages in Sydney?  Well, part of the reason is that large houses like these, with associated gardens, are expensive to maintain. And now they are coming under threat with pressures for more land in the outer suburban areas of the city, with the  increasing population. Also, the wealthy tend to congregate in particular parts of Sydney with harbour views (i.e. Vaucluse or Mosman), rather than building large houses throughout the suburbs in a bid for a semi-rural way of life, as was the way back in the day…