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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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…
Outside the grand guesthouse:
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.
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…
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