In about half an hour the citywide lockdown will be announced, but for now, I sit at the edge of the water, watching its surface sparkle in the sunlight. Not so long ago, to sit here would be to watch the steady comings and goings of international flights from the airport. The international terminal is close by, just on the other side of the water. I can see its multi-storey carparks and the belt of highway that skirts its perimeter. But only one cargo plane departs the whole time I’m sitting there, and the sky belongs to the clouds.
Oyster shells cluster on the rocks at the river’s edge. Goolay’yari/Cooks River, re-routed when the airport expanded, to a different, artificial shape, straightened out, but still the same flow of water. The wooden ramp I am sitting at the end of leads up to the rowing club, and I walk up and around to the front of the building. On the facade is a tiled mural of rowers, made by the artist Vladimir Tichy at his Studio Tichy in 1978, the same year the club opened. A gold boat, four rowers, the coxswain at the stern, calling out, his voice indicated by a gold fan-shaped speech bubble. In the last few weeks I’ve been writing an article about Tichy’s remaining ceramic murals, and this had been one I was yet to visit.
In the streets around here new apartment blocks have been constructed in the last five years, replacing the houses I had come to know from the taxi ride to or from the airport. The taxi route would dogleg through these back streets to go between the Princes Highway and Airport Drive, and I’d make a point to look for the pale yellow fibro house on the corner. One early morning, from the taxi window, I’d seen a man sitting on the front step of this house, holding a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, and patting a ginger cat with the other. I took that image of the man and his cat up into the sky with me, and call it to mind now even though there is an apartment block there instead.
Rather than go towards the airport I turn in the other direction. On one side of the road are houses, the other apartment blocks, like the road is the line between the past and future. On the apartment side there’s one house left, boarded up, fenced off, caught on the wrong side of time.
The roar of the highway grows stronger the closer I come to it. I turn onto it, the stretch leading up the hill from Wolli Creek to Arncliffe. Service stations, mechanics, car yards, and the headquarters of Golf NSW, a high bunker of a building with long mirrored windows and an impenetrable facade.
Steps beside it lead up to a little park, noisy from the traffic but enclosed by trees. A forlorn bubbler and a plastic ride-on horse are striped by the long shadows cast by the branches. I sit on the bench beside the horse, facing Golf NSW, imagining how all the office mugs would be novelty mugs featuring golf jokes, of the kind I usually skim my eyes over immediately when I see them in the op shop.
Back down beside the highway I continue walking, past a couple of houses high up above the level of the road, and then more factories. On the sheepskin upholstery business the painted signs are fading. Whenever I pass by I look for this building, as if it has something to reveal to me. The sun has bleached its signage to the point where the lettering and cartoon boots and car seats have taken on an abstract quality, their red and yellow outlines making awkward shapes against their backgrounds. On the roll-a-door is a giant painted 78 like two stray numbers from a lettering book, black with yellow drop-shadows. A real estate sign announces the building to have been leased, but it has been that way for months, now.
Across the road, cars surge up out from the motorway tunnel before stopping at the lights. The sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, turning the light from dull to bright, like it can’t decide which is the right mood. I’ve checked the news on my phone by now and I know lockdown’s been declared, starting in four hours’ time. I start back down the hill on the other side, looking over it all again – sheepskin warehouse, the high-set houses, the golf compound. At the base of the hill I stand waiting for the lights to change, standing by a recently-set panel of concrete, paler than the others. Written into it: Bidjigal Land, this place.
One day around 2002 I was at Central station and, as I walked down the stairs from one of the platforms to the concourse below, I noticed that a panel above the stairwell had been removed, exposing the wall and the wiring, and an advertisement from decades before. Four faces grinning with big, wide-mouthed smiles, with their hands upheld in gestures of abandon, broadcasted a message in two speech bubbles: ‘Come on Along. We’re a Billion Dollars Strong’. I had my camera with me – a 35mm film camera in those days – and made sure to take a photo before it was covered over again.
