In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.
Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.
In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.
The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.
The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.
I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.
A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.
The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.
Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.
Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.
Every time I pass by The Abbey I remember what it had been like on that day I visited it for the house-contents auction in 2009. The rooms with pale, dusty light coming in through the stained-glass windows, the paint peeling from the walls and the crooked, creaking passageways that formed the maze of rooms. People had rambled unescorted through the rooms, some of them looking at the objects up for auction, but most, like me, just curious to see inside.
Ten years on, I’m at The Abbey again, visiting the refurbished house and gardens as part of a focus tour for Sydney Open. Being November, the jacaranda trees are flowering, two purple clouds above bright pink bougainvillea. This frames the house, with its tower and gothic-arch windows and gargoyles.
The house feels different – lighter, more orderly – but the details of it are much the same. The entrance, with its blue ceiling painted with golden stars, opens out into the central hallway, which has a tiled floor and stencilled patterns of dragons and flowers on the walls. I pause here, deciding which way to turn. As with my visit ten years before, the house is open to walk through without restriction, and there are many doorways to choose from.
I choose the tower, and climb up the wide staircase, past the goddesses in the stained glass windows, and the entrances to bedrooms and sitting rooms, following the narrowing staircase up to the room at the top. From here I can see the smoke haze over the city, the silver stretch of harbour water, the roads choked with Saturday morning traffic. From this vantage point there seems to be barely any movement below, although I know that on ground level, out there, it would feel very different. It is tranquil in the tower room, and I sit on the cushioned bench under the windows until I can hear another visitor’s footsteps ascending.
The Abbey is a house of details, and every wall, floor and fixture has some kind of pattern or motif to distinguish it, or a painted figure to keep watch, whether it be a goddess chiselling a sculpture, bearded gents carousing, or owls or cockatoos. The house feels alive with these characters, as if they hold within them something of the spirits of the many people who have lived here over the last century. These figures have watched cycles of residents move through, have watched the house fall into disrepair, and have seen its restoration.
The sunroom where I remember spending a few minutes on the auction day – watching the rain coming in and noticing the tendrils of vine that had snaked in from the outside – is now clear and neat, and the sun shines through the stained-glass windows. It’s an office now, with a desk and shelves and the regular details of a contemporary room. I go to look out through the patterned panes at the houses on the streets below, their front gardens decorated with giant spiderwebs made of torn-up sheets (Halloween was a few nights earlier, and Annandale houses seem to favour giant spiders in giant webs as their decoration).
The house is made up of three sections: the main wing with the tower, a connecting annexe with a long colonnade that looks over the garden, which leads to another, smaller, wing of the house. On the ground floor of the annexe is the kitchen, outside which the house’s owners chat to visitors and their two old, friendly dogs lean in for a pat.
It’s a house that excites your imagination, one of the visitors says. Yes, says another, I’ve always wondered what it is like in here. All through the house people are saying much the same as this, for it is indeed one of those houses that sets you wondering, trying to imagine what it might be like to step inside. Sometimes, on rare occasions, you get the chance, to see how it is now, to imagine how it might have been, and to look out from the windows at the harbour and the city beyond.
Thank you to Sydney Open for another year of excellent tours and openings – there’s still tickets for tomorrow if you’re reading this before Sunday Nov. 3rd and haven’t bought one yet! I’m doing a talk in the Members Lounge at 1:30pm too.
This year during Sydney Open I’m going to go on a tour of The Abbey, on Johnston Street in Annandale. I thought, as Part 1 to the story, I’d reflect on my first visit, in 2009, when the house and its contents were up for auction.
If you know Annandale, you will know the Witches Houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions on the high side of Johnston Street with tall narrow spires like enormous witch’s hats. The subject of many generations’ fantasies of mansion-living, they preside over the street and the small terrace houses that cluster along the low-lying streets below. In the 1880s the block had been bought by the architect John Young, and eight grand houses built. Most of them remain, although in the 1960s two were demolished and replaced with red-brick apartment blocks that are now conspicuous in their plainness.
At first my attention had been attracted by Kenilworth, the house at the eastern end of the row. It has the tallest spire, which extends down in a column from top to bottom like a Victorian-era rocket-ship. But over time, often passing by them, my favourite of all the houses became the one on the corner. Up until the late-2000s it was partially hidden by tall trees and vines, which grew over the sandstone wall around it. Known as the Abbey, it had the look of an archetypal haunted house, overgrown, spooky and mysterious.
