Marrickville’s most striking building is painted a breath-mint green. Two pointed fins rise up from the roof like the tips of sails. The fins slope down into a protruding, triangular block at the centre of the facade, forming an angular nose. Attached to the windows of the nose are advertisements for washing powder that have, over years, faded from red to grey.
In the last week new signs have gone up, signs for the impending auction of the two warehouses that make up the green building: “Invest, Occupy or Redevelop”. It’s the last option that has Marrickvillians nervous. The building is a landmark, a moment of novelty among the otherwise functional architecture that surrounds it.
For decades the building has been occupied by Ming On Trading, a retailer and wholesaler of sewing accessories: buttons, zippers, threads, labels. An arrangement of boxes inside the entrance displays some of the miscellaneous goods that Ming On trades in. Tubs of washing powder are stacked up, there are plastic baskets of socks and sticky tape, bird cages hang from the ceiling. Further inside, almost the whole lower floor of the showroom is dedicated to sewing thread. The metal shelving makes narrow aisles, lined with a rainbow of reels of thread. Unspool it all and it would reach to the moon.
The Ming On building is the kind of place that people stop to notice, photograph, and wonder about. What could be inside this bright, strange building? It’s vernacular value is high, but in other systems of worth – architectural, historical – it has left few traces. I find a newspaper article about a fire on the site in 1970, which destroyed the two existing factory buildings: the current building must have risen from these ashes. In the early 1980s, ads for Pacific Furniture exalt the new, unique dynamic collections of lounge furniture available at their showroom there. Then, later, come references Ming On Trading Co. Pty Ltd.
The style of the building – like a rectangle has swallowed a triangle – is less 1970s-functional, more a kind of industrial Googie, the post-war, space-age American architectural style that was given to Californian diners and petrol stations. There’s no functional reason for its preposterous outfit, the fins on its roof and bright green coat, but therein lies its charm, and people’s sense of delight and connection. It’s a reminder of the importance of eccentric spaces, in a city where, increasingly, the oddities are being ironed out.
Inside Ming On Trading, business continues as usual among the millions of buttons and racks of lace trims. Once the building is sold, Ming On will move south west, to Villawood, but apart from the real estate signs out the front, there’s little indication of the change. Heading up to the top floor, I start up the central stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. I’m inside the triangle that forms the building’s nose, looking out towards Addison Road through the angled windows. Across the road, I notice a woman has stopped walking to reach into her bag. She looks over towards the Ming On building, with its fins and bright green paint, holds up her phone and takes a photo of it, a bittersweet expression on her face.
On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.
At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and wrapped in plastic.
The yellow-striped wallpaper is peeling, and wires hang down from the roof, but the space doesn’t quite seem abandoned. A ladder and a broom are propped up against the wall as if at any moment someone might come in and resume the task of clearing out the store. I could see a row of signs on the windows for Blankets, Carpets, Gifts and Crystal. With each word I imagine the store in its heyday, the topography of soft or glistening objects that would have made up its interior. Things bought here would still be in people’s houses, or have recirculated through op shops, or remain at the back of cupboards, never-used wedding presents from decades before.
I am being watched: from the tiled stairwell at the side of the store hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa. She looks in my direction serenely, with her seeing-but-not-seeing expression, from the wall-mounted glass cabinet lined with flocked wallpaper where she has been, for decades, encased.
A handpainted sign in English and Greek above the cabinet directs all photography enquiries to the shop downstairs. I stumble my eyes over ΦΩΤΟΓΡΑΦΕΙΟ, decoding it as “photography”. I don’t read or speak Greek so later, when I am back home, I type the words on the sign into an online translation site and they come out, after auto-correction of the text, as “information about the photography lost under the story”. I like it. For as I stand peering through the metal grille that seals the premises off from the street, I dream up stories about the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. I think of the carefully dressed people who once climbed the stairs, walking up towards the portrait photographs that were soon to be taken of them, preserving that day, that moment.
