Two “grand-old-ladies” dominated the Leura skyline at the top of the Mall until the 1957 bushfires tore through the town.
Only one “grand lady” survived the inferno.
Built in the 1880s, Leura House stood proudly in Britain Street. At first a private home, it became a popular guesthouse until after World War II.
Leura House was sold to a Catholic order of nuns, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, who renamed it Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Juniorate when they moved in on January 25, 1951. The nuns and their trainees were living happily there in 1957.
Justin McSweeney, Sydney contractor, railway engineer and developer, played a major role in early Leura. He built the other “grand-old-lady”, Napier. Opened late in 1910, the guesthouse grew rapidly. By 1915, it was renamed Chateau Napier and extended to accommodate 150 guests.
For 25 years, it was ruled by Mrs McManus, a relative of McSweeney. It continued to be a popular guesthouse, with its own tennis court, throughout the twenties and thirties.
During World War II, refugee students from the Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls were billeted temporarily at Chateau Napier.
At the end of the war, Mountains tourism declined, affected by the rise of the motor car and the ending of petrol rationing. This heralded the decline of guest-houses like Chateau Napier.
Spring 1957 was hot and dry, September the driest recorded for Katoomba. October and November experienced significantly below average rainfall while November was nearly five degrees warmer than average; daily maximum temperatures frequently exceeded 30˚C.
December 2 was hot but all seemed normal.
The fire began around 12.45 pm, reportedly originating near the rubbish tip in northeast Katoomba.
The fire quickly intensified, aided by hot temperatures and strong winds from the northwest. By 1.46pm the fires in northern Leura were uncontrolled.
The students attending the nun’s small school were marched down to Bathurst Road and taken by passing motorists to Katoomba. Nuns and trainees fought the approaching fires until the water from the taps dried up. Evacuated to the Sisters of Charity in Katoomba, they retired to the chapel to pray.
No-one can really understand the vagaries of fire, why one house is destroyed and its immediate neighbour saved.
To many in Leura, the survival of Leura House was a modern miracle. The fire, reported an onlooker fighting the flames, reached as far as the three outdoor statues of Mary and stopped.
Leura House still stands today.
Chateau Napier was less lucky. Its ruined archway dominates the highway, a timely reminder, if one were needed, that fire is indiscriminate and deadly.
- Robyne Ridge is publicity officer for Blue Mountains Historical Society.