There was something unsettling about the fact these faces had been lurking behind the wall for so long. Perhaps it was just the spooky effect of the blacked-out teeth, the holes punched through for the wires, and the vigour of their optimism, now obsolete. Come along – to where? On what journey had they been taking their billion dollars?
Soon after, once the work was completed, the ad was again hidden again behind a panel. For a while I thought about them underneath it, and then from time to time something would set off the slogan in my head or the image of the ad would come back up in my memory, as I’d done some writing about it at the time in a zine, accompanied by the photograph I had taken.
I’d wondered what the ad had been for, and some years later found the answer when I was looking through a box of photographs of 1970s and 80s buses at a secondhand store. Back then in the pre-digital era of photography some of the only people regularly taking photos of city streets were bus enthusiasts, and their photographs can sometimes inadvertently contain useful urban historical details.
NSW Permanent Building Society had been a large home loan and insurance firm that, in the 1980s, changed to become the Advance Bank, which then later merged with St George. This ad campaign predated these changes: on the back of the bus photograph was the date, March 1979. Anyone watching commercial television in that year would have seen these characters in action to the tune of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, which had been reworded with a financial-institution twist.
At the end of my zine story about the uncovered Central station ad in 2002 I had written how behind the new, fresh wall built in front of it, the ad would remain there, message hidden, until the next time that part of the station was refurbished.
It was as if I knew I would see it again.
Almost twenty years later works for the Sydney Metro at Central Station have required the removal of certain ceiling panels above the stairwells.
Now when I saw them I felt as if some old friends had reappeared, somewhat worse for wear, still wearing the same outfits and with the same expressions as they had farewelled me with almost 20 years before. Despite the pipes and the wires and all their years in hiding, their invitation remains.
Later I compared the photographs, one taken in 2002, the other that afternoon, wondering if it was indeed the same ad I had seen all those years ago. I had remembered it being at the other end of the station, but eighteen years is a long interval to remember the exact location of a hidden sign. But in my earlier photo, when I examined the holes punched for the wires, and the peeled off section of the woman’s face underneath the claim about the billion dollars, they did indeed seem to be different versions of the same ad. The other one is still hidden, for now. Keep an eye out when in Central station: they could be just there, behind any wall.
Thanks to Demetrius Romeo for alerting me to their reappearance.
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.)
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.
With the reappearance of the Peapes sign at Wynyard has come a wave of interest in Sydney’s ghost signs. A gift to the city wanderer who thinks to look up, these traces of a city past lurk on the facades and side walls of city commercial buildings and former suburban grocers. They are uncovered during demolitions and disappear again as new buildings are constructed. Some are painted over, others are repainted and restored, but most continue to slowly fade until they become indecipherable.
Over the five years I have been writing Mirror Sydney, I have recorded as many as I have come across, to make up this gallery of 100 Sydney ghost signs from the city and the suburbs. Some remain, others have disappeared, and others will, with time, reveal themselves.
For more on ghost signs, I recommend Nick Gadd’s excellent blogs on Melbourne and Mildura, the Ghost Signs Australia blog, Ghost Signs UK and the books Signs of the Times by Geoff Hocking, and the forthcoming Signs of Australia by Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi.
To emerge from the tunnel that leads out of Wynyard Station onto George Street is to enter a sonic mess of construction noise. There are bursts of deep, jarring reverberations and the sounds of metal against concrete, as the demolition of the buildings above the station continues.
As the buildings – the Menzies Hotel, and the 1960s office block Thakral House – have been demolished, the walls of the adjacent buildings have come to light for the first time in 50 years. As Thakral House came down, sunrays appeared at the top of the side wall of the building on the north side, Beneficial House. Then a creature, a dog with a bushy tail, inside a red shield. And then, underneath it, the word PEAPES. At first the hoardings were too high to see much of the sign from street level, but as the demolition continued, the full breadth of the Peapes sign was revealed.
