Picture the inner-city landscape of an Australian city, and terrace houses quickly come to mind. The rows of picturesque, conjoined homes of stone, brick and stucco, with cast-iron detailing, that evoke an earlier time. But how much do we know about these historic homes?
Here are the answers to some commonly pondered questions about Australian terraces.
Why are they joined together?
Firstly, considering the glut of land in the 19th and 20th centuries when terraces were constructed, why were they built joined together, and why do they have such tiny gardens? Well, according to experts, for the same reason dwellings are crammed in today: more bang for buck.
Terrace housing was the 19th and 20th century version of the high-rise apartment block. “Joint terraced housing maximised the return for investors,” says Gareth Wilson, researcher with the Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage at the Melbourne School of Design. “Hence the tendency to stack individual terrace houses next to each other to form large rows in suburbs close to the city centre.”
As city populations soared – particularly in Melbourne where the gold rush saw huge amounts of wealth pour into the city – terrace house building “was favoured by speculative investors, looking for a quick way to make money off the back of a cashed-up and burgeoning population”.
To maximise profit, inner-city blocks were ‘cut into smaller and smaller lots’. The result was the near disappearance of front gardens and the creation of a backyard, a small, dank and purely functional space for toilet, washhouse and refuse.”
Terrace housing was the 19th and 20th century version of the high-rise apartment block. Photo: 51 Davis Street, Carlton North
Why are the toilets outside?
Admit it: we’ve all wondered why the toilets in terraces are outside. Well, at that point there were no sewage systems in place to whisk away waste. So, basic toilets – just wooden boxes with a bucket known as “thunderboxes” – were placed at the back in outhouses.
This served two purposes: to protect the house from the stench, and so that all the waste, known as “night-soil”, could be collected at night via the alleyways by the “dunny-man”. Dunny-men collected the waste, sometimes only once a fortnight, and dumped it in outer suburbs, or used it as fertiliser for farming.
Why do they have such high ceilings?
Despite being a nightmare to heat, pre-electricity, the high ceilings were in part a visual design choice. It allowed for detailed interior plaster work, the roses and cornicing, to “show off the wealth of the occupants”, says Wilson.
It wasn’t all vanity though. “High ceilings also allowed the hot air in summer to be distributed up and away from the occupants at floor level.”
Why are they so elaborate?
Thanks to the the early settlers’ desires to show off their style and wealth, Australia is speculated to have the most decorative cast iron in the world.
Much like flicking through an IKEA catalogue, early terrace owners perused “pattern books” and chose cast-iron decor in the latest fashions. Similar to Chinese manufacturing today, the items were constructed cheaply in large numbers in the UK and shipped down to adorn Australian homes.
One of oldest terraces in Sydney, Susannah Place, built in 1844. Photo: Sydney Open
Why are there not more of them today?
It seems amusing now, considering the gentrification of terraced suburbs and the rapidly increasing market value of terrace houses, but by the late 1800s and early 1900s many terraces had become slums, in part due to their “poor design, shoddy building standards and little regard for natural light or ventilation”, says Wilson.
Governments cracked down, and great numbers of terraces were demolished. “By the 1920s terrace housing was banned in almost all parts of Australia.”
Fancy a peek at some living history? The oldest surviving terrace house in Melbourne is Glass Terrace, 72-74 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, while in Sydney, one of the oldest terraces is Susannah Place, in The Rocks built in 1844.
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