A Wizard's Folly

It's a breathless climb from Whale Beach Road to Loggan Rock, built by the eccentric architect Alexander Stewart Jolly in 1929 - and arguably the most bizarre home in Sydney.

But the track is easier than it used to be in the 1940s when the cliff-top retreat - the Jolly folly - was the venue for an endless series of parties, many of them hosted by Frank Hurley, the famed photographer and Antarctic explorer.

Back then, according to author Jan Roberts, a frequent guest was the celebrated model Patricia Minchin.

"Wearing a very short, tight skirt, Patricia would just 'scramble up' the rough track through the bush to the Jolly log cabin," Roberts wrote in her book Avalon: Landscape & Harmony, which pays homage to the three great architects - Jolly, Walter Burley Griffin and Harry Ruskin Rowe - whose creations still adorn Avalon and Whale Beach.

This morning the present owner - Regina Sutton, the new NSW state librarian - can be seen waving from her veranda high above as we struggle up the final few metres.

She has agreed to show us around the decidedly odd home with views of the Pacific and Pittwater, which she and husband, Gerry - Telstra's media chief - bought for $2.05 million in 2003.

When we regain our breath, our reaction is much the same as her own the day she persuaded her husband to look at Loggan Rock (described in the agent's advertising blurb, she recalls, as "historic, kinda quirky"). Absolute astonishment.

Loggan Rock - "log on rock" - is three dwellings in one. The oldest, and most amazing, is the original log cabin, complete with twig windows and a wooden floor.

Then, there's the stone tower, deliberately reminiscent of a Scottish castle, containing the two bedrooms.

An extension, added in 1954, has no connection with Jolly and is by comparison bland and colourless - though prized as typical of '50s design.

"When we first saw the cabin, it reminded us of a hobbit house," Sutton says.

"Every time I walk into the cabin I discover something else about it which suggests Jolly spent hours painstakingly placing bits of stone along the walls to form the most unique patterns."

Alexander Stewart Jolly was a part-time poet and writer of children's fiction and - by all accounts - a curious cove.

According to Roberts, he once cut off his own finger with an axe "in a fit of remorse for his heavy drinking".

Born in Lismore in 1887 into a family of timber merchants, sawmillers and furniture makers, he retained an interest in timber and rock as building materials when he became an architect.

He was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement and Frank Lloyd Wright's Chicago school.

He seems to have had a breakdown in 1923, abandoning his Sydney architectural practice and moving to Pittwater. There he worked for a real estate developer, selling subdivisions.

Soon he was talking clients into hiring him to build sandstone cabins on the rocky sites he sold them.

During the Depression, he often camped in a makeshift tent beside the emerging homes.

Only three of his masterpieces survive in the Avalon area - Hy-Brasil (originally named The Gem), Careel Head House and Loggan Rock, the most peculiar.

Jolly started building the cabin in 1929 as a retreat for his friend, Colonel Lionel Hurley, the film censor and a relative of Frank Hurley's.

For some unexplained reason, the cabin's ownership was obscured from 1933 until 1937, with celebrity dentist Dr Alfred Dandar Burne listed as legal owner.

But it appears it was Lionel Hurley who worked most closely with Jolly on the cabin and in 1937 he became the official owner.

According to Minchin, Frank Hurley's bashes at the cabin were raucous. Hurley would mix cocktails while guests danced up in the "minstrel's gallery", which was originally used as sleeping quarters.

Looking at the cabin floor, we realise the beautiful pattern is made of scores of square-cut wooden tiles, each one from the cross section of a tree trunk.

The table is a giant banksia trunk, sliced and polished.

The fireplace is a confection of rock and wood that looks as if it's been designed to warm Disney's Seven Dwarfs.

The tower's stone walls rise almost organically from the rock. This, according to Stapleton, was added in 1934 to provide more comfortable sleeping quarters.

The third part of the complex dates from 1954. A wooden extension was built on to the top floor of the tower at the behest of former owners Hillary and John Bonar Dunlop, adding a bathroom, kitchen and living room to the property for the first time.

The problem for the Suttons was how to preserve Loggan Rock's history while converting it into a habitable property.

"We never considered modifying anything associated with Jolly's work or the cabin," Regina Sutton says.

A plan to replace the 1954 structure was deemed too aggressive by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

"Now we are considering keeping the 1954 structure intact as much as possible and looking at options to make the interior more liveable," she explains. The Heritage Office is considering listing Loggan Rock on the NSW Heritage Register.

So are there any drawbacks to living in such a strange home?

"Many," Sutton admits. "The cabin, as romantic and special as it is, has no facilities and is exposed to the external world.

We share it with a possum family and several other critters that sneak in to party and leave their droppings everywhere."

Nevertheless, they still use it for dinner parties - for the rest of the time it is used as a home gym.

As for the stone tower, only the top storey - housing the Suttons' bedroom - is habitable.

Potential guests are usually shocked when they discover the only access to the second bedroom is via a trapdoor in the master bedroom.

"You have to slide on your butt down a steep flight of the carved stone steps," Sutton laughs, pulling up the trapdoor to the dungeon-like guest quarters. "We don't have too many people wanting to stay the night."

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