(Those with Marrickville connections might be interested in the Marrickville Map I made, which includes the Mona Lisa among other landmarks.)
In 1950, the Smith’s Weekly newspaper published a series of profiles of city workers titled ‘Men in Odd Jobs’. The first article appeared in July, profiling Mr J.A. Sinclair, who spent his days testing lawn bowls for accuracy. Next readers met a skeleton articulator at the Australian Museum. Then a man who drills holes in buttons: Mr Ern Sheather who confides that “drilling holes in buttons is soothing to the nerves”. In September, under the headline He Frightens Spiders, was the story of an instrument maker who places spider webs in the theodolites used by surveyors for measuring angles.
Reading these articles now is to imagine a city where such obscure pastimes had cause to exist: a man could spend his working days creating bows for ladies shoes, or changing the dates on the stamps used for franking mail. Job satisfaction in these roles was generally high. Mr Desmond Russell found a job that suited him in turning mail bags inside out and, in the final article of the series, in the final edition of Smiths in October 1950, Mr Leslie Stanley, cable joiner, praised the “interesting and absorbing” work he did laying cables underneath the city streets. The job could also be entertaining, as he was able to overhear conversations from the street above through the manholes. The article quotes Mr Stanley:
One day two men were standing outside the Commonwealth Bank in Pitt Street, when one of them dropped his keys down an open grate. He was in a terrible state, and began to wonder how he would carry on his work.
His friend said it would be possible to get police to remove the grate. Just as they began to panic, my mate poked the keys back through the grate with two fingers.
The men stopped talking and gaped at the fingers with the keys dangling. They couldn’t see us below, but we could see them in the daylight.
One man said: ‘Look, a human hand and alive.’ The other snatched the keys with out saying a word and went for his life.
I can imagine this was a story Mr Stanley told often, relishing the description of the fingers poking up through the manhole, working up to the delivery of the “Look, it’s a human hand and alive!” punchline.
There are fourteen “odd jobs” stories in all. Of these, four relate to postal and telephone services. In addition to the Inside-Out-Bag Turner, the man who maintains the machine that produces the dial-tone, the franking-stamp changer, and the man who opens the door of the vault in the Bank of NSW, is the one woman featured in the series, Miss Mary Sprague.
Miss Sprague had the unusual job of reading the time live at the Sydney GPO, which housed the city’s central telephone switchboard. Before the installation of a mechanical ‘speaking clock’ in 1954, the job was done by a group of women who took turns in sitting in front of a clock, reciting the time into a microphone. Miss Mary Sprague explained how the intensity of the task made it difficult to read for more than 20 minutes at a time.
I’d never thought that such a job as time-reading would have been done live, but in the days before digital timekeeping it could be difficult to maintain accurate time on mechanical clocks and watches. When people wanted to check if their watch was correct, they called the service, dialling BO74. Up to 20,000 people would call daily and it was particularly busy around 5pm, as people hoped their watches were running slowly, and the time to leave work had already come.
The article on Mary Sprague was the first of the “odd jobs” series I read. I found it while researching an essay I’ve written for Time and Memory, a new book published by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. A few months after I read the article about Mary Sprague in Smiths Weekly, I was doing a reading at the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba. I mentioned the essay I was writing to Robyn, the cafe owner.
“Wouldn’t you believe it”, I said, “women at the GPO used to read the time live!”
“You’ll have to speak to our friend Joyce,” Robyn said, “she used to do that job.”
Speak to Joyce I did indeed, and you can read my interview with her at Reading the Time with Joyce Thomson, on the museum’s blog. When I spoke to Joyce, who is now in her 80s, she described how it had felt to move to the city, from Katoomba, as a young woman in the late 1940s. The scale of life opened up for her and there were possibilities all around. By reading the time at the GPO she joined the ranks of those in the city doing an unusual job. Now, like most of the jobs that Smiths Weekly reported on in 1950, this job has slipped from public knowledge, long-since having been technologically superseded. But just enough of a trace of it exists, for it to be remembered.
