The abandoned zoo: Western Sydney’s best kept secret

In a quiet suburb near Penrith, there is an overgrown estate once owned by an eccentric millionaire.

Artwork by A. Mon Artwork by A. Mon

Most people haven’t heard of Mulgoa.

Carved into the land of the Dharug and the Gundungurra people, Mulgoa is an unremarkable suburb at the edge of Sydney, where urban sprawl trails off into bush and farmland.

The town has three or maybe four prominent buildings. There is a primary school, painted a sunny shade of yellow. There is a fire station, also yellow. And there is a church made from earthy, uneven bricks, as if it has been cobbled together from burnt gingerbread.

Driving out of town, you pass faded fields hemmed in by the Nepean River. There are a few stocky ponies, and fewer people.

But, sometimes, there is the odd urban explorer.

Because, if Mulgoa is known for anything at all, it is known for the remains of what newspapers once called the “most amazing house in Australia”. It’s known for Notre Dame.

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By all accounts, Emmanuel Margolin was a strange character, even before he built Notre Dame.

Born in the south of France in 1931, his family moved to Alexandria when he was nine years old, and he spend his childhood between Egypt and Israel. When he was 18, he saw his father get shot by an Ottoman official who wanted to seize the family farm. Emmanuel and his partner, an Egyptian woman named Cecile, left Alexandria after the murder. They arrived in Australia in 1951, with £7 in cash.

Emmanuel’s career began when a travelling salesman offered him £25 a week to join his business, trucking around Australia selling assorted goods.

“We used to sleep in the truck and eat in Greek cafes, but it was an education,” Emmanuel told the Penrith Press in 1984.

He had a knack for sales straight away. “It was like selling candy to children,” he bragged to the paper.

Over the next few decades, he established himself as a used car salesman and, when that didn’t work out, as a real estate tycoon.

When he was a car salesman in Melbourne, he was known for his ads in the paper: he’d print huge photos of his face bordered by small versions of the same photo, trapping the audience in a mirror maze with him.

“Emmanuel Car Sales, page after page of advertising every day, his special gimmick the use of this face,” the Age wrote in 1983. “It could appear over 150 times on one newspaper page… Everywhere you turned you saw that calmly smiling face.”

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Emmanuel Car Sales ad, 1962. Image credit: Fairfax.

And when he became a property developer in Sydney, he was an odd addition to the social scene. For instance, he once delivered a Hereford bull to former Prime Minister William McMahon’s suburban home.

“Mr Emmanuel Margolin, who promised the bull to Sir William 12 months [prior], had taken as serious Sir William’s suggestion that the animal should be delivered to 18 Drumalbyn Road,” the Age reported in 1978.

By the early 80s, Emmanuel and Cecile were nearing their fifties, and were growing tired of living as inner city socialites. They sold their house in Bellevue Hill and bought a plot of land at the foot of the Blue Mountains. They planned to build a comfortable country home for their retirement. It would be 50 metres squared, at most.

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Three and a half years later, they’d built a “21st Century castle”: a 570 square metre mansion with 40 hectares of garden, not including the three hectares of national park that Emmanuel tried to annex. The whole thing is thought to have cost up to $22 million, although Emmanuel was notoriously vague on the figures.

When the Penrith Press asked him why he called it Notre Dame, he replied, “Well, of course I did not name it after Notre Dame the famous cathedral in Paris. But Notre Dame means ‘Our Lady’—is there anything more beautiful than a woman?”

The Margolins opened the property to the public shortly after it was completed, in early 1984. Entry was $10 for adults, $5 for children or pensioners, or $25 per family. This wasn’t their first foray into the world of amusement parks: they also owned a theme park dedicated to Andalusian horse shows in Catherine Field, named El Caballo Blanco.

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Tourist brochure from the 80s.

Emmanuel advertised Notre Dame as an escapist’s paradise. “One of Australia’s biggest tourist attractions,” he boasted in the brochure. “It gives pleasure to millions of people that never had the opportunity of enjoying a day in a heavenly atmosphere.” (“I could go on writing for hours but space is limited,” he added at the end of the page.)

It had the kind of things you’d expect to find at a deluxe estate: antiques, animal heads, tennis courts, a helipad, fountains and waterfalls and a swimming pool fitted out with brass pipes.

And it had things you wouldn’t expect to find. Wandering around the property on a Sunday afternoon, you could see monkeys in a tropical rainforest, made up of over a million plants flown in from Queensland. You could visit an airy Shinto shrine built on a lake, and watch colourful carp through the glass floor. You could attend a performance by Andalusian dancing stallions, with riders in black hats and white frills. And you could see predatorsbig cats and crocodiles. Emmanuel, a former bullfighter, even constructed a bull ring, although the government stopped him from actually keeping a bull.

The Margolins framed the complex as a sanctuary for endangered animals for licencing reasons, but it was almost certainly a site of animal cruelty.

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Tourist brochure from the 80s.

