12 July 2016

Australian terraced housing that survived and thrived

Terraced housing was introduced to Australia in the C19th, the design work being based on the architecture of terraces in London and Paris. Rows of terraced houses became common in the inner suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, mostly built between 1855 and the 1890. The populat­ion boom was caused by the Victorian and New South Wales gold rushes of the 1850s and only finished with an economic depression in the early 1890s.

Sydney has some of Australia’s oldest terraced housing houses, a feature of the city from the 1830s on. The Horbury Terrace (1836), which is a Georgian terrace that's now been reused as offices and it is listed on the NSW Heritage Register. Susannah Place (1844) is one of the earliest still surviving. Hortonbridge Terrace, a grand triple storey row of five houses, was built in 1890. Inner city suburbs where terrace housing remains include The Rocks, Paddington, Bondi, Glebe, Surry Hills and Darlinghurst.

Due to Sydney's higher population density, the sandstone terrace houses could have more storeys. Early Georgian style sandstone terraces exhibited regional variations, especially since Sydney’s hills meant that many of the terraces were staggered up hills rather than level or uniform. Sydney terraces were more likely to make a feature of the roof than their Melbourne counterparts, often featuring high pitched windows with dormer windows, but with much shorter, plainer chimneys. Building rules from 1838 required party walls to be raised above the corrugated iron roofline which helped define the Sydney style. The terraces were often built right up to the property line, with cantilevered verandas and no parapet.

As housing developed, verandas became typically Australian as a way of shading the house. From the mid-C19th on, families also loved their verandas to be decorated with iron lacework, often displaying Australian fauna and flora. In contrast to the British practice of having dozens of houses built as a single hous­ing estate, Sydney normally built a short run of houses eg Castle Terrace in Padd­ing­ton.

Melbourne suburbs such as Albert Park, Fitzroy, Carlton, Parkville and East Melbourne were eventually subjected to strict heritage over­lays, to preserve what was left of these streetscapes. The earliest surviving terrace house in Melbourne was Glass Terrace in Gertrude St Fitzroy (1853–4). Royal Terrace in Nicholson St Fitzroy was only slightly younger and is the oldest surviving complete row.

Terraced housing in Melbourne ranged from expensive middle-class houses of two or three storeys, down to single-storey cottages in working-class suburbs. The most common building material used was brick, often covered with stucco. Many terraces were built in the Filigree style, a style using heavy cast iron ornament on the balconies.

Tasma Terrace was built in Parliament Place and St Andrews Place in East Melbourne. Once comprising seven 3-storey buildings, Tasma Terrace was constructed in two stages. The first three buildings were erected in 1878-78 by architect William Ireland for George Nipper, grain merchant and ship-owner. Due to financial difficulties, Mr Nipper had to sell the terrace in 1885 and move into the Windsor Hotel! So the remaining four buildings were constructed in 1886-87 by Dunton and Hearnden for Joseph Thompson, bookmaker and racehorse owner.

The second architect was Charles Webb. This distinguished British born architect also designed the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School (1856), Church of Christ in Swanston Street (1863), Wesley College (1864), the Royal Arcade (1869), the Alfred hospital (1869), Toorak’s Mandeville Hall (1876), the South Melbourne Town Hall (1879) and the iconic The Windsor Hotel (1884).

Castle Terrace in Paddington,  Sydney

Dorset Terrace, Launceston

North Terrace, Adelaide

Tasma Terrace, East Melbourne

Tasma one of the finest boom style terrace architectural works in Melbourne, having a three storey rendered brick structure with bluestone basement and a stunning two storey cast iron veranda. From the beginning, Tasma Terrace was used for rented accommodation and for up-market guest houses. It was customary for many women to conduct boarding houses back then; the name Tasma was associated first with the Nipper family residence in 1905 when Elizabeth Gow created the private hotel, Tasma Guest House. Tasma Terrace’s proximity to the city made it ideal accommodation for movers and shakers.

