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.
The row of 19th century buildings at the start of Campbell Street are surrounded by more recent, taller buildings, like a piece has been cut out of the modern city to reveal a past version.
The row is a miscellany, each building different. On street level there is a string of Thai groceries with displays of pickled grapes and dried bananas, and posters for the grand opening of a new Crocodile Junior restaurant (Crocodile Senior is around the corner on George Street). Number 14 Campbell Street is a butchery, with cuts of meat laid out in the window. If you find yourself here, stand back and look up, above the butchery and the two levels of barred windows on the upper storeys. The building is painted a liverish red, with white details. It is further decorated by three entwined letters – PRL – in a crest and, at the very top, a wild-eyed horse.
The Campbell Street Horse is captured in motion, ears alert, nostrils flaring, mane tossed by the wind. Its eyes are spirals of black paint against the pale, verdigris green, and it watches the city around it warily. It looks over at the outlines of the claw machines inside Purikura Photoland across the street. The horse has seen plenty of amusement fads come and go. Beside Photoland is the Capitol Theatre, a building the horse would have known in its days first as a market, and then a Hippodrome in the 1910s. Under a retractable stage the Hippodrome, run by Wirth’s Circus, had a concrete pool for aquatic shows, sometimes featuring seals and polar bears, other times King Neptune and his attendants.
The horse’s presence on 14 Campbell Street is something of a mystery. Myself and fellow Sydney scrutineer David Lever have puzzled over it again anew in the past few weeks, wondering what could have led it to be the mascot of this building. We followed the building’s previous identities, beginning around 1888 as a pub called the New Haymarket Hotel, then becoming the Nottingham Castle and then the Capitol Hotel. I found plenty of stories of interest, none of which were about horses. There were various accounts of woe and misfortune that took place at the hotel over the years: a man’s death after a fire caused by him smoking in bed, the death of a lion tamer named James Lindo, the arrests of swindlers and rogues. The heritage report on the row of terraces has plenty of information, describing Number 14 as “highly unusual” with “no comparable examples within the City of Sydney”. As compelling as this is, there is still no mention of the horse.
The initials in the crest were of the man who’d had the buildings constructed, P.R. Larkin. Larkin was known as a publican and liquor wholesaler on George Street. There are plenty of cheerful turn of the century descriptions of the “huge casks filled with spirits fit for the gods” at Larkin’s, but no mention of horses. In those days, though, horses were everyday creatures. The streets were full of horses and carts, people travelled by horse bus, and “block boys” had the dangerous and unenviable job of dashing out into the busy streets to sweep up the horse manure. They would have been busy: at the peak of Australia’s horse population there was one horse for every two people.The Campbell Street horse is one of a small number of city horses, statues most of them, of the bronze, memorial kind, as well as the weirder, rooftop kind.
But back to Campbell Street, and our mystery horse. Campbell was once one of the boundary streets of the market district of Haymarket. In 1929, a newspaper article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in which a man named Mr Alfred Byrne remembered the days in the 1850s when wild horses would be brought in for auction. Alfred would join the crowds who clustered around to watch the men trying to catch the horses, especially if it were rainy, and “the men holding on to the horses would be dragged ingloriously through thick mud”.
So perhaps the Campbell Street Horse is the last of Sydney’s wild horses, captured in perpetual vigour, turning a fierce eye to the ever-growing city.
The highway curves then is straight for a stretch. The road widens here and the speed limit increases to 70, so in the rush of traffic there’s almost not enough time to notice the roadside scenes. Rows of red brick houses; the last remaining city Sizzler restaurant, with its banner advertising its salad bar and cheese toast; the marble retailer with its ragged-edged slabs stacked up like huge books. Then there’s the White Castle, rising up serenely from its asphalt surroundings.
Upon seeing the sign for White Castle, the difference between my mental image of a white castle and the reality of this building immediately flashes to mind. I imagine that once it was a fairytale castle with multiple storeys and turrets. Then one day it was melted down and squashed flat into this long box of a building, with only the name remaining as a memory of its previous identity.
In truth the White Castle building was constructed in 1970 as a Keith Lord discount furniture showroom. At the time Keith Lord was something of an innovator in terms of display and merchandising, constructing a series of striking and capacious breezeblock and colonnaded stores across Sydney. In 1970 this building was described as “ultra modern and luxurious”, stocking everything you might need to furnish your suburban home comfortably, even including features included a “sound lounge”, where shoppers could test out “stereograms” before purchase. This was an era of furnishing and nesting, of stocking suburban homes with new appliances and items such as the “buffet and hutch”, a word combination that sends me, madeleine-like, back to listening to tv ads as a child in the 1980s.
The other Keith Lord showrooms have, by now, disappeared (Ashfield – burnt out then demolished for Westconnex) or been modified to the point of obscurity (Hornsby, Kennards self storage). At the White Castle, although the building is the same, the merchandise has shifted somewhat from the sofas and dining settings that used to be sold within. Outside are banners advertising oil paintings and mirrors, giftware and porcelein, but mostly the White Castle sells kitchenware. It is the place to go if you need a 98 litre cooking pot, or a croquembouche pan, or a set of Splayds (miraculously still available).
