Pay a visit to Hunters Hill, Sydney’s oldest garden suburb, and you will find one of Australia’s most unique heritage homes. There, set within more than 39,200 square feet of private landscaped grounds, is Bulwarra. Built in 1877, the home has been thoughtfully extended and reconfigured by celebrated actress Cate Blanchett and her theatre director husband Andrew Upton to create an elegant, open-plan villa that works in gentle harmony with its environment.
Aboriginal for “high” or “lofty,” Bulwarra sits on a ridge with views across Lane Cove River to Sydney, just over five miles away. The riverside estate has, according to Dr Stephen Lesiuk, one of the architects behind the property’s award-winning design, “been carefully orientated and reconstructed to allow the home to open up to the sun, and draw the environment and landscape into the building.” Architect Nadine Alwill of Alwill, who undertook the detailing, adds: “The brief was to purify the old house… to embrace the view, create cooling breezeways throughout, and let sunlight pour in.”
At the heart of the sandstone home is an open-plan family room with professional-grade island kitchen. This large living area opens out to a terrace and William Dangar-designed gardens, where glass overhangs, awnings, and judicious landscaping provide shade and enhance the views.
DESIGN FOR MODERN LIVING
A large terrace, sheltered from the sun by deciduous trees, and an indoor breakfast area give the home a relaxed and welcoming air, although “you can make it as formal or informal as you like,” observes Ken Jacobs, managing director of Sydney-based property brokerage Ken Jacobs, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate.
The sense of light within the living area has been created through the use of wide glass windows, high ceilings, and polished concrete floors. Adjacent to this room is a smaller lounge and more formal dining area, displaying a similar contemporary design.
The home’s upper floor is reached via a striking metal-barred stairwell and open, metal staircase in the hallway. “The stairs are a clever design feature and complement the flow of the living areas,” says Jacobs.
On the first floor there are five spacious bedrooms, three of which have wide decks offering stunning river and garden views. There is also a separate suite that is ideal for guests. “Upstairs has been completely reconfigured. The high ceilings were an original feature but now there is a lot more light,” Jacobs continues.
The master bedroom comes with a sky-lit dressing room and an en suite bath, including a glorious freestanding Boffi tub precisely positioned to enjoy the breathtaking vista. While it feels perfectly integrated into the rest of the house, the room is, in fact, set within a separate wing for ultimate privacy.
Much of this easy fluidity has been achieved through the considered redesign of the building, particularly between the old and new sections. The pavilion-style extension, for example, connects to the original home via an innovative and light-enhancing link of glass “gills” that allow the building to open and “breathe.”
Similar harmony can be found outside, too: although the sandstone used on the new exterior walls is in a modern style, it is still the same character as the original stone and gracefully links past with present. “There is nothing jarring. It flows beautifully,” says Jacobs. “It has been done very subtly.”
A surprise awaits at lower-ground level, where an unexpectedly roomy and bright home office/library area has a dramatic double-height ceiling. Also discreetly tucked away are the greywater management systems, which recycle shower and kitchen water for irrigation. These environmental components are complemented by solar panels within the roof, which generate electricity. “It’s not a building that screams ‘green’; it’s a building that is quietly green. It is a landscape for living by the river,” says Lesiuk.
This remarkable home makes the most of its large garden, with a heated pool and spa, tennis court, and trampoline. Conceived as a private hideaway for guests, creative pursuits, or quiet contemplation, a self-contained pavilion features a retractable façade that folds back into the landscape.
Hunters Hill, which is set on a peninsula with beautiful river views and large parks, has tree-lined streets, good schools, and a village atmosphere that is popular with families. Something of a secret, it attracts the cognoscenti. “It really does offer a different feel,” says Jacobs. “Quite a few international buyers stumble on to it and settle there.”