Site Overview

site name:
Dorney House
James Henry Esmond Dorney  
date of commission:
date of completion:
1966, 1978
Lower Sandy Bay, Hobart, TAS
Residential / Housing (RES)
protection status:
Registered on the Tasmanian Heritage List, (8721), 2001
editor fiche:
Paddy Dorney, 2023
download fiche:
Dorney House Docomomo Fiche

History of the Building

Fort Nelson (now called Dorney House) was constructed in three developing phases between 1949 and 1978. The original phase 1, 1949) was designed to house Esmond Dorney’s own family after his relocation to Hobart in 1947 following the hiatus of the war years. Esmond practiced in Melbourne, Victoria, before WW2.

Fort Nelson was a small, circular, glass pavilion – contemporaneous with the 1949 Phillip Johnson Glasshouse in New Canaan, N.Y.  Its circular form focused internally on a fireplace and conversation pit and externally on gathering the natural and cultural panorama that unfolded through the building’s siting. The form was generated by the southern of two gun emplacements of the 1904 harbour defences which became both floor and foundation. Its hilltop position, which had allowed the two big guns of the now abandoned fort to dominate the Derwent Estuary, the harbour and its maritime access from the Great Southern Ocean, provided panoramic views of the city, the harbour and beyond. It predicated a new approach to site and context by celebrating rather than clearing bushland and through the retention of earlier remnant construction that added a layering of history on the site. This respectful response to site owes much to Dorney’s work for the Americans, Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony in 1920s Melbourne (see 4.3 Cultural and Aesthetic contribution).

A 1955 extension added another pavilion, a rectilinear timber and glass bedroom and nursery which was suspended beside the original circular pavilion — the spatial tension created between the two forming the entrance.

This building was destroyed by bushfire in 1998.

Phase 2 was constructed in 1966 with its form and foundation generated by the second (northern) gun emplacement. The two structures (phase 1 and 2) were connected by an open concrete walkway bisected by a (partially inground) glass, sleeping pavilion.

This open plan, radial building of three stories was timber framed, with most of its enclosure provided by floor to ceiling glazing, internal living space was defined through simple level changes that radiated about a central social focus – the conversation pit and fireplace. The private spaces offered a slightly greater degree of enclosure, although generously glazed, with fibro cement walls. Over the center of the radial roof was a circular glass studio/office offering 360 panoramic degree views of the city, harbour and surrounding bushland.

This second building was destroyed by bushfire again in 1978.

Phase 3, the current building, now known as the Dorney House, was designed in 1978 on the destruction of the second phase. and constructed over 1979 again on the northern gun emplacement, which, with the fireplace and entrance stair, had survived the 1978 fire. It remained occupied by the family after Esmond’s death in 1991 until 2006 when the house passed into public ownership. The Hobart City Council, with Federal Government support, purchased the building and its extensive bushland surrounds, ‘preserving them for the City and the Nation.’ (press conference speech, City of Hobart Lord Mayor Rob Valentine, 2004)