In the 1970s and 80s Keith Lord was a place where dreams came in the form of lounge suites and refrigerators, “space age” microwave ovens and extendable dining tables. As I wander through the aisles of saucepans in White Castle, I can imagine how it would have been in here back then, testing out the brown velour couches. These couches would eventually end their life sagging in 1990s sharehouse loungerooms, but back then they were plump, their synthetic pile fresh. Shoppers moved from sofa setting to dining room package deal, from scene to scene, trialling out potential futures.
Now inside White Castle it is like a city, where the roads are the narrow rows in between high shelves of kitchen equipment. The baking pan precinct adjoins whisk row, beside the zone of bulk paper napkins. There is a serious atmosphere, no music playing in the background, just the rustle of stock being unpacked and murmurs of deliberation about paring knives or baguette pans. I go in search of the oil paintings, which are arranged into narrow corridors at one end of the store. Here I am enclosed between snow and forest scenes, with a few Napoleons en garde.
Staring at Napoleon, I can imagine a whole room around this one item in its carved wood frame. I’m having a Keith Lord moment, imagining Napoleon above the tan leather sofa, as I cue up an eight track and consider a glass of brandy…
I leave White Castle clutching my newly-purchased baking tray, walking out along under the colonnade, past the carpark palm trees and the corner window display of a Buddha head, telescope, and an advertisement for Chasseur cooking pots.
Then I’m back in the real city, or at least a suburban stretch of it, with construction cranes decorating the horizon, and across the road real estate signs offering the whole block for sale, a “unique” development opportunity, the likes of which there seems to be more and more.
Before the eastern suburbs railway was built Edgecliff was a place of 19th century mansions, tin-roof terraces and steep, grassy vacant lots. It was a place to look back at the city, across valleys and ridges lined with haphazard rows of houses. Then the Eastern Suburbs railway opened in 1979, and with it came the Edgecliff Centre, a hulk of an office building that presides over the hillside.
The line of flags on its roof gives it an ambassadorial presence, although most enter the centre only to leave again. They descend to the train station or ascend to the grim, grey bus interchange.
Like much of Sydney there’s a sense of things having been ripped-up and replaced here. The streets retain their eccentric twists, preserving a sense of the topography that underlies them, but on the surface its a miscellany. Across from the Edgecliff Centre is a collection of art deco apartment buildings with names like Knightsbridge, San Remo and Ruskin.
The courtyard between them is a domain of neatly clipped camellia bushes and warnings not to park there. Beside the apartment buildings are a set of grand sandstone gates, once belonging to the Glenrock estate, now to a school. It is 3 o’clock when I walk by and schoolgirls are pouring out like ants from a nest.
On this stretch of street are shops selling niche items for a comfortable life. Cellos, chandeliers. A pilates studio has piles of white exercise balls in the window like giant pearls. In an ex-bank on the corner of Darling Point Road is JOM photography (at its former premises, above what was once Darrell Lea in the city, JOM made a bold claim with a prescient feature photograph).
Across from the row of smiling headshots is a monumental bus shelter with columns and steps and well maintained paintwork. The shelter is atop the high side of Darling Point Road, at the edge of the wall that divides the road. At its entrance is the name “Governor Ralph Darling”, in memory of the unpopular 1820s governor whose amorous name is imprinted on suburb names and roads across the city.
Inside a series of alcoves are recessed into the wall, like empty shrines, behind a wooden bench painted with the insignia of Sydney buses. Outside though, the bus stop sign is covered over with a garbage bag , with a message below announcing the 327 bus no longer stops here.
Now it is decommissioned the bus shelter is free to be the hilltop citadel it has always secretly been. I peer around the side of it, watching the storm clouds moving over the city in curls of grey and the traffic surging up the hill. From here the city seems a separate entity, neatly enclosed by its assortment of high-rise buildings, and the traffic an anxious, noisy river.
The citadel was created in 1925 when New South Head Road was widened, to reduce the steep grade of the hill. The dividing of the road created a broad concrete wall, a long bunker with a recess at the corner. Here the painted lady, has been through hundreds of repainted reincarnations since she first appeared in 1991. The wall is thick with layers of paint, embedded with glitter stars and confetti. Today it asks “Will you marry me Ingela?” of the traffic passing by.
Further along the wall is a square inset with windows and a door, the entrance to underground Edgecliff, a series of twisting caverns, a complete underground city where giant pearls and cellos and chandeliers are made… A tantalising thought, but when I stand up on tiptoes to peer in the slats I glimpse pipes and the top of a toilet tank and the true purpose of this room becomes disappointingly clear.
The weird geometry of this corner, with its bus shelter citadel, has long captured my attention. As a child I’d look out for it as we made the long drive to visit my great aunts in the eastern suburbs. Its grey edifice seemed important, like it held the secrets of this other side of the city with its steep streets, grand buildings, and tall fig trees. There was no painted lady then, just concrete and I perhaps misremember there being a line from a Smiths song painted across the wall. Perhaps it was actually there, or perhaps I just imagined it there when I dragged my gaze across the wall, as the car passed it by.