The Victorian Terrace House

December 7th, 2018 - by Brad Gillespie

A feature of inner Sydney life since the late 19th Century, Victorian terrace houses with their pretty plasterwork, sash windows, old floorboards and high ceilings are often situated in the city’s best locations.

And they sell for millions. But that wasn’t always the case...

A short history of the Sydney terrace

Just like it is today, housing development has always been a feature of Sydney’s economy and the rows of terrace houses are just one example of this. From the 1830s onwards, the city’s early developers bought parcels of land and reasoned that it was cost effective to build several houses in a row. Often they retained the larger of the houses for their private accommodation then sold off the other properties.

Some of Sydney’s terraces are tiny row houses in the “2 up, 2 down” style, others are grander freestanding terraces with ornate features. Originally modelled on the terraced housing in cities like London and Paris, one of the characteristics of the quintessential Sydney terrace is the front verandah.

At the turn of the 19th Century Australia exported vast quantities of wheat and wool to Europe. Ships taking produce had trade routes that included India, Java and England. Many of the architectural features we take for granted in Sydney terrace houses originated from these ports. Timber for staircases from Java, light fittings from India and iron balustrades from England.

The decline of the terrace house

Post World War II Australia’s cities experienced rapid population growth, access to the car and the great Aussie dream of the quarter acre block became entrenched. Young families headed for the outer ‘burbs, leaving behind terraces that fell into disrepair. Terraces in inner city areas like Surry Hills or Chippendale often became slums, while others were occupied by multiple families.

The revival of the terrace house – you can’t keep a good thing down

In the 1960’s & ‘70’s the terrace made a comeback. Suburban life was not for everyone, and their affordability and close proximity to the city made terrace houses hot again.

But things had to change. The night-man no longer needed rear access to the outside dunny and the old lean-to kitchen wouldn’t cut it any more.

Repro Renovation mania!

To accommodate all the mod cons and bring the bathroom inside, internal configurations were altered and rooms added to the rear of the property. This era or renovation also gave rise to the reproduction of “Victorian” features. Tile shops sold tessellated tiles, bathroom fittings including claw-footed baths, period style tapware and embellished cedar inspired cabinetry. This mode of renovation, where the old was ‘reproduced’ had its heyday in the 1980s.

Contemporary living in the timeless terrace

These days most terrace owners wisely consult an architect before embarking upon a major renovation. Terrace houses sit on narrow blocks, so using clever ideas to maximise space is the key to bringing them into the 21st century while retaining their period charm.

One of the other major challenges is configuring a bathroom upstairs. Kitchens are often widened or moved to the front room in the house, skylights and conservatory windows are installed to bring in the light and clever storage for bikes, prams and other paraphernalia integrated into the design. Off street parking – made possible by the old night-man laneways - adds value to houses but most residents also want easy access to their courtyard garden for entertaining.

Authentic features sourced from places such as Chippendale Restorations happily sit alongside contemporary concepts like polished concrete or glass. Kitchens are maxed out with storage and shaker doors and marble bench tops are back in fashion.

Innovative small-scale gardening is all the go, and room for a BBQ and outdoor furniture are must-haves for today’s terrace dweller. Many owners are also turning their terrace houses into green, eco-friendly homes.

Other than their charm, the location of these houses is one of their greatest appeals. Great access to services, schools, transport, restaurants, bars and coffee shops, coupled with a strong sense of neighbourhood and community has proved and an irresistible combination.

The Victorians simply wouldn’t recognise the place!