Monday, September 23, 2013

Vale Ian Waterhouse

Eryldene, that little gem of an historic house in Gordon on the upper North Shore of Sydney, recently lost its last direct contact with the family who built it, with the death of Ian Waterhouse.

Ian, who was in his 90s, was the last surviving of the four sons of Eben Gowrie Waterhouse and his wife Janet.  E.G. Waterhouse, as he was known, commissioned Hardy Wilson to design Eryldene in the Greek Revival style at a time when such architecture was not in favour, and together with its pavilions and world famous camellia gardens they created what Peter Watts (ex director of the Historic Houses Trust  of NSW) has described as ' the most exquisite house in Australia'.

Despite the house having three bedrooms, the four boys were brought up sleeping on the enclosed verandas whether in summer or winter, as various relatives came to live with the family long term.

Ian told me that the each boy had a drawer for their clothes in their parent’s bedroom and a box for their toys in the study - a far cry from today's child's material possessions!
Ian had a distinguished career as an academic specialising in pyscho analysis and as one of the founding professors of Macquarie University.  He was a delightful man with a quick wit and a warm smile for everyone. His stories about growing up at Eryldene provided that primary resource which is invaluable in understanding any historic house and its context.

One great story particularly stands out for me. In 1934 his father, by this time professor of German at Sydney University,  took a sabbatical and travelled to Europe. There he met with Mussolini through a link engineered by the Italian consul general in Sydney and had a good old natter with Il Duce in Italian about the merits of the leader's beautification of Rome then underway, and the fact that all the trains now ran on time.

From there he travelled to Berlin, and amazingly managed to snare a meeting with Hitler, based on the premise that Hitler (as with Mussolini) was interested in how his native language was being taught overseas. Bear in mind that this was 1934.

Anyway between the appointment being made and the appointment itself, the Night of the Long Knives occurred and Waterhouse was sure his meeting would be cancelled as the country was in turmoil.  However, he received notification that Hitler would still meet him and headed off through endless security points to meet the Fuhrer. He found Hitler looking exhausted and (he suspected) on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After some initial chit chat about Waterhouse’s work at Sydney University, Hitler launched into a tirade against the international media’s criticism of his recent handling of events.
Waterhouse replied in forthright fashion with words to the effect that if he, Hitler, went around executing opponents without trial, then he is likely to be criticised. Whereupon Hitler let fly about how he alone had saved Germany from civil war and  why didn’t the world understand. A ranting Hitler foaming at the mouth whilst sitting next to Waterhouse on a sofa was clearly a highly discomforting experience, with Waterhouse remarking that not only did he end up sweating profusely but that he also concluded he  was in the presence of a madman.

Great stuff and what an experience to have anchored back to Eryldene, where no doubt the story was told to many a guest around the Waterhouse dining table. As so often it is the stories around these historic houses that bring them to life, rather than their physical elements.

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