Visiting Rose Seidler House in Sydney: a modernist architectural masterpiece
Recently, I visited one of Sydney’s most historic homes during a Sydney Living Museum open day. The home is known as ‘Rose Seidler House’ and was designed by renowned architect of the 20th century, Harry Seidler (1923-2006). The Rose Seidler House was Harry’s first Australian commission, built for his parents Rose and Max Seidler. Completed in 1950, it is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2020.
The home was built on 6.5 hectares of bushland in Sydney’s leafy north shore suburb of Wahroonga. The Rose Seidler House is one of the most highly recognised examples of 20th century Australian modernist architecture.
Managed by Sydney Living Museums, the home is open to visitors on a handful of occasions throughout the year. On Saturday 5 December 2020, Harry’s wife of 50 years and collaborator Penelope Seidler, AM will be conducting a 70th anniversary tour herself throughout the property, presenting a unique opportunity for modernist architectural and design aficionados. The home was completed in 1950 and, now 70 years old, it remains today just as it was when finished.
On my tour, we were provided with some fabulous insight by tour guide, John Pearson. He tells us that Harry Seidler was born in Vienna in 1923 into a prosperous middle class Jewish family in the rag trade who made men and women’s clothing.
Harry’s father was in partnership with his brother – and that uncle came to Australia in the late 1930s as events leading up to WWII were taking place. He re-established the Seidler clothing business here. Harry’s family however made a decision to move to the UK, going to Cambridge. In 1940, the British government declared everybody who was German to be an enemy alien and because Harry and his brother at that stage were of military age, they were interned and sent to Canada.
“Harry was in a prisoner of war camp for about 18 months or two years and then eventually was released,” said Pearson. “He completed his schooling and went to the University of Manitoba to study architecture, graduating in 1944 with First Class Honours and he became a Canadian citizen. He then was admitted to the Harvard Graduate School of Design where he came into the influence of the displaced Bauhaus School. Walter Gropius who was the former head of the Bauhaus School in Germany, was a lecturer in architecture at Harvard and because of that, Harry came into the sphere of all these amazing early 20th century designers, architects and artists.”
“In Europe in the 1920s, they were already designing houses to look like this. Harry completed his University studies and got a job with one of the most important furniture designers of the early 20th century who was a Bauhaus alumni and architect – we know him today, primarily through his furniture, as Marcel Breuer.”
Harry worked for Breuer in New York between 1946 and 1948. Pearson tells us that a lot of the buildings Harry would have worked on with him in the late 1940s would have been similar to Rose Seidler House – weekender homes for wealthy American New York families who had places in Connecticut and upstate New York.
Meanwhile, Harry’s parents had seen him only once when they decided to emigrate to Australia after WWII and that was when he was graduating from Harvard. On their way to Australia, they travelled via the US and then came to Australia. Harry was building his career in the US and his mother Rose wrote to him and said, ‘why don’t you come and visit us here in Australia?’ and he said he was too busy with his career and work. Rose then suggested ‘How about you design a house for us?’ That proved to be the carrot to get a young Harry to Australia.
“So, the Rose Seidler House was actually designed in the US,” says Pearson. Along with the main property, there were two other dwellings designed on site for extended family members. Harry’s first cousin Brian lives in one of the dwellings today.
The home was originally intended as a weekender for his parents, who lived in Dover Heights in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, but they liked it so much they moved to the house permanently in late 1950.
“The house was like a space ship landing in Sydney,” explains Pearson. “No one at the time was building houses that looked anything like this. Harry was always very good as his own PR machine and gained instant publicity. The house received architectural awards including the 1951 Sulman Award for Architectural Merit and his parents would actually go out on weekends because people would be lining up at the top of the driveway to get a peek of the home. It also meant Harry had instant clients,” said Pearson.
The 170-square metre house is made of oregon and the lumber and some of the fittings were bought in the US, including Eames chairs and Saarinen Grasshopper chairs.
“This house has a significant collection of mid-century furniture as well,” says Pearson.
“The inbuilt joinery was all designed for the house. Harry designed the sofa which was manufactured here. In Australia, Harry rented a waterfront flat in Point Piper and turned it into a studio and an office – and he built his career from there. In the early 1950s he designed predominantly house; in the mid 1950s he started venturing into apartment buildings including Ithaca Gardens apartments in Elizabeth Bay, completed in 1960.”
“In 1959, he teamed up with Dick Dusseldorp who founded Lendlease and they started working on Australia Square, which was finished in 1966; and then the practice went on to design office buildings and apartment towers. Later in his career, Harry went back to Vienna and the Seidler practice designed a major housing estate on an old industrial site on the Danube River in Vienna. He designed the Australian Embassy in Paris in the early 1970s, and Sydney has eight or nine Seidler skyscrapers throughout including Capita Centre and Blues Point Tower.
On the original plans, where stone is featured, it was originally meant to be bricks. But Harry didn’t realise you had to get in a line for bricks, being rationed and limited post war.
“Because he couldn’t get bricks, he used the stone instead from the site,” said Pearson.
The home’s two wings are joined by a service area; with many of the Seidler-designed homes using this same element of separation between living spaces and sleeping spaces.
The kitchen features what would have been a top-end refrigerator, a high-end stove, a top-loading dishwasher and a front-loading washing machine in 1950. The living room includes an in-built sound system, record player and short wave radio. “These are things which would have been common in America at the time but were radical in Australia,” explains Pearson.
“I had the opportunity to go through this house a couple of times with Harry before he passed away. He talked about the fact that the appliances in the kitchen cost about one third of the cost of the house. His parents were incredibly indulgent if you think about it.”
“Harry’s parents were able to get quite a lot of personal possessions out of Austria. Because Harry’s uncle had come here, they were able to ship quite a few items to Australia in the very late 1930s before WWII hit. So Rose, when they were living in an apartment in Dover Heights, had furniture and bits of china etc. Harry came in and said, ‘get rid of it… if you want me to do this, you have to have the house as I want it’.”
“The crockery for Rose Seidler was designed by Russel Wright, and the cutlery too – so Harry basically said to his parents, ‘this is the way it’s got to be’. His mother refused however to get rid of a Viennese tea and coffee service, so when you go into the laundry, you’ll see there’s a tea trolley. When Harry built his own house in Killara, he actually built special storage for it. As he said, I was an awful brute and it was one of the only things that linked me back to my childhood.”’
The outside mural on the deck was painted by Harry himself. On his way out to Australia, he stayed for six weeks in Brazil at Brasilia where he spent time with the architect Oscar Niemeyer.
“The abstract motif featured in the mural was very much a Niemeyer device. Harry painted the mural, and if you look at it, it reflects the colour palate of the entire house,” said Pearson.