Inside Notre Dame, Mulgoa – Sydney’s top secret abandoned zoo & sister site of El Caballo Blanco amusement park

It’s not widely known that the hills of  Mulgoa in Sydney’s semi-rural outskirts hide the magnificent remains of what once was the largest privately owned zoo in the world. The secrets that lay behind the top secret walls of a once opulent 80s style mansion & its impressive grounds cannot be understated – so much so that I have kept these photos private until now. The reason for deciding to publish them is in the hopes that this site will be preserved despite it not falling under a heritage listing, as it is currently under threat of demolition by its foreign investors. After much consideration, I feel this is an important site that Sydney has a right to see. As such, ShhSydney has refrained from photoshopping/editing this photo series, so that this place can be recorded in its original state, as it was in 2016.

Notre Dame site back in its heyday: Images sourced from Google – while countless pics of El Caballo Blanco are available online, there are far fewer of Notre Dame even though it was occasionally open to the public.

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To start, we must go back to a time in Sydney’s past when there were no laws prohibiting the wealthy from owning/trading in exotic and dangerous animals, from at times exploiting countless loyal workers who devoted their lives caring for & training animals – some of whom were allegedly witness to cruelties that their bosses committed against the animals they helped to train/care for, in the name of sport, celebrity and their own amusement.

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While many Sydneysiders will reminisce fondly about the now lost El Caballo Blanco amusement park, it is much more difficult to find those who remembers its sister site Notre Dame, or anyone willing to speak about its owner, the infamous  & eccentric self-made millionaire Emmanual Margolin. Margolin made his fortune from several used car dealerships in Melbourne, before selling up & moving to Sydney. He bought the El Caballo Blanco Spanish dancing horse amusement park in Narellan & created his own private zoo at his estate in Mulgoa.

After several years of research & speaking to former workers who prefer to remain anonymous, I can only conclude in my personal opinion that Margolin was an immensely wealthy yet ruthless character, with a penchant for French provincial antiques & stuffed exotic animals. It’s said his mansion was decorated with countless animal skin rugs, heads of African animals, ivory & gold.

Margolin was renowned for shamelessly flaunting his wealth – every corner of his extravagent residence dripped with decadence, he & his wife drove matching gold Rolls Royces, ensuring they turned every head in Western Sydney, wherever they went. He was rumoured to be quite the ladies man & a real charmer, with a fiery temper who was not to be crossed. At times he was said to be kind to his workers, especially the top tier horse trainers/riders, who were allowed to party after hours at the Notre Dame manor – no doubt those parties back in the 80s were a real treat to attend (!)

The vast collection of (live) exotic animals he kept at his private residence included monkeys, lions, leopards, Spanish Andalusian horses, elephants & exotic birds, plus more. They were said to be less beloved pets & more live property to proudly show off & on occasion slaughter at his own whims, lest they not perform to his exceedingly high expectations. It’s said that some of the animals that were slaughtered were fed to the big cats.

Emmanual Margolin passed away in 2012 of motor neurone disease, at the ripe old age of 83. His lavish Notre Dame zoo & El Caballo Blanco were sold off to foreign investors & El Caballo Blanco has recently been demolished to make way for a new housing development. Notre Dame still remains, it’s abandoned ruins looked after by a dedicated family of caretakers.

I was lucky enough to visit Notre Dame on two separate occasions – the second of which included a private tour of the full site, thanks to the generous (and reclusive) caretakers, who took kindly to a gal’s genuine love of the history hiding behind the walls of Notre Dame.

The grand entrance gates

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Inside the gates of Notre Dame are countless  decaying cages, pavilions, multiple residences & arenas that have been claimed by the nature that surrounds them. Evidence of Margolin’s immense wealth & penchant for decadence is clear, with many abandoned antiques still remaining & collecting dust.

Outside the front manor at the gates – was once Emmanual’s housekeeping staff residence. As the story goes, Emmanual refused to pay for the palm trees seen planted at the front in a ‘V’ shape, as he had requested they be planted in a different pattern.

 

Inside the housekeepers quarters:

 

Margolin’s magificent mansion – note the ‘M’ on the front entrance doors. We did not enter the main mansion as it’s currently inhabited by one of the caretakers. (what a man cave!). The aspect from the front of the manor overlooking the hills of Mulgoa points directly towards Sydney’s CBD – a perfect view for NYE fireworks. The flat rooftop contains a once grand outdoor entertainment area complete with a pool, aviary & now overgrown gardens. The caretakers insisted it is now sadly too dangerous to enter the rooftop entertainment area.

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Spanish horse stables:  The dancing horses were undoubtedly the star attractions of the show. Note the faded image of the horse & caption “The Andalusion Dancing Stallions”. Behind the stables is an impressive horse training arena which we did not explore, due to fear of snakes & other creepy crawlies…The stables are surrounded by a large circular driveway, presumably to allow for horse-drawn carriages & cars to turn with ease.

