The Fishwick house
Walter Burley Griffin
Tropman & Tropman Architects
1996 - 1998
Willoughby Heritage Awards, 2000
4 bed, 2 bath, 1 guest powder, 1 car (garaged) & multiple living indoor and outdoor
© Tamara Graham, Architectural & Editorial Photographer
© John Haycraft, Artist & Architectural IIustrator
Dr Anne Watson, Architecture & Design Curator & Writer
Offered for sale for the first time in almost half a century, the incomparable Fishwick house in Sydney’s tranquil, harbourside Castlecrag is nationally and internationally regarded as a landmark of 20th century residential architecture.
The house was designed in 1929 by acclaimed Chicago-born architect Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) as part of the unique Castlecrag estate developed by Griffin and his wife, architect Marion Mahony, in the 1920s. Both had worked extensively with the famous Chicago architect Frank Lloyd Wright but relocated to Australia in 1914 after winning the international competition to design Canberra.
In the Fishwick house Griffin was able to realise many of his ideas about modern architecture, integrating the house within its rugged sandstone setting, designing a spacious floorplan that maximised natural light, views and function and incorporating numerous innovative features considered boldly modern at the time.
“Following its restoration, it ranks among the most important Griffin buildings in both the United States and Australia. As a well restored, outstanding example of [Griffin’s] residential architecture, I believe it has significance at an international level.”
Located at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, the two-storey sandstone house is sited on a wedge-shaped block with stunning, panoramic easterly views from the entry-level living room over bushland to Middle Harbour and beyond to the Pacific.
Special features of the ground floor include its open planning, spacious colonnaded reception area, dramatic sandstone fireplace and cosy ‘sunken’ study. Upstairs are four bedrooms and two bathrooms, one being the ensuite to the master bedroom with a spectacular semi-circular row of north-facing windows providing abundant light and restful bush views.
Purchased by the current owners in 1976 it has been respectfully and comprehensively restored and modernised over many years and now sits seamlessly in its beautifully landscaped native garden. The house has received many accolades for its sensitive restoration and is heritage-listed by leading authorities, including the New South Wales State Heritage Register.
When Griffin purchased the Castlecrag subdivision in 1921 it was an undeveloped expanse of picturesque rocky bushland on the foreshore of Middle Harbour. Intent on retaining as much of this natural character as possible, Griffin planned his estate with contoured roads, a generous system of walkways and reserves, and houses that harmonised with the landscape. Today, Castlecrag’s enduring natural amenity, just 12 minutes from the Sydney CBD, testifies to the timelessness of the ideas that anchored Griffin’s grand suburban vision.
The Fishwick house, significant for its location, its liveability and its place in the history of modern architecture demonstrates the genius of Walter Burley Griffin’s creativity. It is one of the most significant, celebrated early 20th century houses in Australia.
“There are few early modern houses in Australia that have maintained their original design integrity with such finesse.”
The Design & History
When Thomas Fishwick engaged Walter Burley Griffin in 1929, there were 13 Griffin-designed houses in Castlecrag, all relatively modest in scale. The Fishwick house was to be another matter, however, and in its size and complexity signaled Griffin’s greater, but unrealized, ambition for his bush suburb. Over 70 designs for unbuilt Castlecrag projects are known, most incorporating innovative architectural elements that Griffin was able to explore in the residence for his aspirational client.
Fishwick, an Englishman by birth, was the representative in Australia of John Fowler & Co, a Leeds-based manufacturer of heavy-duty, steam-driven machinery mainly for agricultural, and road-making purposes. With a substantial budget and an entrepreneurial mindset Fishwick, with his wife Olive, chose – perhaps under Griffin’s guidance – one of the more challenging but spectacular sites in the Castlecrag estate located at the end of The Citadel, an undeveloped cul-de-sac cut dramatically into the rugged sandstone terrain.
