Parramatta Road is now a slow-moving carpark lined with caryards, fast food outlets and dusty shops. But in the 19th century our oldest road was a choice location for a gentleman to build a fine villa and accompanying garden. There is one such intact Georgian villa left on Parramatta Road – Yasmar in Haberfield. High on the list of Endangered Gardens of Sydney, Yasmar is threatened by lack of funds and vision; as well as by Westconnex.
The single storey sandstone house, built in 1856 in Greek-revival style, is fronted by a spacious terrace that looks down a curving carriageway planted with rare trees and past a sunken garden to grand iron gates. Like any garden, this one has stories to tell. Among its extraordinary trees are one of Australia’s oldest gingkos; a Queensland kauri rarely seen in private gardens; and a Canary island laurel, Picconia excelsa, of which there are only about 20 specimens in all of Australia. How did these rare plants come to be in a garden in Haberfield?
David Ramsay, who owned most of what is now Haberfield and grew oranges and pineapples along the creek, had Yasmar built as a wedding present for his daughter Sara. (Yasmar is Ramsay spelt backwards). Sara’s brother Edward was a keen botanist who was friendly with the power plant men of the day, including William MacArthur of Camden Park and Alexander Macleay of Elizabeth Bay House. When Edward moved to Queensland to capitalise on the sugar rush, his plantation neighbour was botanist and plant hunter John Bidwill, who discovered the Queensland kauri and the bunya pine, Auracaria bidwillii, that is named after him. You can easily imagine Edward talking plants to his mates, and planting out some of his swaps and gifts in his sister’s new garden.
The trees, and the property, thrived for 50 years, but Yasmar’s fortunes dipped in the 20th century and after WWII the government acquired what was left and set up a children’s court and home for delinquent boys, adding brutalist detention wings on either side of the driveway in the 1960s. The property has been on the register of the National Estate since 1977, which hasn’t done it much good, and it is now used for training by the Department of Corrections. The Italian community service Co.As.It uses one of the ‘60s wings.
Initial plans for Westconnex that would have shaved off more of the estate were changed to preserve its current size, but the siting of the exhaust stacks for the tunnels threatens to rain particulates over the gardens and its rare trees. What could save Yasmar, the only intact Georgian villa near central Sydney? Weddings and functions? A restaurant? A training centre for heritage gardening and conservation skills? The latter is the goal of Emma Brooks-Maher, founding member of Friends of Yasmar. It’s a fine idea, but my vote goes to the Bronte House model: a house and garden whose historical value is preserved, is brought back to life by having people live in it, and which is occasionally open for all of us.