The two main roads that cut through Pymble cross over in a complex intersection. Ryde Road undercuts the Pacific Highway in a tunnel, with slip roads filtering traffic between them. To one side of the intersection the train line runs across on an elevated track. There’s a thin strip of land beside the railway, with such businesses as a drive-in dry cleaners and a mini-golf putting green, with a course of astroturf winding around a landscape, decorated by a jolly fibreglass elephant amid chunks of sandstone.
On the other side of the highway the land slopes downwards, leading into a valley. On the north west side there’s a screen of tall trees, and behind it a long, curved building, nestled into the corner, tucked down below the level of the road. Built in 1968 as the Australian headquarters for 3M, the five-storey office building combines pale concrete columns with darker panels of rough concrete aggregate, like two contrasting threads woven into a grid. Its design echoes some of the city office buildings that were built with a similar curved shape, the best known being the AMP building that faces Circular Quay and was, in the early 1960s when it opened, the tallest building in the city.
The 3M building was much smaller, but was nevertheless striking in its aspect, set as it is below the level of the road, so the upper storeys, visible from the highway, seem to hover in space. Whenever going past it I would look over towards the red 3M sign on the roof and imagine the plentiful post-it notes and rolls of tape that would be in their stationery cupboards. I would think of the story of the invention of the post-it note: a 3M scientist wanted to create a strong, tough adhesive, but instead created a weak one that could be peeled easily off surfaces. He didn’t know how to apply his invention until he spoke to another scientist at the company, who had the problem of keeping bookmarks from sliding out of his hymn book. From this the post-it note was born.
Now the sign has been stripped from the roof and the building has been empty for seven years, as the local council and Bunnings, the purchasers of the site in 2012, argue about whether the building is to be retained or demolished.
The longer is it vacant, the more it falls into disrepair. Graffiti has accumulated on the walls, and the first floor windows are cracked and broken where rocks have been thrown at them. It’s a building I’ve only ever seen through a car or train window, in motion, from afar. I feel a sense of unreality as I approach it, as if I’ve stepped into a photograph. All of a sudden the scale changes and I see the height of the building in comparison to my body, rather than the surrounding scene of the highway and the traffic.
The back of the building faces onto a high wall reinforced by concrete slabs, above which is the highway, hidden by a screen of gum trees, present only as a groaning rush of cars and trucks. Down herel the grass is long and the ivy at the bottom of the embankment grows thickly. As I advance a brown rabbit darts out from the ivy and bounces away, its white tail bobbing against the green. The garden is lush and vital compared to the still, solid presence of the building, heavy with the undisturbed air captured inside it.
On the far side is a path that leads up to the highway. A camellia tree is in full bloom, the smell of its pink flowers sweetening the air. The path continues down around to the entrance, and I realise that in seeing the building from the road, I only ever saw it from the back. From the front, the curve of the building has a gathering effect, like it has curled in on itself to hold its contents in tightly. Most of the windows have the blinds drawn down, but through those that don’t I see the outlines of office furniture inside, the square ghostly shapes of tables and cabinets.
I approach the front doors and look inside. In a pair of mirrored interior doors a few metres in from where I stand I see my reflection, a woman in a navy blue dress and spotted scarf.
It is as if I’ve come for a job interview thirty years too late, and found the building vacant. I’m here but everyone has gone. There’s only the rabbits and the birds now, and hedges grown into wild, irregular shapes, and tendrils of ivy inching up the building’s concrete ribs.
There’s an hour or so of the day left, and the birds are darting high overhead, calling out, on their way back to their roosts. The sunlight is fading and its low angle against the horizon elongates my shadow along the pathway. The path curves towards a concrete structure that looks like the turret of a castle, marooned among the grass and the trees.