It has been speculated that Fishwick built the house as an investment property, but whatever his motive he only lived in Castlecrag until the end of 1932 when he returned, under something of a professional cloud, to his business in South Africa. From then until 1945 the house was rented out, first to a former Griffin client, Nisson Leonard-Kanevsky, and then to Rawson Deans and his family. Deans purchased the house from Fishwick in 1945 and for many years it played an important role in the Castlecrag community. Deans being the brother of Edgar Deans, the secretary and accountant of Griffin’s property development company. Rawson purchased the house from Fishwick in 1945 and for many years it played an important role in the Castlecrag community. In 1976 the house was purchased by the current owners who, after making the house sound, in 1996 undertook a careful and comprehensive restoration program and extensively landscaped the native garden.
The wedge-shaped block of the Fishwick house dictated a narrow frontage but, as the site widened, allowed for a substantial two-storey residence with stunning easterly views over bushland to Middle Harbour and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. By excavating almost two metres into the existing sandstone shelf Griffin was able to both integrate the house with the natural terrain and utilise the cut stone for its construction. Like his 1912 Melson house in the American mid-west, the Fishwick house seems to emerge organically from the landscape.
Early archival photographs show the Fishwicks’ Austin Seven Tourer car parked in the garage which also included a laundry and storage space. To the right of the garage a narrow, amber-glass flanked passageway opens dramatically into an impressive colonnaded reception area. Flowing from this low-ceilinged space are the airy living and dining rooms and, down a short flight of stairs, a snug ‘sunken’ study.
Central to this floor is an imposing, free-standing sandstone fireplace, its chimney mass punctuated by an unusual arched void that provides glimpses of the panorama beyond the living room’s large picture window. Griffin scholar Professor James Weirick has described this progression from enclosed space to open vista as ‘one of the magical experiences of Griffin’s Castlecrag.’ The entire lower floor is a masterpiece in complex spatial manipulation and open planning, not to become common in Australia until later in the century.
Griffin repeated this planning tour-de-force in the upper floor with its two large bedrooms, two bathrooms and generous two room maid’s quarters which later provided the third bedroom as well as a workroom or fourth bedroom. In the light-filled main bedroom a projecting, semi-circular row of seven north-facing casement windows, with the architect’s signature angled glazing bars, provide views of the bush reserve beyond. Like several of Griffin’s Castlecrag houses the Fishwick house also provided a large flat roof used as a balcony, its open-air setting and magnificent harbour views a popular attraction for residents and visitors alike.
Encouraged no doubt by his client’s receptiveness to new ideas and generous budget, Griffin’s innovative approach to the Fishwick house was not confined to its overall design and planning; the house incorporated many novel features and decorative detailing which signaled that rare relationship between architect and client – a likeminded interest in pushing the boundaries of the everyday. Some of these features, such as the two glass-bottomed fish tanks set into the dining room ceiling, no longer survive, but others – like the striking dappled finish of the reception area columns which were fabricated from reinforced concrete sewerage pipes, an Australian invention – have remained in place and been carefully restored. Griffin’s plan included three ‘alcoves’ for such modern devices as a radio, telephone and vacuum cleaner; in practice, these gave way to the unplanned step-down study, most peoples’ favourite room.
“The Fishwick house embodies all the hopes and dreams of a different way of living with the landscape. Whilst the original 650 acre GSDA plan did not come to fruition, everything that the Griffins believed in came true at the Fishwick house - and remain true to this today .”
The Fishwick house is widely regarded by scholars, heritage experts and historians as an exceptional example of Walter Burley Griffin’s Australian residential buildings, comprehensively demonstrating his core ideas about the intersection of architecture, design and landscape with the human experience. Paul Kruty, Emeritus Professor of Architectural History at the University of Illinois, and a noted Griffin scholar, has described the house as ranking ‘… among the most important Griffin buildings in both the United States and Australia. As a well restored, outstanding example of [Griffin’s] residential architecture, I believe it has significance at an international level.’
Today the Fishwick house is celebrated not only for its expression of Griffin’s creative genius, but as a highly livable, sensitively restored residence in a superb landscape setting.
Defying categorisation into a particular style or movement – what Griffin described as the ‘excessive intellectualization of architectural design’ – the house uniquely responds to the particulars of its location and the inventive dialogue between original client and architect in a way that is both timeless and modern. Esteemed architectural commentator Robin Boyd may well have had the Fishwick house in mind when he described Griffin as a ‘prophet of the modern movement’ in Australia and a ‘great pioneer of twentieth century architecture’.
