By the time I reach the end of Blackwall Point Road in Chiswick, the view of the harbour expands to a panorama. I’m facing north, towards the concrete arch of the Gladesville Bridge, and to the east, a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge can be seen above the trees. On this sunny day, the water sparkles, and the yachts moored on it hint at the leisurely life that is one of the city’s presiding dreams.
But there’s something in the foreground that’s distracting me from this wide harbour view. It came into sight after the final rise, where the road widens to make a bus terminus and turning-circle. A curved strip of shops, with ten concrete loops dividing up the awnings, like a row of dropped stitches.
The shopping centre was built in 1972, after a former box factory site on the headland was developed into apartment buildings in 1968. An advertisement from 1972 suggested it was suitable for a “milk bar, butcher’s shop, supermarket (with liquor supply), greengrocer, chemist and delicatessen”, although no mention was made of its unusual design. The same copywriter described the features of the apartments: every apartment was “picture window equipped”, and promised “quiet living midst gardens and trees”.
They were right about the quiet. As I walk past the brick apartment buildings of Bortfield Drive, there’s barely anyone out, just a woman reading a book on her balcony, and a man walking a bug-eyed spaniel towards the waterside park. I take the path into a slip of park now called Armitage Reserve. The headland, with its apartment complexes, interspersed by small reserves with colonial names, has been divided up like a pie. Its abiding identity is Wangal country, the clan whose lands are the southern side of the Parramatta River, the clan of Bennelong.
There’s a concrete path along the foreshore and I follow it, looking out over the sparkling water, towards the facing headland, and then back to the details of the apartment buildings beside me. Two ducks float in a chlorine-blue pool; a grove of agave plants grow unchecked at the edge of a mowed lawn; an unsympathetically pruned frangipani tree produces a shadow in the shape of a cat.
When this area was developed, it was a peak time for breezeblocks, those ornamental brick feature walls that augmented so many domestic structures in the 1950s and 60s, and connote an endless suburban summer. When, years ago, I found out they were called breezeblocks, after them being so ubiquitous in my surroundings that I didn’t even think of them as a separate entity, I thought it a perfect name. As a breeze is a soft, compliant thing, as is the ease of life that a breezeblock structure hoped to produce.
The path loops around and I find myself back at the shops, where a bus is waiting, in between trips, its engine idling. Taped to one of the poles is a lost pet poster, for a lorikeet, with a photograph of the bird and a phone number to call in case of a sighting. As I read this, shrill sounds from above make me look up, and I see a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying over, dozens of them, towards the boughs of a blue gum tree, where they disappear into the leaves.
Back along Blackwall Point Road there’s a small, old store, with ads for tea painted on the side.The shop has been closed for more than 30 years, but was once run by the Tulley brothers, whose name remains on the awning, L. Tulley, General Storekeepers, Est. 1928. The shop is bookended by tea advertisements: Bushells on one side, LanChoo on the other.
On the Lan Choo side is a giant packet of tea, as big as a fridge, its claims to quality, economy and quick infusion carefully repainted by the team that restored the signs in 2004. A photograph exists of the Tulley brothers standing inside their store in 1987, Jim, age 83 and Bill, age 78, surrounded by the products that made up everyday life, such as Pascall Chocolate Eclairs (35c), packets of Bex ($1.50), and Tom Piper canned meats ($1.10).
The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the frosted glass gives no glimpse of the interior. When I go to peek inside, there’s not even the smallest gap to look through, and a handwritten sign, in capital letters with curled edges, tells me politely that the store is closed.
I walk on, past the houses with their breezeblock fences, and their miscellany of decorative details (red brick, iron lace, spiral stairs, classical statues). One house has a magnolia tree with boughs that stretch halfway across the driveway, obstructing one of the doors of the double garage. The tree is in full bud, about to erupt into flowers, as winter wanes, and warm days return.
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 the building is 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.
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.
I’ve dropped a few hints here and there, but with its release date coming soon, it’s time to announce that Mirror Sydney will be released as a book in October! Published by Giramondo, it’s an unconventional city atlas: a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, based on this blog, telling some of the stories of Sydney’s lesser-known, hidden, secret and strange places and histories, charting the city’s atsmospheres, and celebrating its recent past.
There will be a launch in October, as well as some tours and other fun things, which I’ll announce as the time draws near. For now, I’ll run through some of the cover stars.
- Hotel Westend
The mustard expanse of the Hotel Westend’s side wall, with its promise of 100 suites, is like a sunrise amid the surrounding towers. The tall, skinny building with the tall skinny wild-west-style sign seems a portal into a past era of city hotels, the kind that have steak houses on the premises and boast wall-to-wall carpet as a special feature.
The Westend is currently a backpackers, but not for much longer: it was recently sold and is destined for refurbishment, including unfortunately “replacing the letters on the sign to reflect the new name”. This new name seems to be “Ibis Budget Sydney Central“. If the Westend sign must go, I can only hope for its replacement to be an animated neon sign of an ibis dipping its long beak into a rubbish bin.
2. Kenilworth Witches’ House
On the high ridge at the end of Johnston Street are the witches’ houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions that were built in the 1880s, designed by architect John Young. Kenilworth is the tallest and most immediately striking of the houses for its tall, central spire (like a witches’ hat – hence the name) and imperious position. It once had a twin, an identical house next door, that was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a block of red-brick flats. But Kenilworth still has two other companions: to the other side are twin houses with spires on the side, built for John Young’s daughters.
