This architecturally excellent house has a fascinating story to tell. ALEX SPEED shares its history, discovered while staying there in absolute luxury.
Walk into the splendid Drawing Room at Bibury, and once you’ve picked your mouth up off the floor and taken in the finery, you may see under the glass top of the coffee table a hardcover book about Professor Leslie Wilkinson. Inside there is a foreword by Lloyd Rees.
‘Professor Wilkinson’s architectural work is now so well known in this country as to need no introduction,’ wrote the revered landscape painter of the architect, designer and builder of this historic Burradoo property back in 1946.
‘From the time of his arrival in 1918 to become the first Professor of Architecture at the University of Sydney, he made an immediate and deep impression, first upon his students, and later upon the community at large. And Leslie Wilkinson was born to impress, both in his thinking and his work.’
You’re not wrong, Lloyd, I think. Even to the untrained architectural eye like mine, this is one historic property that impresses immediately. Brit Leslie Wilkinson was one of the first in Australia to depart from Anglo-Saxon architectural traditions. Instead he factored his new climate and environment into his design. Having spent much time in England and Spain, he combined Georgian and Mediterranean influences in his practice. He was responsible for the Main Quadrangle, Physics Building and Medical School at Sydney University, and his works also include a number of churches and notable homes in Sydney and beyond to the Southern Highlands. Wilkinson designed and built Bibury, then called Shadowood, in 1929 for local lawyer Alexander Robert Macgregor and his young family at a cost of £3,745. Wilkinson knew and loved the Highlands, having visited with his own young family in the 1920s. He rented a schoolhouse in Burrawang’s Church Street, where his kids learnt to ride bicycles in the main street and Wilkinson sketched landscapes of the local potato crops.
On Alexander Macgregor’s death in 1935, his widow commissioned Wilkinson to build her another home in Links Road, taking the name Shadowood with her. The grand home’s second owner, a Miss Maud Dangar, renamed the property Bibury, presumably after the historic village in Gloucestershire, England.
Fast forward 80 years, and I am initially unaware of Bibury’s rich history as we arrive through the house’s grand wrought iron gates from the street. Driving past a towering pin oak and through three acres of heritage listed gardens and the porte-cochère (covered coach gate entrance), I am agog. What is immediately evident as we pull up in the flagstone courtyard with cherubic fountains, before the terracotta coloured house with Wilkinson’s signature green shutters and signature red painted front door, is that this place is something special.
Present day owners Anne and Brian Thornton think so too. Anne grew up next door at Yarrawin, alongside brothers John and the late Peter and Paul, the founder of Ramsay Health Care and billionaire philanthropist. She remembers playing in the gardens of Bibury in the 1940s when it was owned by the Flynn family. Fifty years later, after falling into disrepair in 2000, the property was extensively conserved by architects Clive Lucas and Ian Stapleton, who were awarded the prestigious Greenway Prize for heritage restoration.
In early 2014 Paul Ramsay, who lived at Yarrawin all his life, bought Bibury, again in a state of considerable disrepair. Following his death only months later in May, Anne and Brian, who attended the then Our Lady of Sacred Heart school with Paul at Centennial Road in Bowral, purchased the property from the Paul Ramsay Foundation Trust.
The restoration project took four years.
‘When they were tidying up Paul’s estate, I think it was an emotional buy for Anne,’ says Brian. ‘We got builder inspections because it was obvious it was a huge job, but over the years we’ve done quite a few old houses up into family homes. With this particular house, the important thing about it for us was it was a Spanish mission house and it was quite unique; there is nothing else like it in the district.
‘When we came it was obvious that it was a cold, sad derelict building with rotting floors in need of a huge renovation. But the courtyard is what Anne particularly remembers.’
Working closely with heritage advisors, architects schooled in Wilkinson’s practice and local builder Glenn Thomas of GMT Builders, they managed a restoration that included replacing entire sections of floor, total replumbing, and electrical and heating rewiring. The family also did as much research as possible and reused every piece of original furniture or fitting they could throughout the property. As a lovely touch, Wilkinson’s original 1929 drawings and plans for Bibury hang framed in one of the bedrooms.
‘Every single thing we could, we’ve retained and restored,’ says Brian. ‘This project has been a huge labour of love, and we followed the principals of heritage restoration to restore it, renovate it and modernise it up to today’s living standards.’
The property is now available for luxury accommodation rental and when we arrive in the evening, the fountains are bubbling in the courtyard, the mature trees in the gardens lit beautifully and the house looks splendid. A huge atrium hallway with cupola hung with original artworks leads to a luxurious open plan kitchen and dining/living room overlooking the splendid gardens with huge doors leading outside to a travertine patio.
The Thorntons are thoughtful and generous hosts, and an array of goodies awaits, including a hearty shiraz from nearby Southern Highlands Winery, olives and cheese. The fridge is full of breakfast delicacies like organic eggs, orange juice, bacon, sourdough by Flour Water Salt and jams by the Little Hand Stirred Jam Shop in Berrima.
With five sumptuous bedrooms, Bibury can sleep up to 10 people with king, queen or double beds and one room that converts to two king singles. Fittings and furnishing in this home are top notch with crisp linens and lavish feather duvets, and there is additional accommodation for two more available at an additional cost in the self-contained Chauffeur’s Quarters across the courtyard. As night falls, we sit on deckchairs on the colonnaded verandah (one of Wilkinson’s design loves, along with the vine covered loggia, arches, stuccoed brickwork, exquisite parquetry floors and high timber ceilings), and happily drink it all in.
Later I retire to bed in the divine Macgregor Room, which looks out across manicured lawns, rose gardens, a wisteria walk and maze, and the magnificent pin oak. Believed to be more than 100 years old, it has watched the history of this property unfold, and seen children such as Anne Thornton and her brothers play.
Suits: architecture buffs, garden lovers, people who love relaxed luxury, attention to detail and elegance.
Perfect for: wedding party overspill from nearby Links House Hotel; generational family birthdays, reunions or celebrations; corporate getaways.