Discovering Eric Nicholls

The real estate ad for Wendy and Andrew’s house, a deceased estate, described it as a ‘solid full brick and tile charming 1950’s cottage … Very comfortable as is, but an ideal project to renovate or extend … Will be sold’. Beyond a fairly basic description, there wasn’t much to go on.

It’s certainly a ‘charming cottage’ and it definitely wasn’t designed by Walter Burley Griffin. It wasn’t, however, until after Wendy and Andrew had taken possession of it, and we were flicking through a folder in the study that we all discovered that it was designed by Eric Nicholls. The connection with Griffin was far stronger than any of us had realised.

The Griffin Connection

Nicholls, a Victoria-born architect, started working in Griffin’s Melbourne office in 1921, and was put in charge of that part of the business in 1925 when the Griffins moved to Sydney.

Towards the end of the Twenties, Griffin and Nicholls began designing incinerators in residential areas, the first of which was in Essendon in 1929. Over the following years, by which time Nicholls had moved up to Sydney and formed a partnership with Griffin, they designed 12 more of these handsome buildings all over Australia, which helped them stay afloat during the Depression. They continued to work together until Griffin moved to India in 1935.

During the years Nicholls worked with Griffin, he also, at times, took on his own commissions. At first, he was hugely influenced by Griffin, but eventually developed his own style, including such features as repetitive concrete block decoration and curvilinear elements. Sandstone was often a key part of his designs.

Towards the end of the Twenties, Griffin and Nicholls began designing incinerators in residential areas, the first of which was in Essendon in 1929.

Pyrmont Incinerator, Sydney, designed by Burley Griffin and Nicholls.
Source: National Library of Australia, Eric Nicholls Collection

An exquisite draughtsman

In 1941, he established his own practice and designed 58 buildings in the Willoughby area, including 19 in Castlecrag (the same number as Burley Griffin), as well as many alterations and additions. Marion Mahony Griffin once described him as ‘an exquisite draughtsman’. On top of that, he was also a town planner for the council and designed a number of public buildings, the most famous being Sydney’s first all-concrete skyscraper, Caltex House, built on Kent Street in 1957.

The evolution of the house

Andrew and Wendy’s house came about when the owner of a plot of land contracted Nicholls at the end of the Forties to build a place for him. It took a while for the design to be finalised, and even longer for a builder to be selected (17 were approached). That wasn’t the end of it – the whole project nearly stalled altogether because of financial problems, and material shortages also slowed things down dramatically. Eventually, the design was reduced from two to one storey, and a number of other variations made. To save even more money, the owner worked as a general labourer on site. The house, in its first incarnation, was finished in about 1952, with various modifications and additions made over the subsequent years as the owner’s finances improved.