Near Blue and William Street, North Sydney (demolished)
In 1874, the newly rich gold miner Bernard Otto Holtermann built an extraordinary house above Lavender Bay which became known, for its most obvious feature, as 'The Towers'.
Holtermann had become one of the wealthiest men in the colony when the Star of Hope goldmine, in which he had shares, gave up one of the biggest nuggets ever dug from the earth in 1871. Shortly afterwards Holtermann lost interest in prospecting and moved to Sydney, first to a sprawling bungalow called St Leonards Lodge in Crows Nest, then into his mansion.
The central tower had a purpose beyond ornamentation and conspicuous display. From here Holtermann indulged his new passion, photography - with the help of a young technician whom he had met in the gold fields, Charles Bayliss. Sitting some 27 metres above a ridge that was already well-elevated, Holtermann’s tower was a splendid vantage from which to photograph Sydney and its acclaimed harbour. The pair did so even before the house was completed in 1875. The result was a panorama that Holtermann claimed, with some justification, was the largest photograph in the world. Exhibited in Philadelphia the following year, Holtermann’s panaroma was a brilliant marketing tool for the colony not yet a century old.
But while many people are aware of that spectacular depiction of Sydney Harbour, few realise that the camera was turned to capture much of the surrounding area to the north east and north west. For those interested in the history of North Sydney, Holtermann’s panorama shows local houses such as 'Upton Grange' with telescopic clarity.
Such was the impact of the photography undertaken from the tower, that there are few accounts of the house itself. Its ostentation, however, was hard to ignore and even rural newspapers carried descriptions of it as ‘a residence fit for a nobleman’ and an ‘architectural ornament to the locality in which it is situated’ (Singleton Argus 27 October 1875)
In fact, Holtermann’s home might have been copied from any number of boom-era Italianate mansions built in Victoria by mining magnates and pastoralists or in the new rail commuter suburbs of Sydney such as Strathfield, Ashfield and Burwood.
The tower is typical of this style or architecture, as is the decorative detailing on the masonry walls or balustrades or in cast iron columns as used on the verandah of 'The Towers'. The tower is finished with classical detailing, particularly the suggestion of columns (in this case Corinthian) known as pilasters.
Holtermann died in 1885. His grand house was bought by Thomas Dibbs, owner of neighbouring 'Graythwaite', who then sold 'The Towers' to the newly-established Sydney Church of England Grammar School, or Shore School. In the mid-1930s, 50 years after it was built, the house and tower was encased in modern brickwork and essentially demolished.