Kenilworth is a fantasy house with its tower and gargoyles, seemingly plucked from a gothic fairytale and transplanted into the Sydney suburbs. It’s a house for dreaming about, wondering what it would be like to peer out its high windows. I still imagine I live in it every time I go past, with my pet raven and library with red velvet curtains and ladders against the bookshelves. All cities need these dream houses, places for wishes and desires to be planted.
3. Fibro Houses
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the gothic mansion are the fibro houses of the south western suburbs. Built in profusion after the second world war, these houses were quickly and easily assembled, and were a haven for many families who had moved from the overcrowded inner-city, or come to Australia as post-war migrants. Although many have been demolished to be replaced by houses twice their size, many still remain, especially around Bankstown and its surrounding suburbs.
These houses are bittersweet: their pastel colours and heart-shaped decorations belying the toxic material from which they were fabricated. They are a manifestation of 1950s and 60s suburban idealism, their neat proportions aspiring to a similarly neat life within their walls. They’re humble houses but proud ones, each customised with different colour paint, or different types of plants in the garden, or house numbers accompanied by silhouettes of horses and carriages. Their pale, thin walls give them an appearance of lightness, of malleability: Patrick White described them in Tree of Man as “brittle in moonlight, soluble in dreams”.
They are a type of house I know well, for I live in one very similar, and know its moods well. Fiercely hot in summer, icy in winter, the walls feel thin like they’re made of cardboard. Mid-afternoon, when all is still outside, I look out the window and imagine the street as it would have been when the house was built in 1960, and the past seems almost graspable, just under the skin of the present.
Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.
When the building across from the Crystal Street intersection was torn down, the Boot Palace came back into memory. Tall black letters, carefully painted, announced that this was the Leichhardt Branch of the City Boot Palace.
In the 1890s branches of John Hunter’s City Boot Palace were so widespread that their advertisements needed only to give the address as “stores everywhere”. Travel around Sydney and soon you would come across a Boot Palace, with a window display of shoes and slippers, showcasing the durable and elegant goods to be found within.
For a time in the late 19th century Sydney was well supplied with palaces. You could buy a pair of boots at the City Boot Palace, put them on to walk over to visit the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace, and afterwards take refreshment at the Sydney Coffee Palace. Palaces were not some kind of fairytale dream, they were places of everyday magic that could be browsed or entered.
In 1885 a writer for The Bulletin was so overcome by the “magnificent edifice” of the central City Boot Palace, at the corner of George and Market Streets, that mere words could not do it justice: “as the interior is fitted with carved cedar showcases, wherein the best and handsomest productions in boots and shoes are displayed, the effect can be better imagined that described”. Bulletin readers could give free reign to their wildest footwear dreams, and the palace that housed them.
The Boot Palace is long, long gone, and the building with its sign is now a fabric store and one of Parramatta’s Road plentiful wedding dress shops. But I can readily imagine the smell of leather and fabric that must have greeted shoppers. A clue to the Boot Palace’s atmosphere can be found in the 1911 novel Jonah, by Louis Stone, set in Sydney city and inner suburbs. The main character opens a shoe store, and describes how the shelves were packed from floor to ceiling and how “boots and shoes hung from the ceiling like bunches of fruit”.
Another feature of Jonah’s fictional shoe store was a four metre long silver shoe that hung above the entrance, gleaming in the sun, the “hugest thing within sight”. For a time its present day equivalent was the oversized Blundstone on top of the sign for Hylands Shoe city on Victoria Road in Rozelle. But Hylands closed, and while the sports physiotherapy place that replaced it kept the boot up for a while, it was eventually taken down. Now the city’s big boot is the oversized Dr Martens painted on the wall at the top of the escalators to Kings Cross station, outside Raben Footwear.
In the 1990s, for a certain type of rebellious teenager eager to assert their identity, Raben was the place to buy boots. It’s still something of a punk shoe store, with its cluttered displays of cherry red Docs, platform Converse sneakers, and every possible available colour of canvas shoe.
As for suburban shoe stores, most have long gone the way of other independent retailers, closing down as the proprietors age or the competition from chain stores became too great. Dicksons in Rockdale is one of these, recently closing after 55 years.
There is still Forbes in Hornsby, however, which has been around since 1940. Inside its shoeboxes stack up to the ceiling, and ladders are propped up against the shelves for staff to scamper up and down as they fetch pairs for customers to try on.
If shoe stores are mostly homogenous these days, shoe repair shops still retain their idiosyncracies. Many have persisted, unchanged, for decades. The best known of Sydney’s shoe repair stores is Roger Shoe Repair in Redfern. Roger is a kind of rock star of the city’s cobblers, known equally for his conversation as his skills in shoe repair.
Every one of these old shoe repair stores has a distinct character, like the Bankstown shop that is as small as a ticket booth.
Con’s Shoe Repair at Hurlstone Park has shoe lasts stacked up to the ceiling, and polystyrene crate of basil plants out the front (click on the link to go inside the store via the magic of Google – see if you can spot Con’s white cat). In Fairfield, Rapid Shoe Repair celebrates the amicable rivalry between shoes and keys (keys mentioned 10 times on the exterior, shoes 7).
Despite the skill of these craftsmen, there is one Sydney shoe that is beyond repair, so much so I was surprised to find it still in place. It has been almost five years since I visited it. At first, as I drove slowly along Hollywood Drive, I thought it gone, but then it appeared through a clearing in the trees, a little worse for wear but as dreamlike as ever.
And, elsewhere, if you look closely there are still palaces to be found, here and there.