Beyond the turret is the aqueduct, which spans the valley in a succession of brick archways. Built in 1888 as part of the network that conveyed water from the Prospect Reservoir, the aqueduct was only used for a few decades before it was superseded by a syphon system. But the arches remained, and since the 1990s it has been a cycleway, part of the Lower Prospect Canal Reserve. From where I’m standing beside the aqueduct, every so often a helmeted head is visible, as a cyclist speeds along the path on the top of it.
Although the aqueduct crosses a valley, Greystanes is high land, rising up towards Prospect Hill. Greystanes and Prospect are names which maintain its colonial history: Greystanes (Stane is the Scottish word for stone) was the name of a 19th century estate; the name Prospect was given to the area by Watkin Tench. But of all the names given to this area on the map of Sydney, the most resonant is Pemulwuy. A leader of Aboriginal resistance to British settlement, Pemulwuy led raids on settlers from this part of western Sydney, as he fought for his people and country.
I walk underneath the arches, over towards the far side of the park. The aqueduct is within a stretch of bush and parkland between two residential streets. This land was subdivided for housing in the 1960s, and the houses are the solid, brick family homes that make up so much of Sydney suburbia. They have a square, uncomplicated look, solidly inhabiting the blocks of land. At the edge of the park, a patchwork strip of Colorbond fencing seals off the backyards of the adjacent houses. The smell of dinners cooking drifts through the air. I hear the roll of a sliding door being pushed closed. This is a time for returning home, turning in.
On one of the fences is a metal plaque set down low, small as an envelope, but it catches my eye from afar and I go over to read it. Etched into the roughly cut aluminium of the plaque is a memorial: “Here lies Charlie, our first best friend”. I follow the fence-line for a while, passing underneath a pomegranate tree spilling over from a backyard, with fallen pomegranates on the ground beneath it. At the lowest point of the valley is a creek, crowded by the trees that grow around it. I duck under branches and carefully pick my way over the narrow eroded path from which two terracotta pipes poke out, dribbling water.
Walking between the back fences and the aqueduct I am moving between two atmospheres: the suburban world of 6pm dinnertimes, alongside the breathing-space of the urban bushland. The aqueduct, marching through on its concrete legs, has a weathered look, stained by water and weather. Over time, it has softened into the landscape, as much as brick and concrete can. Like the Annandale aqueduct that passes over Johnsons and Whites Creeks, the Greystanes Aqueduct has the look of an architectural puzzle. It expands and diminishes in size, the arches aligning differently with each change of aspect.
From the top of the aqueduct, where the cycle path runs across it, there’s a view across backyards and rooftops. The scene below is animated by small movements, and my eyes move across them. A grey cat sits watching a white cat prowling across a back garden. A cricket team walk off the field at the sportsground, their game over, their white uniforms bright against the green. The lights of the petrol station on Merrylands Road glow. Up here, on this path that leads above the valley, I can see all this with a bird’s eye view. I can almost imagine how it would be to be flying across here, as the light fades, and the shadows lengthen, and a dog’s bark echoes across the valley, and is echoed soon after by another.
I was walking slowly, the hot, humid day made the air feel thick and I had given into its languor. I’d turned off the main road, into a side street, lined by of Federation semis with dark brick walls and tiled steps. Looking up, I saw that in the centre of the gable of one of the houses was an insignia, ringed by a white frame.
I stopped to decipher it. As I had suspected, but not fully believed, it was the head of a dog. The dog was in profile, head and neck down to the collar, and wore an expression of obedient patience.
These kinds of houses come as a pair, each a mirror image of its neighbour. So as I walked on to the adjoining house, I looked up to see if it too had a canine mascot.
This house was painted in different colours, burgundy and cream to its neighbour’s green and white. The painter had not stopped there. For when I looked up to see the matching dog in the centre of the circle, I found it to have a new identity.
It is a small thing, but I like to think of these two moments. A century ago the dogs being outlined in the plaster and then, in more recent times, someone up on a ladder holding the brush, putting the finishing touches to the cat’s whiskers, with a feline sense of satisfaction.
This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.
In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.
In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.
This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.
Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.
I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.
The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.