Sylvania Waters

In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.

Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.

Aerial view of sutherland shire, showing sylvania waters under construction: land reclamation works showing islands being built out into the bay.
Sutherland Shire from the air, ca. 1960s, showing the construction of Sylvania Waters

In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.  

The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.

The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.

I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.

A two storey house with iron-lace balconies, palm trees planted on a front lawn, and three cars in the driveway.

A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.

The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.

Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.

Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.   

15 Comments on “Sylvania Waters”

  1. nikkola1 says:

    Funnily enough the houses, eclectic and Stepford Wives-ish as they appear, have a certain je ne sais quoi – infuriating the design profession no doubt.
    One of my favourite books I liked to read to my boys (many moons ago) was The Big Orange Splot (Pinkwater!) – a rebellious book smashing conformity. Sylvania Waters must have been the outcome!!

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Yes they are quite intriguing in their variety. And now I think of it yes, there is a certain picture-book-like quality to Sylvania Waters!

  2. Colin Bisset says:

    Living in ‘the Shire’ has always meant taking British visitors to see Sylvania Waters and a competition to find the most outlandish house. ‘I didn’t know it was a real place,’ one person said. Not sure it is…

  3. Lord Fry says:

    I was in high school and becoming aware of adults and the interactions between them. My Uncle lived in the Shire and had an unpopular wife that I had started to realise how unpleasant she was. Around the same time along came Noeline. The similarities were set in stone.

    I’ve never really liked the shire

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      It’s a divisive place, that’s for sure. Watching SW again I found the family dynamics pretty exhausting – and I admit to trying to listen to Noeline’s single ‘No Regrets’ but not getting very far.

  4. I am enjoyed reading this post Vanessa. I remember how shocked we are were at what was portrayed at the time. Lind regards Heather Smith

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Heather – yes it was quite a startling show! Interesting that it has never been rebroadcast but it has remained so strongly in the memories of anyone who saw it at the time.

  5. sallykj says:

    I didn’t watch Sylvania Waters, and was fascinated to read about the suburb’s planning. All the houses you have pictured could sit happily in Chsiwick.

  6. BBOP says:

    I’m watching the series for the first time and I don’t think that Noeline was necessarily the right villain. I think Laurie was very passive aggressive especially given the way he treated her boys. I think Noeline was not secure in her relationship with him and was super keen to support him any way she could and this came out with her arguing with her boys if Laurie told her he didn’t like something- see for example Michael’s 16th birthday discussions: Laurie rarely engaged with Michael directly on the issues, he directed his comments to Noeline and Noeline had to raise them with Michael – who was standing right there.

  7. Arnum says:

    When the Grunge band The Vines rose to prominence in the late 1990s they were considered a Newtown band by proud locals because of their string of performances at the Sandringham Hotel. Amusingly a competing theory had it that lead singer Craig Nichol and his mates had actually decided to form the band as schoolboys one afternoon at the Sylvania MacDonalds, making The Vines something rarer: a Sylvania Rock Band.
    Thank you for another enchanting post, Vanessa. Those frontyard wishing wells must have been something to behold.

  8. Naomi says:

    When I was a child (60s & 70s), my mother often drove over Tom Ugly’s Bridge to get to Cronulla where my aunt and uncle lived. I was entranced by the fake cave garages that seemed to be a feature of Sylvania. As I remember, there was a piano tuner (?) advertised on one such “cave”. I’ve searched the net but can’t find any reference to them. I think you’d appreciate them.

    • Vanessa Berry says:

      Thanks Naomi, that sounds intriguing! I can imagine it from your description and it does sound very much up my alley – I’ll keep an eye out as I do my investigations and see if I can find a trace of them. And if anyone else reading this know more, please comment!

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