• The Wright and Neutra-inspired Kelly House 1 in 1955 (Max Dupain).

24a Victoria Road, Bellevue Hill, NSW, 1953–55

Built for Woolworths’s chairman Sir Theo Kelly and his wife, Nancy, this five-bedroom mansion exploited distant harbour views from a large Bellevue Hill site that was subdivided from the historic ‘Trahlee’ estate. Snelling’s Wright-inspired development, comprising a one-to-three-storey residence wrapping around a swimming pool and tennis court, won Architecture and Arts magazine’s House of the Year Award for 1955.

Sited 300 ft (91.5 m) uphill from a cul-de-sac road, the building tucked into its slope in cross-section, and included dramatically hovering and overlapping roof planes and terraces, reminiscent of Wright’s Prairie houses (1906–09), with the deep rendered balconies on the street façade also comparable to Fallingwater (1936–39). 

A September 1954 article in Architecture and Arts magazine claimed that this house measured ‘no less than 60 squares’ (6,000 sq ft; 557 sq m) and was Australia’s largest house of the post-war period. This statement seems correct because Kelly, as chairman of Woolworths, was one of Australia’s wealthiest businessmen at that time, and there had been a limit of 1,250 sq ft (116 sq m) on the habitable space of new houses until the mid-1950s. The Melbourne University architecture newsletter Cross-Section earlier claimed that this first Kelly house measured “no less than 80 squares” (8,000 sq ft; 743 sq m). Perhaps these different estimates relate to non-habitable areas, such as courtyards and car parking, which were not incorporated in floor space calculations to conform to the building code.

A Woolworths staff architect, John Gibbins, recalled that the Kelly House 1 was “well ahead of contemporary Sydney residential design at the time it was built. It had an advanced American feel about it.” In plan, the house wrapped around three sides of a swimming pool and lawn tennis court, with the main living-dining-entertaining areas stacked in the two-storied north (front) wing, above a two-car garage and a sandstone-retained lawn terrace above the driveway. Along the west site boundary, the bedroom wing included a nurse’s suite and three children’s suites, all with bathrooms, dressing rooms, and small garden courts.

  • Site perspective of the Kelly House 1, showing influences from Neutra's Kauffman house in Palm Springs.

To the east, beside the tennis court, a small staff residence was built; then it was subdivided and sold to the Mueller family for redevelopment as another prestige house. Then the Kellys added a new staff flat to the back of their site, beside the existing one-storey guest and recreation cabin, strengthening the U-shaped arrangement around their pool. Structural materials were classically Wrightian: rough-hewn sandstone blocks, bronze window-frames, glass and redwood (cedar) wall panelling and eaves trims. Internally, the same materials were combined with stainless steel benches and appliances in the kitchen, ceilings of sprayed vermiculite or redwood, and floors of cork tiles, parquetry, ceramic tiles, seagrass matting, and carpet, over heated concrete slabs.

As in most Wrightian houses, the hearth was ostentatious and centrally placed. In the Kelly residence, one sandstone chimney served monumental fireplaces in both the ground floor living room and upstairs study/lounge. Another brick fireplace was provided in the recreation cabin.

Colour interior photographs, published in the June 1956 Australian Women’s Weekly, show that a green theme prevailed for soft furnishings in the public zones, harmonizing with the earthy tones of the natural materials. In the living room, olive green upholstered seating was complemented by carpeting of a more lime-tinged tone. In the dining room, beside the staircase to the upstairs study/lounge, the table was surrounded by forest-green upholstered chairs (perhaps designed by Melburnian Grant Featherston). In the nearby kitchen, facing south to the pool, the cooktop alcove was finished with bottle-green laminate.

Yet more dramatic colour schemes were applied to private zones. In the main bedroom, grey carpet is offset by a black and white checked bedspread, yellow curtains, and orange, yellow and green cushions. In the upstairs study, Featherston armchairs in grey and salmon pink were coordinated with a beige tartan sofa and caramel carpet.

  • Living room furnishings at the Kelly House 1 (Australian Womens Weekly).

Throughout the house, Snelling’s cross-sectional strategies demonstrated empathy with the natural contours of the land. This was especially evident in the passage along the bedroom wing, where the carpeted treads are reminiscent of expansive steps in an Italian hill town. Snelling also varied the ceiling heights throughout this house, giving rooms different proportions and exposures to natural light. For example, the roof of the main bedroom ensuite was projected above the surrounding roof deck to allow clerestory windows to flood the interior with daylight. Roofs provided broad flat decks (some with 8-ft overhangs), made of timber covered with insulating fibers, asbestos felt, two layers of aluminium foil, and heavy bitumen embedded with white marble chips.

Sources

—Apperley, Richard and Peter Lind. 1971. 444 Sydney Buildings. Canberra: Royal Australian Institute of Architects, p. 44.

—Architecture and Arts. 1954. ‘Luxury home: Douglas Snelling, architect’, September, pp. 26–29.

—Architecture and Arts. 1956.Best house 1955’, February , p. 21.

—Architecture and Arts. 1956. ‘House of the year by Douglas Snelling, architect’, June, pp. 34–39.

—Architecture and Arts. 1956. ‘A house at Bellevue Hill, architect Douglas Snelling’, June, p. 43.

—Architecture and Arts. 1958. ‘Housing’, August–September, p. 60.

—Australian Women’s Weekly, The. 1956. ‘Experts choose this Sydney home as … house of the year’, 20 June, pp.15–19.

—Building Ideas. 1962. ‘A guide to Sydney architecture’, June, pp. 11–24.

—Cross-Section. 1954. 'A NSW house of no less than 80 squares', 1 February, p. 3.

—Gibbins, John. Personal communications, ca. 2003.

—Hunt, John. Personal communications, 2002–2006.

—Jahn, Graham. 1997. ‘A Guide to Sydney Architecture. Sydney: Watermark Press, p. 158.

—Kovac, Johan Andrew. 1999. Three Houses by Douglas Burrage Snelling 1947–1955 (B. Arch dissertation). University of Technology, Sydney.

—McDonald, Kenneth. 1957. ‘Luxury home at Bellevue Hill, NSW: the House of the Year ’55’, Homes for Today: Plans and Interiors for Modern Living, Featuring the Combined Ideas of the Country’s Leading Architects and Interior Designers. Melbourne: Monash University Press, pp. 55–57, 59.

—Pemberton, Gary J. 1984. Douglas B. Snelling: A Monograph of His Works (B. Arch dissertation). Sydney: New South Wales Institute of Technology.

—Stapleton, Ian and Meg Quinlisk (eds.). 2005. ‘Comparative study of houses designed by Douglas Snelling’, report by Clive Lucas Stapleton & Partners, with Davina Jackson, for the Woollahra Municipal Council, Sydney.

—Stewart, Meg. 1985. ‘The Seidler and Ancher show: how two architects changed the face of Sydney suburbia’, The Sydney Morning Herald (Good Weekend), 9 March, pp. 40–43.

—Sydney Morning Herald, The. 1954. ‘Home shaped to fit the fall of the land’, 13  July, p. 10.

—Trevillion, James. 1995. The Adventures of Douglas B. Snelling (B. Arch dissertation). Sydney: University of Technology, Sydney.