In interview after interview, Emmanuel described Notre Dame with the sentimentality of a man rich enough to indulge in the ridiculous.

“Man has always built like this,” he told the Age in 1983, pointing to the book Magnificent Builders and their Dream Houses, featuring Versailles, the Vanderbilt houses and the Taj Mahal. “It is natural, it is even necessary,” he continued. “Follies. Notre Dame is my folly.”

With his characteristic dramatic flair, he told the press that he would keep adding to Notre Dame forever.

“My vision is so grand that when this place is completed it will be unbelievable,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1984. “This place has been built three times. I knocked down things three times before I said ‘Ah, that’s it.’”

“I am a perfectionist,” he said. “I will never be satisfied.”

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“My father was a total eccentric, like you’ve never met,” Paul Margolin told me. “He always thought of himself as some sort of frustrated actor, I’m sure.”

Paul, one of Emmanuel and Cecile’s two children, was warm and earnest when I gave him a call.

“I built the place, right down to measuring the koi carp before throwing them in the ponds,” he said. As the foreman, Paul managed construction right from the start, when the project was nothing more than a single log cabin. Now in his sixties, he runs a spiritual healing centre in Byron Bay and plays flamenco guitar in his spare time.

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Paul, Cecile and Emmanuel at Notre Dame, 1983. Image source: Fairfax.

Emmanuel wanted to keep building and building because “he was egotistical,” Paul said, bluntly. “If he was going to do something it was going to be the biggest.”

Cecile supported Emmanuel’s vision, no matter how absurd.

“Whatever my father wanted to do my mother supported him because she saw that as her role.”

Emmanuel died in 2012, and Cecile passed away a year later.

When Paul was young, he and his father had a falling out and didn’t speak to each other for over ten years. They were closest when Emmanuel was at the end of his life.

“He polarised peopleyou either loved him or you hated him,” Paul explained. “He was very flamboyant but very generous. He was happy to show off what he had but he was also happy to share it with the public. But he was a bit arrogant and he didn’t suffer fools.”

You can tell Paul was close to his mother.

“She was an angel from heaven,” he said, speeding up with emotion, “a very sensitive woman, very petite, unbelievably intelligent.”

One memory of his mother has stayed with him, in particular: they were were driving through the middle of a storm in their gold Rolls Royce, when Cecile suddenly pulled up.

“She ran across the whole road, O’Riordan Street in Alexandria, to give some old lady crossing the road—an 80-year-old woman standing in the pouring rain—to give her an umbrella.”

“Didn’t need big mansions, didn’t need Rolls Royces, didn’t need any of that,” he continued. “Would have been happy in a small little shack somewhere.”

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The first time I went to Notre Dame, I didn’t go inside.

The sign said 24-hour surveillance, trespassers will be prosecuted. I’m not much of an urban explorerI don’t have a nice camera, and I definitely don’t have an indie blog. I took a photo of the entrance, overgrown with vines, and got back in the car.

“It’s a shame, the place is a total derelict wreck,” Paul told me about his last visit to the estate, earlier this year. “It’s been neglected, everything’s rotten, it’s overgrown… All the glory days are gone.”

There’s not much urbex info about Notre Dame, or none that is readily-available. There is one notable blog post by an urban explorer from the Central Coast named Gia Cattiva’s. Based on that, I’d say the site is relatively unexplored. Gia visited the property in 2016 but only posted about it in February this year. In low-budget photos, she runs us through the wreckage: ugly 80s brick structures surrounded by palm trees, which look like they’ve been through a desert island disaster; fully-furnished interiors, complete with animal heads on the wall; tri-coloured umbrellas and white fountains covered in fungi.

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The entrance to the property, on a stormy afternoon.

The Margolins started trying to sell the property in 1990. After moving from the Eastern Suburbs to Mulgoa to retire, and after turning their hideaway into an amusement park, they decided to return to the Eastern Suburbs to retire—properly, this time.

They wanted a quieter life, at last, but they also had more pressing reasons for leaving.

A 1989 investigation revealed that they were using their charity, a foundation for endangered plants and animals, to fund their lifestyle. The foundation lost its charity status but they were allowed to keep the zoo open. Paul denied the allegations, defending his father.

The real blow came in 1996, when the government found that their animals “were not held satisfactorily” and revoked their zookeeper’s licence. Emmanuel killed two tigers, two pumas and a leopard in response. The move was met with condemnation but the government couldn’t press charges because the animals were privately owned. The Margolins sold the estate between 1996 and 2000, according to differing reports.

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An overgrown walled garden.

It is unclear who owns it now. Paul said that an offshore developer is holding the land until it rises in value, as Greater Sydney morphs into three cities. But my experience there says otherwise.

I went back to Notre Dame a week later. I went around the side, around the spiked gate.

The sign said 24-hour surveillance, trespassers will be prosecuted. It wasn’t bluffing.

I won’t say much more, just this: it’s all there, like a bombed-out scene from a movie.