The significance of the Fishwick house is acknowledged in its multiple heritage listings, including the New South Wales State Heritage Register where it is described as ‘an excellent example of innovative architecture developed during the interwar period’. It is also on the Register of the National Estate, the National Trust of Australia (NSW) Register, the Australian Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter) Register of Significant Buildings, the DOCOMOMO International Register and, as part of the Castlecrag subdivision, the Willoughby City Council Local Environmental Plan 2012.
The house is documented in 25 academic or general interest books on Australian and international architecture including Visionaries in Suburbia: Griffin Houses in the Sydney Landscape and Phaidon’s comprehensive 20th Century World Architecture where it is the only Australian house of the first half of the 20th century to be featured. Finally, the story of the house and its architect has proved popular subject matter for five television and radio programs – and as a highlight for visitors during Castlecrag open days.
“Only six houses in Australia, built in the first half of the 20th century have been listed at both the federal and state levels. Since almost all of these are rural or built in traditional styles. The Fishwick house stands alone as the only 'modern' private residence in Sydney from that time to be listed by all three levels of government.”
Castlecrag, Sydney NSW 2068
4 bed, 2 bath, 1 guest powder, 1 car (garaged) & multiple living indoor and outdoor
Approx. gross internal area:
(approx.) 235 sq m (2,530 sq ft)
Approx. gross land area:
(approx.) 809.3 sq m (8,711 sq ft)
For Sale by Private Treaty
Price Guide: $5.6M – $6.1M
View: By Appointment
Modern House Estate Agents
National: 1300 814 768
International: +61 2 8014 5363
Situated 8 km north of Sydney’s GPO, Castlecrag is a perfect combination of escape and proximity to the city. Its tranquil tree-lined streets belies the fact that a bustling CBD lies just three sets of traffic lights away.
In 1921 the peninsula suburb was laid out by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin who named their creation after a towering crag of rock overlooking Middle Harbour, known locally as Edinburgh Castle.
Reflecting this theme, the streets in the southern, older portion of the suburb were named after parts of a castle. The green spaces that were planned followed the nomenclature. Tower, Casement, and Turret Reserves run down the central spine of the suburb, the main street was appropriately named, Edinburgh Road.
The Griffins’ vision for a utopian residential model suburb, sympathetic to the Australian natural environment overlooking the unsurpassed beauty of Sydney Harbour.
They believed this could be achieved by diligent planning with roads designed to suit the topography of the area; following the natural contours of the land while in tandem, establishing a network of pathways and even an amphitheatre which would give a sense of community and thereby encouraging social interaction.
Today, due to the foresight of the Griffins the enclave of Castlecrag has become one of the most desirable suburbs on Sydney’s north side.
Still retaining its sense of community, the network of pathways are now well worn and local organisations are currently working towards a full restoration of The Haven Amphitheatre where performances will once again be held. At the suburb’s entrance, which was once only occupied by a handful of businesses, the local high street has blossomed into a thriving village containing all manner of conveniences, including an array of cafes and European-style artisan providors.
Castlecrag is ideal for all stages of family life. The suburb is within ideal reach of the prestigious schools on both sides of the harbour and the upper North Shore. The village atmosphere and convenience of the local high street is further complemented by the proximity to nearby Northbridge Mall and the major shopping precinct of Chatswood which is only minutes away by car.
Also nearby is the Willoughby Leisure Centre which offers aquatic and sporting facilities as well as the Incinerator cafe and arts space, another Griffin legacy to the area.
With its historic connection to the nation’s capital, Castlecrag has become the spiritual home to Australian architecture in general, with almost every post war architect of note having contributed built works to the area and in the process, making it one of the most unique suburbs in Australia.
Walter Burley Griffin, Architect
In a career spanning almost four decades over three continents, Walter Burley Griffin’s prolific and diverse legacy is unequalled by few other 20th century architects. While architecture, town planning and urban design were his chief focus, Griffin, with his wife and professional partner, architect Marion Mahony Griffin, also designed landscape and interior schemes, furniture and lighting.
