The Argus XXIII

Mount Woolooma Glasshouse at Belltrees

An architectural gem on top of a mountain is restored.

Words Victoria Carey Photography Nicola Sevitt. With thanks to Phoebe White and the White family.

If it wasn’t for the call of a lyrebird, Mount Woolooma Glasshouse might never have existed. The story begins when Michael White, a keen ornithologist, was out riding when he heard one of these shy birds, famed for their talent at mimicry. A passionate conservationist, he decided to buy the land to protect their habitat and it was only later that he decided to build his family a mountain escape. 

Sitting 1320 metres above sea level and reached after an exhilarating 30-minute drive in a Polaris Ranger, the result is a house that feels like it is reaching up to the sun. Outside wedge-tail eagles glide on the air currents, king parrots dart amongst the gum trees and the prehistoric cries of giant black cockatoos echo through the skies. On the ground, shrub wallabies emerge at dusk to graze the native grasses on the slope behind the house. It’s a magical place high up in the clouds.

The man responsible for designing this ground-breaking retreat was John Suttor, a Sydney-based architect who had already created a home for Michael and his wife Judy on Belltrees, the White family’s Upper Hunter Valley property.

An experienced pilot, it was to be a dream project for this “quiet, modest man” who was very inspired by the lofty site of Mount Woolooma. Suttor wanted the Whites to feel like they were taking off in a aeroplane once inside the house, so a skillion roof and floor-to-ceiling glass window became a key part of his design.

“You get that wonderful feeling looking out, especially seeing the eagles, and all the other birds, playing in the atmosphere. He was an amazing architect,” says Dr Judy White, who will turn 90 in January next year.

Suttor was briefed to create a building that blended seamlessly with the surrounding landscape — and the piles of basalt rocks covering the hillside inspired an innovative solution.

“I lined the children up and we collected the rocks from the top and handed them down the hill, from person to person. I then had a ski instructor from Thredbo come up and do the stonework cladding the house,” Judy says.

After building finished in 1973, the White family matriarch retreated up the hill to start writing The White Family of Belltrees: 150 years in the Hunter Valley, the first of her 11 books. This meticulous archivist felt she needed to leave the demands of running the homestead on Belltrees if she was to ever finish writing anything.

“I absolutely adored it up there. My life was very busy. I had a lot of children, and a lot of people coming and staying. And it is rather difficult to write a book and look after 7 children at the same time,” she says.

“I don’t think I’m a natural writer, I did economics at the University of Sydney so I’m more mathematical. So, to write a history, I felt I needed to be evacuated.”

Today, sitting across the table from her grandmother is Phoebe White, one of Judy’s 19 grandchildren, and the current custodian of the mountain. The bond between the two is clear. “It was my escape valve and I’m so thrilled that Phoebe loves it, just like I loved it,” says Judy. 

Peter White, the second of Judy and Michael’s seven children, passed the baton to his only daughter a few years ago. 

Clearly the ties to the mountain are strong. When he was just 14, Peter remembers helping the builders on Woolooma during the school holidays. Later, he would meet his three children at the school gates on Friday afternoons and whisk them up the mountain to spend the weekend sleeping in their grandmother’s shag pile-lined conversation pit and playing board games around the fire.

In 2018 the property came under threat from the bush fires raging throughout the area and father and daughter joined forces to fight the flames. “During the fires, Dad and I slept up here and decided we needed to bring the house back,” says Phoebe. It started a journey of careful restoration and Mount Woolooma Glasshouse recently re-opened to guests.

Ask Peter what Woolooma means to him, and the answer is direct.

“To me, it is a symbol of conservation – a monument built of local solid materials on top of a cliff. There are certain individuals that care about nature; I shared my father’s passion and I believe Phoebe also does,” he says.

Peter also opened the Glasshouse to paying guests until the demands of Belltrees during the drought years drove his attention elsewhere.

As he watches his daughter follow in his footsteps, what is his advice? 

“It’s the same as when I told her that I was leaving this beautiful place to her: love it, respect it and care for it.”

After an afternoon in Phoebe’s company, it’s clear this precious legacy is in safe hands. “The house is at one with the mountain,” says Phoebe. “It is a very special place to all of us.”

And the lyrebirds? “They are very much coming back. They are hard to see as they are usually foraging on the ground, but I can hear them – I can hear their song again.”

To find out how to stay at Woolooma Glasshouse, email or telephone +61 406 442 115. 

For more information, go to

Phoebe White’s Address Book

The Linga Longa Inn

With lawns running down to the Pages River, this pub in the nearby town of Gundy is much-loved by locals. “I love going there for the best house-made pies by Dan the chef,” says Phoebe. 

2 Riley Street, Gundy, NSW. (02) 6545 8121.

Adam Humphreys

This Tamworth-based sculptor created a sculpture of a lyrebird for Woolooma Glasshouse. “It is a tribute to my late grandfather Michael White who had a passion for ornithology and conservation. I couldn’t think of a better sculptor to collaborate with than Adam Humphreys who brings together commissioned pieces so beautifully.”

Belltrees Public School

Edging the road leading into Belltrees, this little school with its motto of “We Give Our Best”

has educated several generations of the White family — and more are on the way. “I went to school there and I can remember one year when I was the only girl out of eight kids,” she says. “And our kids will go there in the future.”

62 Belltrees Road, Belltrees, NSW. (02) 6546 1148.

Plants on Main

The cafe at this Scone garden centre opens daily at 6am. “We go for a great almond cap by Tatiana,” says Phoebe. Drop in on a Wednesday for a bunch of fresh flowers with prices starting at $25. 

51 Main Street, Scone, NSW. (02) 6545 9998.

The Cottage Scone 

Colin Selwood’s dry-aged steak is a drawcard at this Kelly Street restaurant. The cafe, that proved to be such a hit during lockdown, is open Tuesday to Saturday from 7.30am. Open Thursday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. 

196 Kelly Street, Scone NSW. (02) 6545 1215.

Victoria Carey

An afternoon on Mount Woolooma was a highlight of our editorial director's recent trip to the Upper Hunter. "This story was a wonderful blend of rural life and great architecture, two things I have spent most of my career writing about," she says.

Nicola Sevitt

"I adored listening to Judy talk about the family history and early days at Belltrees. I was mesmerised when observing her and capturing her portrait in her archive room, amongst all her historical paperwork and artefacts," says this Sydney-based photographer about documenting the Woolooma Glasshouse for the Argus.

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