Peapes was a men’s clothing and tailoring department store, which operated out of Beneficial House from when the building was erected in 1923, until the close of the business in February 1971. Its advertising emphasised the “lofty and spacious departments, where a leisurely peace reigns”. The showrooms were fitted out in polished maple, with Doric columns supporting the ceiling and a circular light well at the centre. It was an elegant place, in-keeping with the quality of Peapes’ goods, which were stressed to be of the highest degree.
Peapes’ slogan was “for men AND their sons” (the AND was in upper case, to stress the importance of intergeneration consistency in men’s style) and it was the place to shop if you needed any kind of gentleman’s outfit, from necessities to luxuries: jackets, shirts, hats, shoes, “an unusually smart shirt with tie”, “a distinctive overcoat”, “superior flannel trousers”. Clothes could be bought off the rack or made to measure. Peapes sales representatives also travelled to country towns across Australia to conduct fittings, booking out rooms in hotels, advertising in local papers, for men to come and have their measurements taken for suits.
The store had two tradmarks. The first was the Warrigal – a dingo, Warrigal being the Dharug word for dingo – the one pictured at the top of the wall sign. The second was diarist Samuel Pepys, an ancestor of one the firm’s founders, George Peapes. On the third floor of the department store was the Pepys Room, a common room of sorts, “a room of restful atmosphere…for reading, writing, smoking, or keeping appointments”. The bewigged Samuel Pepys also appeared on the labels of their garments.
Peapes had been operating on George Street since 1866. In 1912, the wealthy businessman W.J. Miles became one of the directors. These days his name may not be a familiar one, but his daughter, Bea, was one of mid-twentieth century Sydney’s most well known characters. Her distinctive figure, in long coat and tennis hat, was a common sight in the city and suburbs, seen climbing in and out of the taxis for which she never paid the fare, or quoting Shakespeare on demand for a fee of sixpence.
The royal blue of the Peapes sign is a bright window into a past Sydney. Thousands of people walk past it daily, and for those who look up and notice it, the texture of the changing city is revealed, its layers and traces. Soon the demolition will be complete. A new building will be constructed, covering over the Peapes name, the sunburst, and the Warrigal dog. But, for this brief moment, it is back in the light.
With thanks to David Lever for Peapes memories and investigations.
Elizabeth Bay Road ends in a loop around which is a crown of apartment buildings, some grand, some plain. The more elegant of them were built in the 1930s, like the nine-storey, art deco Adereham Hall, a tall building with a concertina shape like folding screen. It catches the afternoon light like it is a sunbeam solidified, starburst motifs spreading out above its doorways and windows.
At the other end of the loop is its modernist counterpart, an apartment building named Deepdene. The side of it which faces the road is rounded like a giant pipe, and curved walls emerge behind it. Built in the 1970s, the building’s form was based on an observatory in Potsdam, Germany, known as the Einstein Tower because it was constructed to make observations to test his theory of relativity. Its Sydney counterpart is dedicated to luxury: despite the building’s size there are only four exclusive, double-storey apartments inside.
Elizabeth Bay is a gallery of twentieth-century apartment buildings, containing everything from studio apartments with ugly grey trodden-down carpet and views onto the wall of the building next door to elegant penthouses with verandahs that open out onto the harbour. Simon and I pause outside the gates to Kincoppal, one of these luxury complexes built in the 1970s. Through the gate we can see the apartment building rising up behind the 1868 house built for merchant John Hughes. Hughes gave it the name Kincoppal, which means “horse head” in Gaelic, after a horse head shaped rock formation near the water’s edge.
But it’s not Hughes, nor horses, that has directed us here: it’s David Bowie. In the 1980s he owned an apartment in Kincoppal, to which he returned for regular Sydney visits throughout the decade, until he sold it in 1992. We peer through the fence, imagining Bowie checking his mailbox at the gold anodised aluminium mailboxes that look like a wall of gold bricks. This is the only detail of the building we can see beyond the trees and landscaping. Like many homes of the very rich, the entrance gives little away. A congested garden of palm trees and a tall bunya pine screens the buildings from the road.
