Jenolan Caves

That Handsome Scotsman, George McRae

November 12, 2021

The plans for the 1906 wing of Caves House.

Caves House, one of Australia’s most iconic historic hotels, was designed by 2 architects, Walter Liberty Vernon and George McRae. In fact the plans for the second wing of Caves House were signed off 113 years ago last week, on November 12. McRae built a massive third wing on Caves House, starting in 1914.  Unfortunately, a few years later, he cut short his own life, but if only he knew how much joy and romance Caves House has brought to the people of NSW over the years.

Government Architect, George McRaeHandsome George McRae was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1857.  He made the most of his humble education, first at the Edinburgh Normal & Sessional School, and then at George Watson's College, which was established in 1870, so that “children from less advantaged backgrounds should be able to enjoy the quality of education available to those more fortunate.”

After that, he was articled to the firm of George Beattie and Sons, architects, of Edinburgh, where he learned his profession, on the job, working on many of their elegant buildings.

George immigrated to Sydney in 1883 and was appointed Chief Assistant in the City Architect's Department.

He quickly moved up the ladder, becoming City Architect in 1885 [i]. George was one of the designers of the extremely grand Sydney Town Hall (originally called Centennial Hall). He designed the utilitarian Corn Exchange, also called the Corporation Building, on Sussex Street, Sydney (originally the Fruit Markets), and he designed important additions to the Fish Markets in Woolloomooloo, another beautiful building, which unfortunately was demolished in the 1960s. [ii]

Designer of Sydney's Queen Victoria Building

In 1888, George started preparing plans for a massive project - the immense Queen Victoria Building.  Demonstrating his versatility, he produced four designs, from which Sydney Council could choose, each in a different style: Gothic, Renaissance, Queen Anne and Romanesque. His Romanesque Revival style was chosen. The Queen Victoria Building was the project for which George is best-known, but not only because of its size and grandeur. At the time, the building was also noted for its expansive barrel-form roof. The construction employed engineering systems which were very advanced. Architectural historians considered McRae to be one of the leaders in new construction methods and materials, which were then beginning to break down the conservatism of building techniques. [iii]

Construction didn’t actually start on the Queen Victoria Building, until 1893, and it took 5 years to finish. By the time it was finished, George had landed a new job, as Principal Assistant Architect in the Government Architect’s Branch of the Department of Public Works, working alongside Walter Liberty Vernon.

Vernon was a man of almost superhuman energy. He was incredibly prolific, designing innumerable government buildings all over NSW. Outside of his extremely busy job, Vernon was also involved with many other interests and organisations. He became extremely well known.  

But George never matched Vernon’s celebrity, and online records do not seem to reveal much about George, the man.   We know that in 1887, he became a Freemason.  Also in 1889, he was appointed Second Lieutenant in the NSW Regiment of Volunteer Artillery. (Vernon was also in the military.)  A couple of years later, George applied successfully to become one of the examiners in the department of architecture at the Sydney Technical College. [iv]  In 1895, he married Katie Prescott. He and Katie had three children and lived in Woollahra, Sydney. And in 1896 George and his father purchased shares in a gold mining lease in Wyalong – the Black Snake Lease Gold Mining Company.

So, we can see that he did have some interests outside of work, but his main focus was architecture. Many of his buildings still exist, including the Municipal Building, on Hay Street Sydney.  Although far from grand, this building is interesting for 2 reasons – one, because George used a style known as the Federation Anglo-Dutch, with intricate detailing and textured façade, and two, because its main purpose was as a public lavatory!

The Vernon Wing of Caves House

By the time George joined the Government Architects Office, Vernon had finished the first wing of Jenolan’s brand-new hotel, Caves House, right next to the spectacular Jenolan Caves.  Now known as the Vernon Wing, it was the first of 4 large sections that comprise the heritage-listed Caves House of today. Vernon designed the 2-storey, 23-room building in the Federation Arts and Crafts style, with limestone blocks, gable windows, and salmon terracotta roof tiles. It included a modest foyer, offices, and a large ground-floor dining room, with a kitchen at the rear. Stairs led up to more offices, a manager’s apartment and 10 guest rooms, now used as staff quarters. Every room had a fireplace. A billiard room was in a separate small building close by. In 1898, the Australian Town and Country Journal reported, “It is fitted with the newest appliances as regarding cooking and sanitary arrangements, having a never-failing supply of pure water running constantly through the services; and it is intended to use the electric light throughout the building…” [v] Vernon’s style stressed homeliness, simplicity and the use of local materials.

The Second Wing of Caves House - 1906

The next wing of Caves House was not started until 1906, a hard year for George, whose 5-year-old daughter, Audrey, died in that same year. 

George continued to work with Vernon, who signed off their plan for the next wing of Caves House on November 12, 1907. The Lithgow Mercury printed, “everything is to be provided on a first class scale, so that visitors from abroad, accustomed to the comforts of European hotels, who largely patronise the Caves, will have nothing to complain of. The whole of the premises are to be lighted by electricity, and the present plant supplying the current is to be doubled. The improvements will greatly enhance the attractions of the caves. [vi]”

Whereas the Vernon Wing ran back from the main road, the new wing ran along the main road, forming an ‘L’ shape. Today, the Caves Cafe is located on the ground floor of this wing, and our big function room is upstairs, for wedding receptions and corporate events.  But back then, the wing had 26 guestrooms, as well as sitting rooms and dining rooms. The new 2-storey wing was not finished until sometime in late 1909. A Lithgow Mercury article from 2 April 1909 revealed, ”The new wing recently added to the accommodation house is still unfinished.  At present a hot water service is being put through the new addition.”