He wrote and lectured extensively on a range of subjects, none so fervently as his vision for creating a built environment that respected the natural landscape. The Castlecrag estate is the culmination of the Griffins’ philosophical and design ideals with the Fishwick house being the last remarkable embodiment of these ideas – an outstanding pioneer of Australian residential architecture.
Image: Walter Burley Griffin, photograph by Wallinger, 1912, National Library of Australia PIC/6215
Griffin in America
Walter Burley Griffin was born in the Chicago suburb of Maywood on 24 November 1876. Brought up in a socially progressive household he studied architecture as well as taking courses in horticulture and forestry at the University of Illinois from where he graduated in 1899. From 1901-1906 Griffin worked in the renowned Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright, absorbing the great architect’s innovative ideas but also evolving a point of departure that would set his subsequent career on an independent trajectory.
In 1906 Griffin established his own practice in Chicago’s Steinway Hall – seeminly the gathering place for the city’s most progressive an innovative architects and it was there that his and Marion’s paths productively intersected. Marion had worked in Wright’s office from 1895-1909, but in 1910 she engaged Griffin to create a landscape scheme for a residential enclave of three houses she had designed in Decatur, Illinois. The project launched Marion and Walter’s professional partnership and cemented their personal relationship. Her superb renderings of his designs date from this year; most of these are now sought-after as wonderful works of art bringing very high prices at auction.
Over the next three years Griffin designed many residences and public buildings in the American mid-west. Some, such as the flat-roofed ‘Solid Rock’ house (Winnetka, Illinois), explored the new possibilities of reinforced concrete and, in the opinion of expert achitectural academics, it provided the DNA of the Fishwick house. Others, like the Stinson Memorial Library (Anna, Illinois) used rough-cut local stone to create an organic monumentality. Influenced by Louis Sullivan’s call for architecture to express a new modernity, and by Wright’s ‘Prairie School’ aesthetic, Griffin nevertheless forged his own innovative stylistic framework that responded to each project’s individual location and function.
However, it was the 1912-13 Rock Crest/Rock Glen development in Mason City, Iowa that most brilliantly expressed the Griffins’ integrated urban planning and environmental principles. Described by one Griffin scholar as a ‘timeless masterpiece melding landscape, planning and architecture’ Rock Crest was planned as a development of 19 residences on a seven-hectare former quarry bisected by Willow Creek. Of the four houses completed, it was that for Joshua Melson, the site’s visionary owner/developer, that heralded a remarkable new direction for Griffin and, as one writer has put it, ‘a new, truly American style’ Constructed almost entirely of rough-hewn limestone, the Melson house anticipated the innovative aesthetic that would be re-expressed in the house for Thomas Fishwick in 1929 on the other side of the world.
United by their shared interests – architectural, environmental, social – Marion and Walter married in June 1911 and soon after won the international competition to design Australia’s new federal capital. Canberra may have exercised Marion and Walter’s their innovative planning and design concepts – exquisitely expressed in Marion’s competition drawings – but it was Sydney’s magnificent harbour that captivated them. Arriving aboard ship, initially without Marion, in 1913, Walter extolled, ‘You folk in Sydney have the chance of making a city beautiful that could easily be one of the finest in the world. … You have the most magnificent waterfront I have ever seen.’
The Griffins relocated together to Australia in May 1914, establishing practices in Sydney and, principally, Melbourne, then the seat of the federal government. For the next ten years commissions for many significant projects rolled in: the extraordinary Café Australia (1916), Newman College (1915-18), Capitol House and the Capitol Theatre (1921-24), numerous residences as well as planning of the Ranelagh and Glenard estates on Melbourne’s metropolitan fringe all dictated a hectic work schedule.
1924, Capitol Theatre, Melbourne
Nature, horticulture, gardening, landscape architecture – for the Griffins they were a natural, indeed essential, complement to architecture. When the opportunity arose to purchase a large tract of land on the foreshore of Sydney’s Middle Harbour in late 1920 they jumped at the chance to return to the harbour city. Deeply frustrated by constant bureaucratic meddling over the implementation of their Canberra plans, Walter resigned as Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction in 1920 and formed the Greater Sydney Development Association of shareholders to acquire the land.