Overlaid on this moment – a Sunday afternoon, people going back and forth from their cars with grey plastic supermarket bags or luggage from a weekend away – is the otherworldly thought of David Bowie stepping out from the Kincoppal gates. Would he even have gone out for a walk, I wondered, not quite able to reconcile his superstardom with such a mundane activity. But it seems he did, according to musician and Bowie-aficionado Jeff Duff. In one of the “Bowie in Australia” articles that appeared after Bowie’s death in 2016 he was quoted: “He was very hard to recognise,” Duff said, “he was very casually, normally dressed, a dude wandering around in Elizabeth Bay, nothing stood out about him apart from that he was a very handsome man.”
We wander away from the gates, follow the loop back down towards Greenknowe Avenue. Hanging from the awning beside the row of shops on the corner of Ithica Road is a sign for the Elizabeth Bay Deli: DELI in curling script beside an illustration of a cheese and a salami and some lovingly-detailed black olives.
The shop is one of those stores that has at least one of everything. Whether you need a glue stick, a banana, a container of Bacon Bits or a box of incense, you’ll find it in there somewhere. Maybe it’s just because Bowie is in my head, but there’s grocery items in here I haven’t noticed again since the 1980s. Apricot nectar in a can. Cottees Ice Magic. Pecks Paste. The spices are the same brand I remember from our pantry in the 80s, Molly McKenzie, presented in round plastic bottles with brown lids.
I lurk behind the crisps, imagining Bowie at the counter, politely buying a packet of Marlboro Lights or maybe a box of juice. The Elizabeth Bay Deli has these items and more.
Summer in the Sydney suburbs brings still hot days and long afternoons when the hours seem to move slowly in the humid air. On the hottest of days there can seem to be little respite, and the only thing that might offer some relief is a cool drink from the Mixed Business on the corner, a big BIG drink.
Of all advertisements Coca Cola’s are the most ubiquitous, decorating the awnings and walls of almost every corner store that ever was. They’re so pervasive that it’s easy for the eye to skim over them, and usually mine do, although there’s something stoic about these big cans that captures my attention. Here, stranded above an ex-corner store in Summer Hill that now sells bodybuilding supplements, is one such big can, still advertising the “Mixed Business” that was once below. As I look at it I imagine a giant lumbering up Old Canterbury Road, thirsty, reaching out to wrench the can off the side of the building …
Over in Maroubra is another Big Can, on a long-shuttered Mini Mart. The white cord leading down from it makes me wonder whether the can once lit up at night. While the big cans are familiar to me, I have no memory of seeing them softly glowing atop the awnings when I was a child in the 80s, surely the era of the Big Can.
Other big cans have been repurposed, such as this one on Booth Street in Annandale, now promising pizza, a somewhat less enticing proposition when available in a can. The pizza shop is on the corner has turned into a chicken shop these days, which means it probably, unlike the examples above, sells Coca Cola.
Sydney’s most famous Coke sign is, of course, the one that has been at the top of William Street since 1974, and was recently restored. When it was taken down off the wall in 2015, some obscure painted shapes were revealed. These were discovered to be the remains of a 1973 artwork by Roger Foley, a.k.a. Ellis D Fogg, who had been commissioned to “project images of moving liquids” on the wall.
Some preferred this to the Coke sign, but now the sign is restored to its previous intensity, its neon glow a beacon to those approaching from the west. Some of Coca Cola’s other initiatives – such as the 1996 Coca Cola Quayside museum at Circular Quay, have been less enduring. For the $5 entry you could drink as much Coca Cola as you wanted at the “Fountain of Drinks”, discover the history of the beverage and buy trinkets from a gift shop in the shape of a Coke bottle. There is scant information about this short-lived museum online, although this 1996 review from Architecture Australia provides an arch overview of the experience:
The museum’s content is equally straightforward and presents an almost fetishistic, single-minded focus on the product. Its manufacturing and marketing history fills a sequence of handsome ash-veneered showcases, whilst aurally and visually dominating the centre of the museum is the video wall—showing, to the irritating accompaniment of an animated narrator who ensures that our attention span is limited to 30 seconds, the history of Coke and its advertisements against a backdrop of 20th century events—war, sport and pop music predominate.
