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.