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Road to Riches

10 January 2008

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David Williamson's play Emerald City opened on January 1, 1987, with a line of self-congratulatory bravado: "What other city in the world could offer a view like this?"

The Drama Theatre at the Opera House was full, the audience dressed in diamonds and pearls to watch a satire starring John Bell, Robyn Nevin and Ruth Cracknell about a frivolous society preoccupied with material success, TV ratings and waterfront real estate.

Due east across the glittering harbour, another drama played out on the knuckle of a point that since the days of Captain John Piper - the colony's "great buck, prince of hosts, leader of the world of fashion" - has been able to boast that it is home to some of Sydney's best houses, best views, best parties and best gossip-page scandal.

This tale was about location, about unfettered wealth and all the jewels and marble it could buy. It was about how the other half lived. It was a story of privilege - part soap opera, cabaret and tragedy, and its name was Wolseley Road.

Two decades later, Wolseley Road is still the dress circle where the rich and famous sit high on a quirk of geography - a thin-necked peninsula jutting deep into Sydney Harbour with mega-million-dollar views back to the bridge, the Opera House and the silhouetted CBD skyline hanging like a precious silk tapestry.

Pegged out in 1890 and named after British field marshal Garnet Joseph Wolseley, this wide, hooked street is where virtues and vices, ambitions and excesses, entwine gloriously in a row of lavish estates, deluxe apartments and theme-park palaces.

Of the 10 highest-priced house sales last year, for instance, it is the only street with multiple listings, including $25 million handed over in December by stockmarket trader David Trew for a 1921 harbourfront mansion.

According to Australian Property Monitors, 24 houses have traded in the past five years on Wolseley Road at an average $12.33 million - including the $21.5 million recruitment queen Julia Ross paid in 2004 for Villa del Mare, still a non-waterfront Sydney record.

Wolseley Road stands apart up the ritzy end of Sydney's real estate Monopoly board, deep blue-chip with gold bullion prices.

"It's the most-expensive street in the most expensive suburb in the country," says Double Bay agent Bill Malouf. "I don't think you could buy a block of dirt there on the waterfront now for under $15 million."

Summer afternoons reveal their own vignettes as I stroll along Sydney's wealthiest street. Silver-haired men back out of garages in late-model Mercedes. A yummy mummy jogs by, scented in Chanel eau de parfum. Cruisers launch from private jetties. Children splash in a pool. Playboys drive Porsches with personalised numberplates.

Deliveries arrive: a box of fish is signed-for by a private chef at a front door in readiness for a dinner party. Flowers, furniture, fresh groceries are all carried in. A white poodle is shampooed in a mobile dog wash. Housekeepers come and go. Two vintage Rolls-Royces, gold-and-champagne in tone, glide by with crisp white wedding ribbons. Tradesmen's utes and building skips line the kerb.

"Construction never stops," says property deal maker Bill Bridges. "It's usually the wives. They're all change-of-life renovators. It's a case of 'look what I've done' in a place where money is no object."

Adds Malouf: "A lot of the money is local money. People think we're selling these houses to international clients. We're not. We're selling to home-grown young money."

Urban sociologist Michael Bounds, from the University of Western Sydney, says it is no accident that so much power and wealth is gathered in such a small area.

"People with money want to live with other people with money. It's a concept called homophily. We all surround ourselves with circles of friends, with kindred spirits."

But as one Wolseley Road resident told Summer Herald: "No one here talks to each other."

Crystal Carwash king Anthony Sahade, for one, has proffered no cups of sugar over the fence since buying into the moneyed address for $11.25 million. One neighbour took out an AVO after he allegedly pushed her into a swimming pool; another sought an AVO after a stoush about beach frontage. Sahade had 50 tonnes of sand barged in to build a private sandcastle. Nature took its course. It washed away.

YouTube footage last year showed him later throwing stones and cursing arborist George Palmer as he chainsawed a eucalypt on an adjoining property. "Get down," yells Sahade in the movie clip. "Go again, and you watch where the next rock is going to hit."

The dust seems to have settled. Palmer says he's accepted Sahade's apology and, for what it's worth, he missed with the stones.