Back in the present, I am on the search for more Big Cans as I travel around the suburbs. Last night was the hottest on record, and summer is far from over. I will need some big refreshment to get me through.
Update: some additional Big Cans of Sydney, thank you Kirsten Seale for tipping me off about the Kingsgrove Can:
And Kylie for the Bexley Can:
As you cross the railway bridge just north of Tempe station, there’s an ad for Odyssey Jeantown on the wall above the tracks. Odyssey Jeantown ads have lined railway overpassses for decades: they were on both sides of the railway bridge on Crystal Street, and there is still one across from Sydenham station, updated now and then but always featuring the same rodeo rider on the back of a bucking horse. In the 1990s my friends would go on pilgrimages there to buy tight black jeans, and it seemed a mythical place with its Homeric name and location in the midst of the industrial area of Marrickville.
In the centre of a yellow arrow a rodeo rider is being thrown from his horse in the direction of Jeantown. But I must continue, my odyssey continues in the opposite direction. Next I pass a series of signs, blue arrows pointing in the direction of IKEA, like a trail of breadcrumbs.
I resist these too. The object of my attention is something much closer and more unusual.
I first noticed the Anomaly looking out of a taxi window. This is the backstreet route to the airport and I was staring out, feeling the grip of the city already loosening as my time to depart approached. As my thoughts travelled off into my impending journey my eyes moved over the houses on Unwins Bridge Road. This row of houses is set uncomfortably close to the narrow, busy road, but is otherwise a typical inner west scene. The houses were once built to an identical design, brick with striped wooden gables, Queen Anne style. Each is now slightly different from its neighbours, the colour scheme, or the windows, one has a tall palm tree, another is decorated with bird cages hanging from its verandah. But there was one differing feature that stood out most of all.
As I stared at the front fence of one of these houses, the bricks seemed to be moving. Crooked and topsy-turvy, the lines of bricks sloped up and down and anywhere but neatly across in straight lines, a suburban fence version of a magic eye picture. The traffic lights changed, and the taxi moved onwards, leaving the weird scene behind, and I filed it away for future investigation.
Now I’m back to inspect it. Just as it had months before, the anomaly comes in sight as the road curves over the railway tracks. It is as I remember it from the taxi window, the bricks in misshapen lines that seemed to move before my eyes. I walk down under the shade of the swamp oaks, along past the wire fence tangled with morning glory vine. A truck goes past, full of tyres and draped in tinsel, and the rubber smell of it hangs in the air for a moment. All the while, my eyes are fixed on the anomaly and its riotous bricks.
I cross the street to look at it more closely, and as I do, something unusual happens. The bricks, which looked so crooked and weird on approach now look straight. I stand staring at it, flummoxed by the illusion. Were the bricks crooked or straight, and how could they be both at the same time? I crossed back over the street, and walked up to the corner, and sure enough, the fence bricks were crooked again.
If I am looking for an answer as to how this could be so, the opposite corner of the intersection has a suggestion. It is an overgrown patch of land with two billboards planted in it, one for ice cream, and one for Bickfords cordial. A giant hand grasps a bottle of red cordial and splashes it down into a tall, frosty glass. In the space underneath the bottle, words float: “Makes the Ordinary Extraordinary”. I took it as encouragement.
Thank you for reading, following, commenting on and sharing Mirror Sydney this year, dear readers. Next year plenty of exciting things are in store: more stories, tours, and most exciting of all, a Mirror Sydney book.
For now, enjoy the romance and shadow, and I will see you in the new year.
