Before Hopewood Gardens, there was Hopewood House, built by retail royalty the Hordern family and home to hundreds during its time.

Lebbeus Hordern

Hopewood House was built for Lebbeus Hordern, a member of the famous Hordern retail dynasty and one of the aviators behind Sydney’s first-ever seaplane flight.

Hordern was born in 1891 at Retford Hall, Darling Point, the stately mansion built by his grandfather in 1865. He was the great-grandson of Anthony Hordern, founder of what was, at the time, Sydney’s largest retail company. When his father died, Lebbeus and his two brothers inherited the bulk of his fortune. Lebbeus was just eighteen years old.

In 1912, at the age of 21, he married his first wife, Olga Clare Monie. The union produced one son, Lebbeus Hordern Junior.

Lebbeus was something of a Gatsby-esque character, and his inheritance allowed him to indulge his passion for fast cars and flight. On a visit to England in 1913, he bought a Farman hydro-aeroplane. On May 8, 1914, that plane, piloted by French pilot Maurice Guillaux, took off from the waters of Double Bay in what was Sydney’s first seaplane flight.

Lebbeus served in the First World War with the Royal Field Artillery and was sent home to Australia in 1917 after being gassed in France.

Building Hopewood House

Lebbeus commissioned the architectural firm Morrow & De Putron (later to become Morrow & Gordon) to build Hopewood House around 1924.

By that time, he was already the owner of a weekend home, also called Hopewood House, in Bowral. Legend has it Lebbeus would land on the 700-acre grounds in his private plane and throw extravagant parties in the impressive gardens he had established there (which remain to this day).

The new Hopewood House in Darling Point was, at the time, one of the largest private homes ever built in Sydney. Featuring wide verandahs and containing 40 rooms, including a ballroom and a library, it stood on 2.5 acres next door to Retford Hall, which was still owned by Lebbeus’ brother. The house was built in the Art Nouveau style and enjoyed harbour views from three sides, while the extensive grounds featured tennis courts, summer houses and ‘secluded walks which suggest a home buried deep in the countryside rather than in a metropolitan area’.

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A finishing school for girls

Not long after Hopewood House was completed, Lebbeus divorced his first wife and married Francis May Barry in Adelaide in 1926. He was at home at Hopewood House when he died suddenly at the age of 37 in 1928. He regularly took sedatives to combat his insomnia, and it was an overdose of these drugs that led to his death.

Both his Darling Point and Bowral homes were sold in 1930, and the Darling Point Hopewood House was purchased by Miss N. Jobson. She furnished the home with ‘restraint and tasteful comfort’ and opened an exclusive finishing school for girls. It accommodated both boarders and day students, providing tuition for school leavers in ‘general culture and special aptitudes and talents, such as piano, cello, singing, languages, art, literature, dancing, fencing and domestic science and cooking.

Housing servicemen and women during WWII

Hopewood House took on a different role during the Second World War. The Sydney Naval Depot at Rushcutters Bay became a recruitment and training centre for personnel from both the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Women’s Royal Australian Navy (WRAN) during the war. The RAN and WRAN personnel were given accommodation in homes around Darling Point, including Hopewood House, Stratford Hall, Ranelagh and The Octagon. Following the war, Hopewood House became a private hospital for several years.

Rosary Villa

In 1949 Hopewood House changed hands again, this time selling for 46,000 pounds to the Sisters of St Joseph of California, a Roman Catholic order of nuns who had arrived in Australia in 1946. By the end of 1950, Hopewood House was operating as a non-denominational girls’ hostel called Rosary Villa, providing accommodation for between 80 and 100 students and young women with jobs. It had taken four American nuns ten months to convert the high-ceilinged rooms into pale blue and white dormitories. The hostel included special facilities for study, radios in the rooms, beautifully furnished lounges, a well-equipped library and ‘many wide verandahs and terraces for sun baking’.

From Hopewood House to Hopewood Gardens

In the years following World War II, Sydney suffered a serious shortage of residential accommodation, and in the late 1950s, Woollahra Municipal Council began to approve the subdivision plans of developers in Darling Point. In 1959 approval was given for the subdivision of the Retford Hall estate and the conversion of the house into apartments. Hopewood House soon followed, replaced in 1966 with the multi-storey apartment building Hopewood Gardens.

Today, Hopewood Gardens on Thornton Street is one of Darling Point’s most coveted addresses, with homes set inside the sought-after gated enclave enjoying some of Sydney’s most exclusive harbour views. A connection to the old Hopewood House remains in the form of the original brick, stone and ironwork fence and gates, which are still in situ.

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