While the new wing was being built, 3 other buildings were also erected at Jenolan - a small “guides house, a Caretakers Cottage and a large garage, capable of accommodating half a dozen motor cars and quarters for the male servants.” [vii] The first cars were crossing the Blue Mountains in 1900. Many of the well-to-do that could afford cars to drive to Jenolan, also brought chauffers who needed accommodation.

McRae's Other Landmark Buildings, Pre-1914

Over the next 2 years, George designed the former Sydney City Markets, Ultimo Road, Haymarket.  At last, in 1912, he took over from Vernon as NSW Government Architect. George designed several more Sydney buildings that are now heritage-listed and which can still be seen, such as the Dept of Education Building, Bridge Street Sydney. Originally called the Department of Public Instruction. There was the Model Factory & Dwelling, in The Rocks, a plain building, designed with the health of the workers in mind, providing natural light, fireproof construction and a staff dining room. He designed the Former Parcels Post Office, Railway Square, Sydney – in the Federation Free Style, and at Mosman, for the Taronga Zoo, he designed the Lower Entrance, the Top Entrance and the Indian Elephant House.

The Third Wing of Caves House

In 1914, George McRae designed the enormous third wing of Cave House - much larger than the first two wings.The first two wings contained about 60 guestrooms, but the third wing, finished in 1916, added another 33 rooms including 2 suites. The new guestrooms were bigger than the earlier rooms.  This 4-storey wing meant extensive excavation into the hillside.

McRae made the new wing more grand, featuring tall copper-clad bay windows, but he also ensured that the style matched the first two wings, with limestone mined on site, and steeply pitched roof, covered in pretty French terracotta roof tiles. 

The upper storey is especially reminiscent of Vernon’s style. See the photo of Vernon’s family home, Penshurst, in Neutral Bay, which was built in the English Revival Style, with Tudor-like half-timbered upper level. The same feature is very clear on the huge 1916 wing of Caves House.

The third wing really added a look and feel of magnificence and opulence to the hotel.  It included the main foyer that is in use today, with its grand staircase and lift. To the right of the foyer was a huge billiard room (currently the gift shop). The dining room and kitchen moved upstairs, where they took up most of the first floor.  The 33 new guestrooms were on the second and third floors. [viii]

The Blue Mountains Echo, on 2 April 1916 reported, “The palatial three-storied addition to the Caves House at Jenolan is rapidly nearing completion, and certain of the rooms, including the commodious billiard room, will be available for use at Easter.  The additional accommodation which will be provided when the premises are complete will comfortably house 100 guests.  The dining room is of handsome proportions and design, while the cuisine department will be second to none outside of Sydney.  An ice plant and cold storage will be features of the commissariat.” [ix]

plans for the huge 3rd wing of Caves House

While all this architectural work was going on, Jenolan’s hydro-electric power station was being expanded, to power the lights in the caves and Caves House. Then, in December 1917, the Orient Cave finally opened to the public, with great fanfare.  

A fourth wing was added in 1926, by George’s successor, Gorrie McLeish Blair.

George was appointed to the Patents Investigation Board when it was first set up in 1916 [x]. And he was appointed to the Hospital Advisory Board for theDepartment of Public Health in 1919.  During the First World War, George’s son, also named George, served in Europe for 3 years, which must have been a huge worry for his family. After the war, in 1920, George was appointed to the War Memorials Advisory Board [xi].

McRae's Tragic End

As George neared the compulsory retirement age of 65, pressure was put on the government to make some exceptions. The Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser 19 Sept 1922 reported, “Mr George McRae, Government Architect of NSW, has reached the retiring age of 65. An effort is being made to secure a renewal of his appointment, and the matter is being watched very keenly in political and civil service circles. Armidale is particularly interested, as two of the most prominent civil servants in the town are due to retire this year, and in each case, though quite fit for fully another five years’ service, an extension was refused. As to the possibility of Mr. McRae's services being retained—and it is understood that, like the Armidale officials quoted, he would be willing to carry on—it is pointed out that the present Public Service Board is making a rigid of letting everyone go when the age limit is reached. Only in very rare cases is there any extension." [xii]

George was not ready to retire, but did so in 1923. Tragically, a few months later, he committed suicide. 

After his death, George’s design for the St James Railway Station was realised in 1926.  Although small, this train station entrance was designed in the Inter-War Stripped Classical architecturestyle, influenced by Art Deco. It was a style where decoration was ‘stripped-down’ for a modern world.

It is worth mentioning this last work, as an example of George’s trademark versatility and his ability to adapt to the changing times. His career started in the late Victorian era, characterised by detailed and decorative features, arches, gables, domes, and it finished at the start of the modern movement with art deco designs that were sleek, linear and geometric.

Jenolan Caves House is still a grand hotel, cherished by lovers, friends and families.  Its designers, Walter Liberty Vernon and George McRae, could not have imagined the delight and happiness that their creation would bring, for more than a century.

To honour George’s memory, his former colleagues in the office of the Government Architect established The George McRae Prize. [xiii] To this day, Sydney University bestows this prestigious prize on the Bachelor of Architecture graduand with the finest record in architectural construction.

McRae's Legacy to Jenolan - Chisolm's Restaurant

Caves House is usually attributed entirely to Walter Liberty Vernon. But, in reality, we owe a debt of gratitude to that handsome Scotsman, Government Architect George McRae, especially for the enormous grand dining room, now known as Chisolm's Restaurant

Chisolm's is open on Friday evenings, Saturdays, Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon, serving breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner. Our talented chef serves delicious Modern Australian cuisine. But don't just come for the food - the room has so much history that you must experience it on your next visit to Jenolan.  Find out more about the history of Chisolm's House in our article: Grandeur, Ghosts & Great Times


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