Castlecrag was to be the Griffins’ ‘model residential suburb’ of houses, reserves, walkways and contoured roads ‘aesthetically in keeping with the surroundings, so far as possible of the native rock and subordinate to the natural beauty of the land’. While Walter focused on the design of the estate’s houses, Marion was the mainstay of the close-knit Castlecrag community, organizing social activities as well as plays staged in the open-air Haven Scenic Theatre constructed by residents in the early 1930s. The Haven, picturesquely located in a natural, rocky amphitheatre, survives today, as do 15 Griffin houses built before the Great Depression and other factors ended the Griffins’ utopian aspirations. Castlecrag’s enduring natural amenity is testament to the timelessness of the ideas that anchored the Griffins’ grand suburban vision.
Marion and Walter lived permanently in Castlecrag from 1925 to 1935. During the worst years of the Depression in the early 1930s Walter, with partner Eric Nicholls and Fishwick house tenant Nisson Leonard-Kanevsky, was commissioned by RIECo – the Reverberatory Incinerator and Engineering Company – to design a number of buildings around Australia to house local councils’ refuse incineration process. Sydney was home to a large, strikingly decorated incinerator at Pyrmont which was sadly demolished in the mid 1990s. Fortunately, smaller incinerators at Glebe and Willoughby have been sensitively restored and are now used for community events.
In October 1935 Walter travelled to India to design the Lucknow University Library. With other commissions emerging, Marion followed in May 1936, but the excitement of their revitalised practice in a new country was short-lived. In early 1937 Walter died suddenly from peritonitis following an operation. Heartbroken, Marion wrote to a friend in Castlecrag, ‘His eyes never left mine till he drew his last breath and I closed them … he didn’t want to go. Things were pouring in on him and he was happy.’
After Walter’s untimely death at the age of 60, Marion returned briefly to Castlecrag and then to Chicago where she died aged 90 in 1961. Today, the Griffins’ extraordinary legacy survives in many American and Australian projects but is most remarkably represented in the incomparable natural beauty of Castlecrag and its Sydney Harbour foreshore.
For Sale by Private Treaty
Price Guide: $5.6M – $6.1M
View: By Appointment
Modern House Estate Agents
National: 1300 814 768
International: +61 2 8014 5363
Publication: Meredith Walker. Adrienne Kabos, James Weirick, Building for Nature: Walter Burley Griffin and Castlecrag, Walter Burley Griffin Society, Sydney, 1994.
Publication: Jeff Turnbull, Peter Navaretti, The Griffins in Australia and India, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 1998.
Publication: Anne Watson (ed), Visionaries in Suburbia: Griffin Houses in the Sydney Landscape, Walter Burley Griffin Society, Sydney, 2015.
Website: Walter Burley Griffin Society
Website: Wikipedia, John Fowler & Co.
 Cited in Alasdair McGregor, Grand Obsessions. The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, Lantern, Australia, 2009, p420.
 ‘The residents here spent much of their time and entertained their guests on these superb lookout terraces.’ The Magic of America, Section 3, p382.
 Kruty, submission in support of the addition of the Fishwick house to the Australian Heritage Commission National Register, 2002.
 Walter Burley Griffin, ‘Towards Simpler Homes’, address to the RAIA, July 1931.
 R Boyd, Victorian Modern, RVIA, Melbourne, 1947, p11; Introduction to James Birrell, Walter Burley Griffin, Uni of Queensland Press, 1964.
 Paul Kruty et al, Rock Crest/Rock Glen, Mason City, Iowa: the American Masterwork of Marion M and Walter B Griffin, Walter Burley Griffin Society of America, 2014, p96.
 Kruty, ibid, p15.
 Anon, ‘Mr Griffin’s Plans’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 August 1913, p8.
 GSDA Prospectus, quoted in Anne Watson (ed), Visionaries in Suburbia: Griffin Houses in the Sydney Landscape, Walter Burley Griffin Society (Australia), Sydney, 2015, p8.
 Marion Mahony Griffin to Ula Maddocks, 11 February 1937, The Magic of America, Section 1, p199. https://archive.artic.edu/magicofamerica/moa.html