Sahade says his actions were an aberration. "There was no consent ever obtained by council for the clearing of those trees. I live next door and I was simply trying to stop an illegal act. It's just a storm in a teacup."

According to Woollahra real estate agent Michael Cassim, Wolseley Road "didn't really become the place to be until the mid-1980s. That's when the big money, the young money, started moving in."

At the time, Sir Frank and Lady Susan Renouf had posted security guards outside their now demolished waterfront mansion, Paradis sur Mer, in neighbouring Wolseley Crescent to fend press from their marital jitters. Craig-y-Mor made headlines for its record $12.3 million sale. (Years later Craig-y-Mor was sold by waterfront hardman Chris Corrigan to disgraced stockbroker Rene Rivkin. Rivkin in turn sold for $16 million to neighbour Ben Tilley.)

A who's who of Sydney's super-rich have since come and gone in a high-society game of musical chairs. Restaurateur Wolfie Pizem once tried to make it a gated community. Lachlan and Sarah Murdoch called it home before moving to Bronte.

One who stayed is Australia's third-richest man, Westfield billionaire Frank Lowy, who built his palace of dreams there.

Car salesman Neville Crichton (now squiring John Singleton's former wife, Julie) also lives in Wolseley Road, along with Brian White (of Ray White realty), and Channel Seven exec Bruce McWilliam, who paid $24 million for a waterfront pad in 2006.

Network ratings have been so buoyant he bought the neighbouring property last year for $18.5 million.

The very wealthy "buy into Wunulla Road in Point Piper", Bridges explains. "[But] if they've really made it, they get into the golden half-mile on Wolseley Road."

Of course there are exceptions. The would-be federal Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, and his wife Lucy - a former lord mayor - bought their property in Wunulla Road in 1994 for $5.4 million, then protected their views by paying $7.1 million five years later for the neighbouring property.

Even Wolseley Road has its pecking order. "The dearest houses are on the expensive lower side, from Wingadal Place around to about number 120," Bridges says. "That's where the dream begins."

But the dream comes at a price. According to speculation, former recruitment boss Andrew Banks and wife Andrea have informally listed their five-level faux Italianate home, Villa Veneto, for sale. It comes with a nature-strip of olive trees by the front door and an asking price of $65 million-plus.

Never mind that most of the mansions bake in the harsh western sun. "They've all got air-conditioning," Bridges says. "You'd think you were in the South Pole."

Certainly, the street's environmental footprint presses deep. Greens MP Sylvia Hale says Aussie Home Loans boss John Symond's super-sized pad above the Scots College Rowing Club is "unsustainable housing taken to a ludicrous extreme". The revelation it had a dozen toilets caused a stink in the Herald letters page - until Tony from Tuross Head noted: "If you use them one at a time, 12 dunnies use the same amount of water as one."

Wolseley Road's wealth is hidden mostly behind fences and closed doors. It's a society ball with security cameras on continuous loop.

Unless you're invited inside, the only way to see it is from the water. Early one Saturday morning I hire a kayak from Rose Bay and paddle to this strip of private opulence and flamboyant taste.

Houses step down the hill like a hanging garden laden with the fruits of self-made success. From the water, this seems a fantastic elucidation of the great Australian dream, a ghat of golden bricks and mortar. Many of the houses are as big as office blocks. Most come with boatsheds, tennis courts, swimming pools, lawns neatly clipped, rich-kid playthings big enough to be seen on Google Earth.

Not a dollar has been spared in maximising the water view. But this morning, from the water, these temples of material wealth look lonely and vacuous. They seem impersonal in their grandiose size and scale. There are few signs of life. Most have shutters and blinds closed. There is little movement. There are no bicycles leaned against the side of the houses. No washing strung on the lines. No strewn detritus of carefree children.

As I paddle back, a small aluminium tinnie is anchored off Point Piper, with three men dipping lines into the water. They're from Newtown, they explain, and they've stopped because this is a great spot to catch snapper and bream.

Here before these houses that sell for more money than most of us can imagine, these three men thread hooks, hoping to catch a fish for the frying pan.

This seems to be the beauty of Sydney. It is their water as much as anyone else's. The silver skin of the harbour divides the city but it also brings us together.


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