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The old arena next to the mansion: Note the priceless postcard I was gifted by a friend & former employee of Emmanual Margolin, which shows Margolin (right) and an old famous actor (name now forgotten) on horseback outside the very same gates of the arena!

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Remains of the animal enclosures: While many cages are still visible, others have now been almost completely reclaimed by nature. It’s rumoured that one of the many celebrities who visited Margolin at Notre Dame was Michael Jackson, who’s infamous Neverland Ranch was inspired by his time there & his people sought advice from Margolin about the logistics of owning & operating a private zoo. Another story is that truth behind the local urban legend of Sydney/Blue Mountains ‘Penrith Panther’ originated  right here, when Margolin released his prized pet panther into the surrounding bushland…

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Outside the grand guesthouse:

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Inside the guesthouse: Note the once opulent 80s features, complete with an indoor squash court (!), bar, antiques & old taxidermied animals which Margolin was an enthusiastic collector of stuffed inside cupboards.

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The guesthouse as it once was: (photos courtesy of Notre Dame Mulgoa FB page). Note all the amazing antiques & valuable collectibles which Margolin was infamous for.

Other remains: Notre Dame’s buildings, signs & various features which show evidence of what was once the largest privately owned zoo in the world. Note the sign below shows just some of the attractions & facilities available at the zoo…

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Gardens & grounds: The Japanese feature gate were the entrance to a large koi fish pond & Japanese themed garden, now inaccessible due to overgrowth.

 

Notre Dame is now sadly owned by foreign investors, so its long term future looks bleak. The property is looked after by a very private group of caretakers & we do not recommend anyone visit this place, as they can & do call the police on any unwanted intruders. We were given special permission to access this place, so please enjoy this photo series & do not attempt to gain entry yourself.

There are just some of the many photos taken during the expeditions to Notre Dame, it would be impossible to post them all here. Also these are just some of the sites on the property & must stress that we were only able to see & capture a small part of the site’s remains. While most of the animal enclosures are in a ruined state, we saw many buildings & facilities that while overgrown, would still be functional with a little TLC. It’s my personal dream that this place be turned into an animal sanctuary & rehabilitation centre – I can’t stress enough just how deeply Notre Dame has touched me & how priveliged it feels to have been able to document this derelict, yet still decadent site. Hope Sydney folk will find this photo series as enjoyable as it was to take them.

Much love Sydneysiders

XO Gia @ Shhsydney

 

 

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34 comments

  1. Russell Hayse · February 21

    what an amazing story! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Doreen Lyon · February 22

    Thank you for your enterprise and persistence! as this property is within Wollondilly shire and our museum contains material culture and archives to share and preserve for future generations – is there any chance you would allow us to archive these photos and your research?
    Doreen Lyon, exhibitions curator, The Oaks Historical Society @ The Wollondilly Heritage Centre & Museum, Edward Street, The Oaks

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gia · February 22

      Heya Doreen, thanks for your keen interest in local history & preserving important memories! Would be honoured if you would archive the photos/research & share them with the community. Cheers, Gia

      Like

      • Brad · April 30

        Lee Majors (6 million dollar man) the American actor owned this property in the late 80s I believe. There was a big open day there that my family took me to

        Like

      • Darrell · May 2

        indeed it is Lee Majors in the postcard but he never owned Notre Dame,he was visiting Australia making a movie,i met Lee and his girlfriend and fellow actors when I was working with the horse show when he visited ND

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Brittanie · February 24

    Brilliant article. Currently working on a podcast on Notre Dame – would love to collaborate! Email me on info@brittanieshipway.com if you’re interested 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Merriden · February 24

    This propety also featured on the American series Lifestyles of the rich and famous. Might help to show how it was in its heyday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gia · February 25

      Thanks for the lead ! Will have a look online for the program.

      Like

  5. salvatore · February 24

    Thanks Gia great article
    Emanuel was an amazing man with amazing property,…
    .different era and time ….confined now to history

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Anne Munsie · February 25

    Thanks for reviving memories of visiting Caballo Blanco about 35 years ago! It was a magnificent showplace!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Cas · February 25

    I loved going here a few times with my family as a kid. I remember the pool the most!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Nicole Turner · March 17

    My son is about to film his major uni short film and has been searching for somewhere with a backdrop like this… would he (& his crew) be able to get access easily? Are the caretakers approachable?

    Like

    • Gia · March 27

      No, as mentioned do not recommend attempting to visit the property or approaching the caretakers, as they are known to call police.

      Like

  9. Darren · April 20

    Who gave you access to the property as I am willing to bring it back to life

    Like

    • Gia · April 25

      Brilliant old article ! “I’m having my waterfalls cleaned” – Emmanual Margolin, 1983 – love it.

