Billionaire art collector Judith Neilson has spent close to $100 million buying and renovating property in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, seeking out antiquated warehouses on large blocks and converting them into large-scale galleries, offices and cultural institutions as well as her own commanding private residence.
Falling property prices in Sydney haven’t deterred the 72-year-old, who debuted on Australia’s Rich List when she and her husband Kerr Neilson, the founder of Platinum Asset Management, were divorced in 2015. Just this year Neilson, who has a net worth of about $1.77 billion, added another two warehouses worth a total of $17 million to her collection of old factories and terraces, which she has been quietly amassing over the past decade.
“I wanted to be part of the resurrection of a legendary inner-city area which has gone through many cycles,” Neilson told The Australian Financial Review.
“When I first came to Australia, I worked for the historical Grace Brothers, which was located in what is now Broadway. As part of our induction we were given a tour of Chippendale and informed of the history of the area.”
While her property holdings extend well beyond the one inner-city suburb, Neilson owns more property in Chippendale than each of the three surrounding universities all jostling for limited space, including University of Notre Dame, which has $48 million of property across five sites.
Neilson’s plans for her most recent off-market acquisition, a $12.8 million 19th century J.C. Goodwin & Co glass factory on a large corner block fronting Abercrombie Street, are “still a work in progress”, but a recent DA lodged to council reveals a $10.7 million plan to demolish parts of the property, construct a three-storey infill building and re-use the existing heritage premises as a multi-function venue with offices and a lecture theatre.
By the time she’s finished with its upgrade, Neilson will have spent, privately and through several of her companies, at least $110 million buying and renovating property in the once working class suburb.
The art collector and philanthropist’s soft spot for Chippendale in no secret. The Zimbabwean-born graphic designer made her mark on the suburb in 2009 after she spent about $10 million to transform a former knitting factory into the now hugely popular White Rabbit Gallery, one of the world’s biggest private collections of Chinese art.
Three years later she cemented her prominence in the suburb when she bought a second warehouse site nearby for $8 million and spent an extra $6.8 million to build a divisive four-storey fortress-style residence called Indigo Slam. Sitting next to a row of modest terraces, the commanding concrete structure has been critically acclaimed for its architecture, although some locals fear it “won’t stand the test of time”.
While Neilson’s property portfolio would have surged in value, with many of her sites bought well before inner-city prices grew, the art collector seems more interested in the suburb’s culture as a long-term investment than watching her fortune grow.
“My vision has always been to create functional buildings that have 100-year-plus life-spans supporting projects that I feel are necessary,” Neilson said.
“When I was looking for a location for the White Rabbit Gallery I looked for a location which was close to transport, as close to the city as possible, and central for everybody. As White Rabbit grew, support properties were required and it made sense for them all to be in close proximity to each other,” she said.
In 2015, Neilson was divorced from her husband, split a large stake in his international equities firm Platinum (worth $27 billion) and shot to number 38 on the AFR Rich List.
In the same year she spent $10 million on an old warehouse, as well as the terrace next door, and has since injected about $32 million to replace it with two artist residences and a three-storey mixed-use art gallery and performance space called Phoenix.
Also that year Neilson purchased an early 20th century brick warehouse for $8.3 million through her company JLPN May Pty Limited and transformed it, while maintaining its historic elements, into her offices with an added $3.75 million.
Despite being in a prime inner-city location Chippendale has taken longer than other centrally located suburbs to gentrify and required some risk taking.
It was still a “gritty, dangerous neighbourhood” when prominent architect and director of design at AJ+C Michael Heenan moved his firm there 12 years ago.
At the time he was worried he had made a huge mistake, but 12 years on it has become highly sought after.
“I put a lot of that down to the recognition of the place by Judith Neilson and the White Rabbit Gallery and the change it’s made to the area,” Heenan said.
He said while residents were worried her home, Indigo Slam, and the theatre complex next door would be “impositions”, the large concrete residence, which “pushes architecture to the limit”, had made Chippendale’s streetscape even better, in his view.
The centrally located suburb, which is surrounded by the University of Sydney, The University of Technology, Sydney and Notre Dame, is also a prime target for land grabbing by the cashed-up academic institutions, with UTS most recently competing against Neilson for another brick warehouse on a large corner block.
Neilson offered about $9 million last year for the heritage-listed warehouse at 14-16 Buckland Street originally built for shirt manufacturer W.A. Davidson in about 1900, before it sold at auction to the university for $11.25 million.
Earlier this year her company, 11Twice Holdings, bought a smaller warehouse at 28 O’Connor Street, for $4.2 million.
The art collector’s propensity for Chippendale warehouses could be genetic. Her daughter Beau Neilson’s own enormous warehouse residence, which she bought in 2012 for $3.1 million and renovated for an estimated $1.4 million, rivals the size of her mother’s compound just a few streets away.
The five-bedroom home with three street frontages, has a floor space of 650 square metres and underwent an impressive renovation, with a statement copper stairwell and outdoor lap pool added.