The story was that, in 1881, John Young had built it for his wife, as an enticement for her to join him in Sydney. It is an unusual kind of lure, a sprawling, neo-gothic castle, made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone and attended by gargoyles, with rows of long, narrow stained glass windows, which give it the look of a reconstituted church. She was not enticed, and the house went on to various uses and fortunes. In the early 20th century, being so large and being located in the then-working-class suburb of Annandale, it was divided up into apartments, before being returned to the one owner when it was bought by the Davis family in 1959.
I’d long-wondered what it was like inside. Many people knew: it had been notorious for the parties held there, and in the Davis-era the house saw many visitors and residents. The Abbey’s patriarch was Geoffrey Davis, a medical doctor and member of the the mid-twentieth-century group of left-wing and anti-authoritarian writers and intellectuals known as the Sydney Push. Reading into the house’s history, I was particularly interested to find out that the writer Christina Stead, author of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, The Man Who Loved Children, and For Love Alone, had lived here at the very end of her life in 1982.
Dr Davis died in 2008, and shortly afterwards the house, and all its contents, were put up for sale. One weekend the house was open for the viewing of the contents auction. My chance to visit had arrived. Many others were also taking the opportunity, as the rooms seethed with people. Inside, the rooms seemed joined together in a confusing maze, all different sizes and levels of formality. I examined the miscellaneous objects displayed within them as I moved through the warren of interconnecting chambers. Everything was a bit dusty and motheaten, leather upholstery cracked, paint and wallpaper peeling, the rooms smelling of cats.
The objects on display were the strange, stranded junk of a lifetime and beyond: phonographs, collections of shells, magic lantern slides, landscape paintings, 78rpm records, cloisonne vases, a zither, bevel-edged mirrors, tiles painted with butterflies or scenes from Shakespeare. Everything that could be removed from the house had a tag dangling from it, from the chandeliers to a box containing rusty tins of shoe polish. I had a printed booklet in my hand but soon gave up trying to correlate the listings with the objects and just moved through the rooms, trying to imagine myself there decades before, at one of the notorious parties.
At the time of the auction of the house and of its contents, there were many articles in the media about The Abbey. Some of these included interviews with members of the Davis family who had grown up in the house. My favourite detail was from one of his children, who had admitted that it “had been difficult moving on to regular homes after a youth in the Abbey”.
I tried to imagine it as I stood in a long, narrow sunroom at the side of the house. One of the panels in the stained glass windows was missing, and rain was coming in, down onto the vases on the table below. This rainy sunroom was the only room I’d been in alone, and I felt as if I was playing a game of hide and seek as I stood there, looking at a collection of shells in a box. Inside it there was a crumpled, unfilled-in application for a dog license in between a conch and a nautilus shell, and I smoothed it out and replaced it, feeling like I, too, had ended up here at random, among all the miscellaneous objects that were soon to be moved off elsewhere.
As Rocky Point Road continues on to the bridge over the Georges River, a side road leads off to the left, following the shoreline of the bay, into the suburb of Sans Souci. Red-brick apartment buildings give way to vacant lots with sandy soil showing through underneath the grass. Then a row of houses begins in the contemporary mansion/fortress style, monoliths painted grey or beige.
A few blocks along, on a corner, there’s a different kind of house, one that stands out in a blaze of colour. The roof of the fibro cottage here has the tiles painted yellow, blue and green, so it looks like a patchwork or a crochet blanket. It’s bright as a toy among the serious houses that surround it.
This house has long been a San Souci landmark. Local news reports have told the story of its colourful roof, painted by John Hall as a tribute to his wife Berta, who died in 1997. The tiles, he said, could “be seen from heaven so Berta can look down and see how much I love her”.
Over the last few weeks, the house and this story have been in the news again, for now John has passed away and the house is for sale. A placard for the auction is pegged into the ground out the front, beside the letterbox and the sign with the hand-painted legend, “Our Berta’s Corner”, at the corner of the fence. The house is vacant, empty, its curtains pulled back from the windows. An open eye, it watches over the flat waters of the bay.
The notice for the auction stops people in their tracks. Walkers on the path pause to read it. Drivers slow their cars as they pass by. The impending sale has made the house an available place for people to sow their dreams. I look past the real estate sign to the geraniums and agapanthus planted in the garden, to the lucky horseshoe nailed to the carport, and the wooden weathervane on top of the backyard granny-flat, in the shape of a duck, the house number, 22, painted on its tail. Even without knowing the story of John and Berta Hall, its details are of a house that has been lived in with love.
I turn my attention back to the real estate sign, which has as its image an aerial photograph of the corner, with a red rectangle drawn around the lot, to show potential purchasers the size of the land. The effect is surely unintended, but it also shows what John Hall had for decades imagined, his Berta looking down from above, seeing the patchwork roof, and knowing that she was loved and remembered.
Thanks to Andrew C. for sending the link to the newspaper story.
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.
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.