      Like

  10. Ian Schafer · April 29

    I worked as head gardener at El Caballo for a short period in 1987, I was driven around Notre Dame & El Caballo by Mrs Cecile Margolin in her gold Rolls Royce showing me Palm trees that she wanted removed & transplanted at El Caballo which never eventuated in my time as I got into a heated discussion with Emmanuel Margolin over poor wages that I received which was not what I agreed to when I was first hired, Margolin was a rude, ruthless, self opinionated tyrant that did not like to lower himself to deal or even talk to his workers. When I went to see him to discuss my wages, he said to the receptionist within my hearing distance ” What is the Gardener doing in the office ” I said to him that I wanted to discuss my wages, I was ushered into his office, the rest is history I quit & stormed out never to return.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Anonymous · May 2

      MR Margolin was a complex man and I also had a incident with wages,i was a rider at EL Caballo Blanco (ECB)at the time and MR Margolin was wanting to start his own horse show,Mr Margolin had a very talented trainer who worked at ANDALUSCIA PARK on the Gold Coast (another horse complex which is now closed and the PALAZZO VERSACE is now in its place)The trainer offered me a job and we negotiated a wage ,upon receiving my first pay packet I realised it wasn’t the wage we discussed and the trainer told me to see Mr Margolin ,which I did and was told no no thats what I pay my riders,i thanked Mr Margolin and returned to the stables where I told the trainer I was leaving and then drove home….It has been noted in the story earlier he did indeed treat his riders differently to his other workers and before I had arrived home he had rang my parents and asked me to return and honoured our agreement,i don’t know if this was the reason but Mr Margolin treated me and a lot of his favourite riders very differently to the other workers, the horse show certainly was his most prized possession and he really did enjoy participating in the show every Sunday ,Notre Dame and ELCaballo Blanco were such a magical place I only hope one day someone has the courage to start their own horse show,i know it would be amazing and if done properly would even out do ECB and ND………….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Darrell · May 2

        Darrell Cohen was the author of this letter

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Blair Dormer · April 30

    Thanks for putting this up, I was only telling my kids about it recently.
    That “actor” looks to be Lee Majors. He was the star of “The Six Million Dollar Man” from the 70’s but also shot a move in the Blue Mountains in the 80’s and resided at Glenbrook for a couple of months so the timing is right 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Darrell · May 2

      very true Blair,he visited Notre Dame with his girlfriend and a couple of fellow actors,i was riding in the show at this time and we met Lee and company

      Liked by 1 person

  12. John Leech · May 6

    I drove past the entry gates today, it brought back memories of several visits, enjoying a picnic on the grass beside the main driveway, the opulance of the mansion and the horse training facilities, the courtesy extended by the staff on duty and the atmosphere generated by so many sydney siders who took enjoyment from seeing what one family achieved despite all the stories surrounding the mistreatment of staff and animals

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Kalina · May 9

    Beautiful beautiful – looks like such an incredible place with so much history! How lucky for you to have seen it all. Would have loved to see other images you obtained

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gia · May 12

      Thanks for your interest in the history of Notre Dame ! Perhaps one day will put up more photos (have over 500+) – tried to pick the best ones that showcase it…it was truly a magnificent place ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Sara · May 24

    I too used to work here, it was such an amazing place, and like ECB, it is devastating to see it falling to pieces…. Surely it would be worth restoring? It was once such a grand mansion and surrounded by beautiful gardens, I can’t believe it is at risk of disappearing too…
    Such wonderful old memories, and now so sad to see it in this state…

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Herman Ivanoff · May 28

    As one of the keepers that worked there for a while in the 80s, I can confirm some of the bad stuff you hear about the place. Margolin had no business owning the zoo and he routinely ripped off his staff..

    I would love to have a walk around the grounds though.

    Like

  16. Bryan butler · June 3

    I did work there towards the end of my apprenticeship at south wells at Camden yes he was a wild man I was welding up the dog kennels and they escaped and he ran them down in his rolls Royce me as passenger I was a bit wild those days so we got on well

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Mark aka Daddyo · 28 Days Ago

    Hi. As the photographer of some of the photos used in your article, why would you not ask or credit them?

    Like

  18. Mark Burgess · 20 Days Ago

    I will ask again… Why are you using my photos without permission?

    Like

    • Gia · 18 Days Ago

      Which photos ? Found some pics on google images & FB Notre Dame group, so didn’t know where the originals came from. If you send me your info & tell me which pics to credit will update accordingly ! Email us at giacattiva@gmail.com xo

      Like

  19. bob · 15 Days Ago

    Does anyone know what is planned to happen to the property now?
    Are the caretakers still there? Who do they work for?

    Why has such a massive estate deteriorated like this

    Why did he leave it in the first place?

    Sorry so many questions!

    Like

  20. PETER · 11 Days Ago

    To Bob’s question I found Emmanuel’s son on fb all he had too say was property is now owned by Chinese investors waiting to develop the property for housing. Wouldn’t say too much else.He left due the the zoo being closed down by the RSPCA.my family knows one of the vets that was responsible for the animals there

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thegoons · 8 Days Ago

    Surprised it hasn’t been totally trashed yet like Many other abandoned wastelands

    Like

    • Gia · 7 Days Ago

      It is privately owned, has caretakers, highly secure & is so magnificent to see in person the last thing you’d want to do is trash it ! ❤

      Like

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