Revisiting Canberra's best street
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Revisiting Canberra's best street

In 1985, a Sydney journalist set out to determine the best streets in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

The results, triumphantly detailed in the Good Weekend Magazine in October of that year, were based on an entirely unscientific poll of real estate agents and those in the know.

The best in Canberra? Vancouver Street, Red Hill.

Vancouver Street, Red Hill

Vancouver Street, Red Hill

Photo: Jamila Toderas

Depending on where you stood at the time, this result was either spot on, predictable or mystifying. And, depending on where you stand today - or how long you have lived in Canberra - the fact that Vancouver Street is still considered the city’s best street won’t be a surprise.

Back in 1985, on her goggle-eyed stroll through the (to her) unfamiliar streets of Canberra's inner south, Susan Wyndham noted the quaint lack of hedges and general communal feel of the place.

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“Vancouver Street is pure Canberra: a neat curve lined with oak trees, nature strips sprinkled with daffodils, no fences, woodpiles at the front doors and a population dominated by public servants, academics, diplomats and rosellas,” she wrote.

Only some parts of that description apply today. Vancouver Street is still a neat and peaceful curve, with spectacular birdlife and majestic old trees. But the mansions, now hidden behind hedges or foliage, and mostly set well back from the road, have a secretive feel. Today’s Vancouver Street population looks very different to the one in 1985.

Back then, the street was home to several ANU academics and very senior public servants, with the Pope - or rather, the embassy of the Holy See - having recently taken up residence on the Monaro Crescent corner. Designed in 1977 by Italian-Australian master and Canberra fixture Enrico Taglietti, the Papal Nunciature was and still is the most visible and famous thing in the area.

In this sense, Vancouver Street was the epitome of Old Red Hill - essentially 70-odd residences bounded by Flinders Way, Mugga Way, Monaro Crescent, Moresby Street and Arthur Circle. It was here that the founders of Canberra, and of the nation, resided in the capital’s earliest days, when blocks were large and cheap, and most were coming from established cities and needed their creature comforts.

And Vancouver Street was one of the nicest of the lot. Today, it has only 10 houses that can legitimately lay claim to the street name on their address. Then, as now, it was bracketed at one end by Number 27 Mugga Way, home since the 1930s of Sir Harold White, the first head of the National Library, and an equally gracious home on the other end, Monaro Crescent.

In between, there lived, at various times, Sir Hugh Ennor, the first professor to be anointed at the ANU; Stephen Kaneff, who designed and built the world’s first commercial solar energy power station; Sir John Eckles, Nobel Prize winner for his work in neurophysiology; ANU geophysicist Ted Ringwood; and Sir John Overall, the first commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission.

It’s worth noting that Vancouver Street’s Sydney and Melbourne counterparts in the Good Weekend - Wentworth Street, Vaucluse, and St Georges Road, Toorak, respectively - were populated at the time by lawyers, real estate agents, property developers, hoteliers and fashion types. It’s no wonder Wyndham found the Canberra breed of moneyed locals so quaint.

Today on Vancouver Street, Kaneff’s widow Lillian, who still lives at Number 1, is the only original resident left. Her memories are of a very different era, of Sunday morning cocktails among the willows and ponds of Sir Harold and Lady White’s famous garden, and tennis and scones with other wives on the street across the road with Lady Ennor.

Vancouver street resident Lillian Kaneff.

Vancouver street resident Lillian Kaneff.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

Back in the day, many early residents had orchards and cows on their blocks. Before the Kaneffs, Canberra’s director of parks and gardens, David Shoobridge, had an extensive vegetable garden, fruit trees, chickens, a cow and a sheep. By the time the Kaneffs moved into their purpose-built, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house (designed by Kaneff himself) in 1966, only the orchard was left.

Their neighbour on Monaro Crescent was a bachelor with a fabulous art collection, a budgerigar called Tweety-Pie, and a housekeeper who was going senile.

“All she did was sweep,” she said.

"Then she’d go wandering, and we’d all be out driving around, looking for her.”

The “we” she’s referring to are her family and the neighbours; today, she barely knows many of the street’s other residents. The house next door has had a succession of owners over the years, at least one of whom was particularly miffed to discover, post-purchase, that he had not, in fact, bought 1 Vancouver Street, but 20 Monaro Crescent.

“He wanted all the street to change their numbers for him to use 1 Vancouver Street,” she says.

The prestige of the street is hardly surprising, with its tree canopies and quiet mansions on comically oversized blocks, set well back from the road.

Still, The Canberra Times has been compelled to revisit the 1985 article using a similarly rigorous mode of questioning.

To this end, real estate agent - and inner south connoisseur - Andrew Chamberlain, is one of several who still names Vancouver Street the very best, unprompted and without hesitation.

He says the street has long been considered the creme de la creme for agents and property developers alike - not for development purposes, so much as for the perfect place to retreat from the world.

“There have been very, very few sales in that street, even since 1985, but that is indicative of a very desirable, popular location,” he says.

