Woollahra The Secret Life of the Goethe-Institut

The Goethe-Institut at 90 Ocean Street
The Goethe-Institut at 90 Ocean Street | © Sophia Höff

Whether it is for work or to attend a language course, we don’t think twice about stepping inside the Goethe-Institut in Sydney – almost as if it was there just for us. But it has its own history, and one that is worth exploring.

On some level, we’ve probably always known it: The houses we live and work in had a history before us and will probably go on without us, unmoved. They have never hidden their past, and yet ... When we follow the strangely familiar layout of their rooms, when we look at the stucco on the walls or gaze down into the garden, the traces of a bygone era and the touches of strangers are everywhere; a secret history we may not even be aware of in everyday life. But it’s worth following its tracks. What do we know about the history of the house on 90 Ocean Street in Woollahra?

Parking was already in demand in the 1920s The buildung then and now Parking was already in demand in the 1920s | © Woollahra Council, Local History Digital Archive

Back to the roots

 The origins of the building go back to the legendary Captain John Piper who had a decisive influence on the early days of the colony of New South Wales. In recognition of his accomplishments, Governor Lachlan Macquarie granted him a number of properties. Around 1826, Piper’s assets included 1190 acres in Woollahra, where the Goethe-Institut stands today. This fact is well documented, for Piper was forced to sell the land to up-and-coming import/export business Cooper & Levey due to financial difficulties that year. In 1825, Daniel Cooper and Salomon Levey had taken over Lachland & Waterloo Co, put it in their own names and gone from success to success. An impressive feat, considering that both had come to New South Wales as convicts and Cooper had only been fully pardoned in 1821. In 1830, Cooper’s and Levey’s rights to the land were officially confirmed. At the time, a section of the property that roughly corresponds to today’s premises was already partitioned off for leasing purposes. The allotment was bound by Jersey Road, Ocean Street and Trelawney Street. In 1947, the entire plot of land went to Daniel Cooper, whose heirs managed it after his death.

Some of you might wonder where a curious name like “Woollahra” might come from. It actually goes back to the same family: The Coopers christened their family residence “Woollahra”, which roughly translates to “The Lookout”. As the municipality was being established at the same time, it was simply given the same name.

Plaque on the town clerk’s residence Plaque on the town clerk’s residence | © Sophia Höff The leaseholders who were renting the plot at Ocean Street corner Jersey Road appear not to have developed the plot in the manner provided for in the leasehold, which called for a stone building of not less than eight rooms. However, the premises lay more or less fallow when Woollahra council had a property assessment report prepared: The council was looking for a building. When the municipality was founded in April 1860, it was an open question as to where meetings were going to be held. As it turned out, a certain Captain John Broomfield was leasing the plot at the time. Broomfield was a shipmaster who specialised in trade and was involved in the local politics of Denison Ward. He didn’t mind handing over part of the unused land to the district administration, and on 13 August 1861, Woollahra Council decided to buy the land from Broomfield at the price of 80 pounds. Like many other investors in Woollahra, the council was therefore building on leased land that belonged to the Cooper family. The Council only secured the freehold to the land in early 1900.

A house is built

It took over a year for the council to agree on an architect’s construction plans. They appointed Harold Brees on 14 October 1862. Construction began in 1863; however, they fell out with Brees over suitable materials shortly thereafter. Architect Oswald Lewis proved to be more accommodating and successfully finished the works in 1864. On 24 February 1864, the council moved into the premises.
Town clerk’s residence Town clerk's residence then and now Town clerk’s residence | © Woollahra Council, Local History Digital Archive
The result speaks for itself: Strikingly situated in a corner between two roads, the gaze opens towards the expansive front of the building. Bound by three lines, the garden has an unusual triangular shape. Only a second glance reveals that the building isn’t actually detached – there are additional buildings adjoining at its back. The town clerk was also provided for: He resided on Ocean Street, directly next to the council building. A connecting door awarded him the shortest commute of any council member. The council depot was located on the Trelawney Street side. In 1868, the town clerk obtained a neighbour, for an overseer’s residence was built on Trelawney Street corner Jersey Road.

In the 1920s, the view of the main building was dominated by a German naval gun. The war trophy stood 1.80 m tall and had been captured by the Australian military in France during World War I. It was unveiled in a ceremony on 29 May 1921. In the course of major renovations, it ended up at the South Head Military Reserve in 1930, a step applauded by the local press. On 29 April 1933, the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Only three years ago the plantation harboured a huge and ugly cannon which was moved to a more suitable area; and, thanks to the efforts of the council’s engineer and gardener, this insignificant section of land was transformed into an oasis of beauty.”

View of the council building ca. 1926 View of the council building ca. 1926 | © Woollahra Council, Local History Digital Archive

The Goethe-Institut moves in

In 1947, more than 80 years after the official opening of the building, the district administration moved to Redleaf in Double Bay. Meanwhile, the main building was leased to engineering company Clyde Industries. In 1954, Clyde Industries expressed an interest in buying the main building together with the town clerk’s residence, and the sale proceeded that same year. The triangular garden, along with the depot and the overseer’s cottage, remained in the district administration’s possession. Clyde Industries soon sold the property again and the building saw a rapid succession of owners until the Federal Republic of Germany bought it in 1976 and the Goethe-Institut moved in. After 42 years on Ocean Street corner Jersey Road, the Goethe-Institut is without a doubt one of its more loyal residents.

Townhouses at 86 Ocean Street Townhouses at 86 Ocean Street | © Sophia Höff Euroka Resort Euroka Resort | © Sophia Höff So what became of the other council buildings? The depot as well as the overseer’s cottage ended up giving way to townhouses. And the garden? Having fended off various road construction projects, it still belongs to the council and is now a public reserve. While the gas lamps dating to 1908 are gone, the benches and the little pond from 1930 still invite passers-by to linger. The name the garden was given in 1972 is certainly appropriate: In the Dharug language, “euroka” means “sunlit corner”.

Houses indeed seem to have lives of their own, measured in their own temporal dimensions and putting into perspective any claims of ownership by their inhabitants. Yet their lives are not separate from ours: They allow themselves to be moulded and inhabited by their owners, thus becoming mirrors of contemporary history as well.