By the early 1970s all six remaining Tasma buildings were a bit derelict and there were plans to demolish the lot. Although one of the buildings had already been demolished in 1940, Tasma Terrace became the subject of a major preservation battle from 1970-72, led by the National Trust. Thankfully the campaign resulted in the government enacting legisl­ation in 1972 which established the govern­ment buildings advisory council and the nation’s first legislation for the preservation of historic buildings. However the three-storey rear wings, which comprised many small rooms used as bedrooms for the guest houses, kitchens, staff rooms and bathrooms could not be saved.

In 1979 the façade was restored to its original C19th shape. The fine decorative cast iron, with its Australian motifs, was saved. The oak wood grain effect of the front doors is a reproduction of the original finish. The ground floor verandas are paved with UK tiles. There are many surviving Victorian interior elements including heavily modelled cornices, high ceilings and sweeping arches, exactly how these rooms would have origin­ally appeared. Most of the fire places are original. The light fittings are reproductions of both gas and early electric lights.

Tasmania, being one of the oldest European settlements has a number of good examples of terraces, despite the small size of its major cities in comparison to mainland cities. Inner Hobart has some good examples of terrace housing. But it is Launceston that has some great extant examples. We will focus on the lovely, heritage-listed Dorset Terrace, a row of five 2-storey homes erected in 1888 and named after England’s Dorset county.

Hepburn Terrace
East Melbourne

The Italianate boom style of Dorset Terrace in Launceston was typical of Melbourne’s super confident style, not Tasmania’s. Note the prominent mid terrace parapet featuring a Palladian temple style triangular pediment. The top has a prominent finial with the inscription of the name and date of each house. And note the double storey bull nosed veranda featuring alt­ern­ating colour corrugated iron roof. The large French arched windows of the upper storey and ground floor Victorian four panel door and fanlight are flanked by vivid polychrome bricks. As expected, Dorset Terrace features finely detailed wrought iron filigree.


After Federation in 1901, terraced housing in Australia fell into disfavour and detached housing became the popular style in Australia. Two formal changes occurred. Firstly the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1910 identified “the housing problem” as being the small size of inner city allotments i.e they had no spacious back yards for cricket, football and dogs. Secondly The Housing and Slum Reclamation Act of 1920 shifted the responsibility for slum reclamation to local councils. So some local councils actually sought to ban terraces completely, after WW1 ended! The consequence was a shift toward quarter acre blocks and to urban sprawl. During the 1920s, many terrace houses in Victoria were converted into flats.

In the 1950s many urban renewal programs were aimed at eradicating terraces entirely, in favour of high-rise develop­ment. So how sad that by the time families wanted to gentrify inner-city areas and their surviving terraced houses in the 1970s, so many had disap­p­eared. Nowadays terrace houses in Australian cities are highly sought after, and due to their proximity to the CBD of the major cities they are often very very expensive.

Many thanks to each state's National Trust and to Australian Terrace Houses for their carefully researched descriptions of this category of Australian architecture.


Andrew said...

You know how to press my buttons. I was for some years a member of the National Trust and its headquarters was and maybe still is in Tasma Terrace.

Melbourne Walks said...

Emerge from the gardens, cross Clarendon Street and continue east into George Street East Melbourne. Hepburn Terrace (No. 199-209) was built in 1874 and is a fine example of the Victorian homes that define inner Melbourne. Two mansions opposite each other (No. 193 and 188) have been beautifully restored.

bazza said...

It's strange for a Brit to think that there were ever any terraces or high-rises in Australia. Your pictures show some absolutely stunning buildings. Thank goodness they have been saved. The Dorset Terrace house in Launceston is superb. I went onto Google Maps at street level to have a proper look at some of these places; they would cost millions in central London! (I also learned that Launceston is in Tasmania).
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Hels said...


well done, you! I wish I had.

National Trust Day celebrated 60 years of the organisation's activities just two months ago (21/5/2016). Appropriately, the big day was held at National Trust headquarters, still in Tasma Terrace.

Hels said...