“There is just something about it, and I think the big blocks are a key. I could not think of another city in Australia or really the world where you can buy two acres of prime residential land so close to an area like Manuka or the city.”

The street’s newest residents, the Morgan family, bought Number 3 from Greek businessman Con Kourpanidis - owner of several McDonald's restaurants - in 2013 for $4 million.

Stacy Morgan and her husband Barry, also a property developer, had previously owned the Ibis Styles hotel in Narrabundah, which they sold before moving to Forrest. Morgan says their previous house, on equally prestigious Arthur Circle, was outwardly desirable, but not what the family of six wanted.

“It had single-glazed windows and old plumbing, old electrical work. People couldn't believe it when we sold it, because it was that classic red-brick, traditional Canberra look,” she says.

“But in the middle of winter, I know it looks really nice, but it was impossible to heat. There's something to be said for modern construction.”

Their own slice of Vancouver Street - chosen ostensibly because it’s close to the Grammar School, where their kids are still students - is the newest and most modern on the street.

Over the road, another developer, Barry Morris, says he had long coveted a piece of Old Red Hill, having grown up in nearby Narrabundah. He has memories of a young capital city of goat tracks, workers’ cottages and paddocks.

He fulfilled his lifelong wish in 1996, when he bought Number 4 for what was then a record price of $1.75 million.

He’s in good company, with developer Graham Potts at Number 8, and members of the Efkarpidis family at Number 6. The Efkarpidis have long had a stamp on the street; Tom Efkarpidis had reportedly has his eye on a block since the family first arrived in Canberra in the 1960s.

They eventually bought Sir Harold and Lady White’s house on the corner in 1995, which had fallen into disrepair since Sir Harold’s death in 1992. After a protracted dispute over whether the once-treasured gardens should be heritage-listed, the Efkarpidis demolished it to make way for the Georgian-style mansion that’s still there today.

In fact, the house, officially 27 Mugga Way but taking up a substantial chunk of Vancouver Street, now has the honourable status of Canberra’s most expensive house, having sold to the secretive Korean businessman Jai Choi in 2010 for a record-breaking $7.5 million.

Mike Power, a retired public servant who lives with his wife Emma at Number 3A, has no such aspirations. His block, at 2000 square metres, is one of the street’s smallest, having been subdivided by Sir Hugh Ennor, and sold to the Ringwoods (originally at Number 3), and Sir John Overall. Power bought it for a relative steal back in 1996.

He says he’s surprised that Vancouver Street has maintained its Best Street status, and thinks nearby Wickham Crescent, with its central communal garden, is a more covetable example of Old Red Hill.

“The character of the street has changed a lot, from about 2000 onwards,” he says.

“I would have liked to have been part of that old community.”

He’s talking about the garden parties, the Sunday drinks, and the regular bonfires up on Wickham Crescent that people still talk about as relics of the past.

Stacy Morgan has an equally wistful tone after reading the original 1985 article.

“It sounds like the street was something out of The Great Gatsby,” she says. The Morgans don’t interact with their neighbours much, but she says this is more a symptom of modern living - and the fact that they’re the only family with young children still at home - than a degrading of social niceties.

With the passing of the decades, futile but poignant nostalgia is unavoidable, while evidence of modern life, with all its conveniences and social degradations, is everywhere we look.

Back in 1994, almost a decade after the Good Weekend story, the residents of Old Red Hill, and, by extension, The Canberra Times, entered into a period of soul-searching when it transpired that developer and real estate agent Peter Blackshaw had plans to build townhouses on Wickham Crescent.

Outraged residents argued that the ambiance and heritage value of the suburb would be destroyed. Blackshaw countered that more people wanted to live in “quality townhouses” than run-down heritage cottages. But by then, the turning point had been reached.

Writing about the stoush, former journalist and one-time editor of The Canberra Times Crispin Hull described the area as “gracious living from another age”. He could have been referring specifically to Vancouver Street.

“That however is its heritage value. It was designed like that by Walter Burley Griffin and now attracts tourist buses. The people who lived there helped found the nation,” he said.

“The area is like an endangered species of dwelling-scape. There is nothing quite like it anywhere: easy to kill off, impossible to recreate. But jealousy makes public sympathy scarce.”

Of course, as acknowledged in the original Good Weekend story, trying to determine a city’s best street can only ever be subjective, and theoretical. And there’s always the argument that almost any street in Canberra could qualify, as long as it’s populated by friendly neighbours and filled with happy memories.

But for better or worse, there was and is something about this “neat curve lined with oak trees” in Red Hill.

And, despite the jealously guarded, hedged-off atmosphere of the place, there is no sense that even one inch of Vancouver Street is taken for granted, by anyone.

Kaneff can’t imagine living anywhere else, even after more than 50 years. Power describes his house as paradise, a place that brings him daily happiness. Morris says the street, and especially his 10,000 square-metre claim on it, is “irreplaceable”. And Morgan still has wonder in her voice when she describes waking up to the sounds of birds in the morning.

“With these tree-lined streets that are so established and so old, you can actually drive, in summer, into the area, and you feel the air is just slightly cooler,” she says.