Walking down Darling Point Rd you can’t help but notice the imposing wrought iron gates set into a high stone wall stretching almost the length of a street block.
Beyond is a sweeping driveway leading to one of Sydney’s most magnificent heritage-listed homes, Swifts.
Glimpses of the mansion’s castellated rooftop peep through the branches of 150-year-old fig trees. But it’s inside that the property really earns its reputation as the most lavish historic home in the city.
Victorian Gothic grandeur
Constructed between 1876 and 1883, Swifts is the largest remaining Victorian Gothic Revival house in Australia. The mansion, designed by G.A. Morell, boasts around 50 rooms – apparently, there are too many to accurately count.
The grandest is no doubt the ballroom, which features an organ loft and 24-carat gilding on the ceilings and cornices.
The attention to detail flows throughout the house, with ornately painted ceilings in the entry foyer and intricately hand-painted walls in other rooms. An impressive staircase winds past the original leadlight featuring a scene that depicts the signing of the Magna Carta.
Interestingly, the building was designed in two haves: a darker ‘male’ side, and a lighter, brighter ‘female’ side that houses what is perhaps the mansion’s most intriguing addition.
Welcome to the opium room
Imagine the scene. It’s 1892. You’ve just enjoyed a sumptuous dinner in the Swifts dining room, your corset bursting at its seams. Your host invites the gents to join him in the billiards room, while the ladies retire to relax … in the opium room.
The hugely atmospheric opium room, an original part of the building, dates from a time when taking opium was legal in New South Wales. With its distinctly Moorish touches – including a curved doorway, Moroccan lanterns and opulent designs on the walls – this small yet perfectly formed room oozes character and charm, and is the perfect hideaway for a late-night tête-à-tête.
Built on beer
The property’s owners over the decades have been a varied lot. Swifts was originally built by brewer Sir Robert Lucas-Tooth, who named the mansion after his family home in Kent, UK.
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In 1900 Lucas-Tooth sold the property to another brewer, Edmund Resch. Swifts then stayed in the Resch family until 1963, when it was bequeathed to the Catholic Church and consequently served as home to three cardinals. During this time, the Church whitewashed the walls, covering the excesses of the past.
Restoring life to Swifts
In 1997 the Moran family, of Moran Health Care fame, purchased what was by then a crumbling, almost derelict building.
It took six years of renovations and much work to restore Swifts to its former glory. Heritage artists removed the whitewash to uncover and faithfully restore the beautifully painted walls and ceilings beneath. The building is enjoying a new lease of life.
Swifts now serves two purposes, functioning as both a family home and also as the backdrop to some of the city’s most prestigious events, including the Sydney Harbour Concours d’Elegance motor show.
Today, Swifts is listed as a property of state significance with the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, a fitting testament to its role in Sydney’s history and a move that cements its place in the city’s future.
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Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swifts,_Darling_Point