Melbourne Walks

many thanks. I wondered why there were differences. Houses 199-203 were built earlier and are smaller and simpler. Houses 205-209 on the other hand were build later and are more decorated.

I worked in East Melbourne during the 1970s and decided then and there to buy a Victorian home one day in George St.

Hels said...


Most of the architects in Australia's middle-late Victorian era were British architects who sailed to Australia to work here, or were Australian lads who spent some years in Britain and then returned home to work. Since the boom period lasted from the Gold Rushes to the 1890s, there was a ton of work to go around.

The question is therefore not why Australian terraced housing was so popular in Victorian times but why those gorgeous old buildings were pulled down in the 20th century. After WW1, it was hoped to get every family on a freestanding 1/4 acre block - healthier and more spacious. And again, in the 1950s, the population grew so rapidly that inner suburbs needed high-rise develop­ments. We had never seen blocks of flats in Australia before, and were horrified.

Because so many terraces had been pulled down, and because each city's inner suburbs are so desirable, the surviving rows are bound to be expensive. But nothing like London's insane prices.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Row houses were a good way to dress up a crowded urban area with unified facades. Today, so often the ownership has been split up with no architectural restrictions, and the unified look is gone--one unit perfectly restored, another modernized, another stripped of all ornament or painted an odd color.

Oddly, Cleveland never went in for row houses; free-standing buildings with lawns and set-backs have always been the norm. Now, some developers are trying to put them in, presumably motivated by tax cuts and federal dollars--terraces are as wrong for Cleveland as they may be right for London or Melbourne.

Hels said...


It is not odd at all that Cleveland never went in for row houses. Victorian terraces were always too expensive for ordinary working families and not nearly as child friendly as detached houses with their own yards and trees. So by the late 19th century, every city had to come up with suitable types of accommodation for the middle classes, preferably not as far out as the very last station on the suburban rail system.

Re the interiors, there are many photos of renovated terrace houses available on line. But as you say, the houses have been modernised, stripped, changed or combined with their neighbours. Even if the exterior structures are protected by Heritage overlays, there is little protection for interiors.

Hels said...

There is a photo of a gorgeous terrace in Bromby St South Yarra which readers might like to examine. See the blog High Riser, at http://highriser.blogspot.com.au/2016/07/sunday-selections_17.html

Adam Ford said...

"Due to Sydney's higher population density, the sandstone terrace houses could have more storeys."

Sorry, but I think some sort of supporting evidence is needed for that?
Which I doubt could be forthcoming. Population density logically poses no formal restriction on height.

Rephrasing that, "Melbourne's lower population density meant none of its terraces COULD have more than two storeys" is obviously wrong.

Sydney's higher population density AND its geography almost certainly encouraged higher terraces, but I'd submit that's as causal as one could actually go.

Hels said...


You are correct...I really DO need supporting evidence.

Sydney's official town-planning regulations were very detailed. So it wasn't as if Sydney terraces could be taller, simply because no-one cared about architectural requirements.

Melbourne was an entirely planned city and once the gold rush hit Victoria, an optimistic and elegant city. But once again, Melbourne had detailed architectural requirements. So what factors influenced the decisions about the height of the terraces in the two cities, do you think?

Hels said...


When one of the Dorset Terraces houses was being advertised for sale this year, the real estate agents said "in 1888 their flashy brick and filigree facades shocked their Georgian neighbours". I am not sure what style to call Dorset Terrace - Italianate with rich polychromatic arrangement of rich brown bricks and Palladian pilastered triangular pediments perhaps? But that begs the question; what happened to the Georgian neighbours?

Joseph said...

I created a link to the Young St terrace houses in Sydney. For a very different facade, go to Sydney - City and Suburbs.


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Hels said...


many thanks. Australians in particular moved to a single-family home surrounded by a garden front and back, as soon as the family could afford it. But that meant moving to suburbs further and further away from the Central Business District, so that public transport became an issue.

These terraces in the inner suburbs remind us of what we nearly lost.