The dancing maiden

The dancing maiden

George Taylor (1872-1928) was also something of an inventor, which brings us to Chats-wood.

Taylor’s building activities led him to refine plaster works and panelling for domestic houses. Lath plaster applied on site with hand run cornices were now replaced by fibrous plaster sheets and cornice lengths which would be supplied and installed ready made. (Our Museum in Johnson Street although built in 1913 still evidences the by then old fashioned lath plaster and applied Victorian style ceiling roses). For strength and durability Taylor introduced bagasse, the left over fibrous matter from milled sugar cane, in place of fibres

He called his product Bagasse Plaster and convinced selected builders to use it exclusively. He apparently had some hand in the design element and his products show a great virtuosity and flair for such was the demand in fashionable Chatswood around 1900 that his plaster was used in many houses. His lyrebird with the bird in profile and the tail full on can be frequently found and was featured in our Australiana Exhibition some years ago.

Research by Jo into these building activities led to the Sydney Living Museum site with its website outlining Taylor and his product and with special reference to the 1904 Federation house at 2 Victor Street.

No 2
2 Victor St, Chatswood

The Museum in the City holds various plaster samples recovered from that house when it was demolished in 1989. The photo of the house displays a familiar asymmetrical bungalow frequently encountered in Chatswood, but here with a very distinctive tower room on the southern corner. This was one of those quality inventive houses which flourished in the newly developing Chatswood. Such distinctive elements were in profusion inside the house too. The website write up indicates the donation of the samples including panels with ferns and lyrebirds, possibly unique lyrebird cornice, and classical Wedgewood style dancing girls.

Jo contacted me to let me know of this distinctive and architecturally important feature of Chatswood. What the article did not reveal was that the supplier of the samples was me. Jo was as surprised to learn of my involvement, as I was surprised to learn of the importance of those items.

Lyrebird cornice (2)
Lyrebird cornice Photo Sydney Living Museum

And now the story from my side.

Many Willoughby, indeed Sydney, residents will remember the Second Church of Christ Scientist building at the corner of Victor St and Albert Avenue. This extensive imposing church with its massive pillars and porch on the rounded corner, and the windows with the distinctive iron grillwork, was the only building left in the CBD at that time with any real architectural merit. Built by Garvan Brothers in 1925-7, it was in 1989 demolished by them. The site extended beyond the actual building line in Albert Ave to include a Federation bungalow next door used as a Kindergarten and store, and in Victor St it extended to include No.2. Most of the house was still there, but the front had been removed and a modern Reading Room had been added extending through the front rooms, across the front garden right to the footpath.

Between the Reading Room and the Church was a delightful walled fishpond which could be seen through a large grillwork screen from the street. It was a real oasis in the bustle of commercial Chatswood. Behind the new extension, the old roof and soaring chimneys could be seen with their intact chimney pots.

It was the pots which caught my attention and when word was published that the site was to be redeveloped into the Mandarin Centre, with the Church moving to its new site in Anthony-Albert-Neridah Streets, I wrote to the church to purchase said chimney pots. Building schemes do not move fast so it was a year later the Church came back to me to see if I were still interested. I was. There followed my first viewing of the interiors of all the buildings on the site.

Was I interested in anything else? Well, yes. Why not? So the lady in charge and l proceeded around the three buildings and on a clip board noted down all the salvageable items available. And a long list it was. I will restrict myself to what came from No. 2.

Behind the tower room long gone was an open verandah from which there was exterior access through a lead-light door with clear rectangular panes surrounded by a green border (now at No. NN Johnson St). This led to a generous room with an enormous timber fire place and surround which extended all the way up to the cornice with shelves and mirrors and carving. The fireplace tiles were rare 6 x 18 inch American tiles with embossed highly glazed medieval soldiers. This was not available, but certainly when the time came l could salvage plaster from the ceiling. The unique cornice turned down the wall at each of the four corners and in the triangular space created stood on a little bracket a full frontal lyrebird. I was able to remove three of these fairly well intact. Two went to the Historic Houses Trust (now Sydney Living Museum) and they installed these two in their Verge designed house then at Glebe. They were mounted but not fixed to the walls in the library there.

From the former living room at No. 2 came ceiling panels. The centre of the ceiling was made up of 9 panels each about 36″ square. The central panel featured a ceiling rose, and to the north south east and west were four dancing maidens each in a circle.

There were two different girls alternatively around the centre, extending their arms to each other. One had disappeared when the Reading Room extension was built, but the other three came down, in a fashion. It was George Taylor’s bagasse plaster that saved them. One went to our museum, but there being no real call for it, and the one lyrebird, they were removed/lost. The dancing girl is still in store at No. NN Johnson, in parlous fractured condition, but smiling through all the ruin.

Maiden (2)
Dancing maiden details

Now with recognition and a fuller story, there may be greater call to resurrect our dancing maiden.

By Paul Storm