Sydney Open Scrapbook

My day started in a brick bunker behind Australia Square, tangling myself in a safety harness (a volunteer saw me struggling and intervened)  in order to go on a tour of the Tank Stream. Tank Stream tours are very popular, attributable to the fact that the Tank Stream is symbolic of the city’s origins. Sydney grew from around the Tank Stream, the source of freshwater that convinced Arthur Phillip to move the proposed settlement from Botany Bay to Port Jackson in 1788. The stream soon became polluted and was eventually contained in a series of pipes and drains that run underneath the city. Stories of despoiled waterways usually make me feel maudlin, but in this case I like that the Tank Stream still runs secretly underneath the city. Soon my gumboots were splashing through the stream as the guide pointed out the makers marks on the sandstone blocks that make up the walls of the drainage channel, and the most enthusiastic photographers of the group posed by the entrance to the oviform drain pipe at the end of the chamber.

Once I was on the surface again, I started my journey across the city. Here are some of my favourite details.

Badges from the Royal Automobile Club on Macquarie Street. I notice this building every time I am in a car going towards the Harbour Bridge, as its windows are very close to the road. How fitting that it is an automobile club! It is a grand brick and sandstone building with a stately interior, although my favourite part, apart from the cars whizzing past the dining room windows, was the collections of badges.

History House book sale: also on Macquarie Street is the home of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Past the elegant room with the rare square piano in the corner and down the hall there was a sign for a book sale in the back room. A book sale never fails to quicken my pulse, and I bought a number of 50c books, “The Palace of Winged Words” which is about telephone exchanges in Australia, and another book about the Hume Highway. On the table of free books was a book about conservation of heritage houses in the Willoughby District. The house which I have lived in many versions of over the years is the one with the identity crisis, pictured above. Also on the free table was a commemorative guide to Expo 88. Sometimes photos of the 1980s looks like scenes from another planet.


Next I walked up the hill to the AWA tower, which is best known for having been Sydney’s tallest building in the 1940s and 1950s. Like the Tank Stream, the city has grown up around it, and now the AWA tower looks quite prim and polite, rather than the towering ediface to the power of radio it was in the 1940s.

Photo by A.G Foster, from the NLA archives.

I waited in a queue along the footpath in front to climb up to the roof and to the base of the metal tower, referred to by some as Sydney’s Eiffel (I favour the less impressive Eiffel Tower on Canterbury Road). As I waited I spoke to a woman who was clutching a handwritten list of her picks for the day. She had already been to most of them, even though it was only 12:30; she must have moved fast. Soon we were ushered into the clothing store on the ground floor of the AWA, in which a woman at the counter continued her serious conversation about alterations to a garment as a group of Sydney Open tourists took photos of the friezes which lined the walls.

The AWA zodiac

Scenes from around the world, including a giant Parisian woman

Friezes observed, we then climbed the spiral staircase to the roof. There’s something magical about climbing a spiral staircase, especially one which leads to what was once the top of the city.

On my way out of the Henry Davis York Building, a grand art deco building in Martin Place, I peeked into the doorway of the ground floor shop to discover this strange scene. A tall goth boy looked in at the same time and said “What are they?” to which I replied “They’re peacocks…resting.”  A small crowd gathered and we all beheld this strange sight.

In the State Theatre were many information panels about Sydney’s lost theatres, the result of many hours with a photocopier and a glue stick. As a zinemaker, I naturally approve of this. There was so much ephemera collected here that these old cinemas and theatres would get the award for Sydney’s most found lost places.

A few blocks down on Castlereagh Street I dropped in on the fire station. Immediately I went in search of the fire pole, this being the most exciting part of any fire station. Accordingly quite a number of people were crowded around it, asking questions of a fireman, who was explaining how it had been removed, replaced by stairs, but then reinstated. I liked it best for its highly specific sign.

I also liked the fire hoses, which looked to me like giant strands of spaghetti from the world’s largest pasta maker.

Further down Castlereagh Street I was excited to visit the Sydney Masonic Centre. On the Sydney Open information board outside it was a quote from the Sydney Morning Herald architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly “one of the least endearing buildings on Earth… no one has ever loved it, nor ever will”. It is a concrete bunker of a building, but I have always been rather fond of it. And, as noted in the description, Brutalism is now fashionable, so now the Masonic Centre is being heralded for the symphony in concrete that it is. Simon has asked me to enquire if the building was really built to withstand a nuclear blast, but I didn’t feel brave enough to ask any of the Masons this. Instead, I enjoyed the concrete and the strange iconography.

The G stands for the Great Architect of the Universe, and seems like a good place to end my Sydney Open oddities tour. Sydney Open is on every two years and presented by the Historic Houses Trust. Thank you HHT for the treasure hunt.

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