I navigate Sydney by my own set of landmarks, places of mystery or memory that form strings of details. Some of these are obvious things, others unassuming, others link to stories personal or historical, rumours or imaginings. As I watch out a train window, or walk a familiar street, the details are my stepping stones.
One particular stretch I know well in this way is the train journey between Central Station and the entrance to the underground city circle railway. This section of track is elevated and there’s a sensation of gliding above the city, looking across the Surry Hills rooftops, a jumbled landscape of old warehouses and storehouses and steep streets.
In particular I look out for Wentworth Avenue and its row of empty warehouses, once tea merchants, factories and offices. Until recently a number of these buildings were owned by the Wakils, the investor couple notorious for amassing properties which they have left vacant for decades. Recently they sold the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House on Wentworth Avenue and both are in the process of being redeveloped. But nothing as yet has happened to my favourite empty Wentworth Avenue warehouse, Sheffield House.
Built around 1916 it is five storeys high with bay windows and rising sun motifs along the top, and originally housed a cutlery and tableware manufacturer. Before Sheffield House was built the area had been a warren of terrace houses and laneways. A sizeable Chinese community lived here as it was close to the Belmore Markets where many worked (the precursor to Paddy’s Markets, then in what is now the Capitol Theatre). After 1905 the area was resumed for slum clearance, the houses and laneways demolished, and wide Wentworth Avenue cut through.
Live in any place long enough and you become attuned to particular mysteries, and one I have long considered is the words on the side of Sheffield House. The white paint on the wall has faded to reveal layers of large, ghostly letters underneath. The words painted here must once have captured attention from a fair distance away, but now they are almost unreadably faded. Every time I passed by I made another attempt to decode the riddle, never giving up hope of cracking the code.
The sign kept up its mystery and I kept up my attempts to decipher it, year after year. As the white paint flaked away the shapes of the letters slowly became more distinct and it got to a point where I almost could make them out. I stopped looking at the surrounding details (other personal landmarks: the Brutalist ex-bank building on the corner of Foveaux St; a cluster of 80s office towers that was once the Tooheys brewery, always with offices for lease; the roof where the sign for Sharpie’s Golf House used to be) and directed my full focus towards it. On the train I made sure to sit on the correct side of the carriage for the clearest view. Down on the street I examined it from different vantage points, at different times of the day, hoping the sun would shine at just the right angle to reveal the mystery.
The day I decoded it wasn’t a moment of train-ride epiphany – my accomplice and I had decided enough was enough and went out with the express intention of deciphering the sign. Our ghost sign reading equipment was a tripod, a homemade wooden stand with a perspex clipboard attached to it, a piece of acetate paper, and a marker pen. We set up against the sandstone viaduct wall on Elizabeth Street, across from the pub I refer to as “Harry’s Singapore Chilli Crab”, after the banner picturing a joyful Harry and a not so happy crab that for years hung above its awning.
We stood there with our contraption, tracing out possible combinations of words. Then we got it! The sloping, cursive script across the wall resolved into the cursive script of “Penfolds” and below it, in block letters, WINES. Underneath it then I could suddenly see the earlier sign for PILLS – and it could only be Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, a patent medicine frequently featured on early twentieth century wall advertisements. After some archive-digging a photograph from the 1920s (below) confirmed my suspicions. To the far left was the ad for Dr Morse’s popular pills, a product purporting to cure biliousness, rheumatism, neuralgia, grippe, palpitation, nervousness and many other early 20th century complaints.
Both Penfolds and Indian Root Pills were common painted advertisements: in a curious parallel, the same ghost sign pairing exists in Abbotsford, Melbourne, as investigated on Melbourne Circle. It is a medicinal pairing: Penfolds wines also began as a therapeutic product. The vineyard was set up in South Australia in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary, and produced fortified wines as a cure for anaemia. By the time this sign would have been painted, Penfolds had focussed on producing table wine, no doubt still regarded as medicinal to some.
There has in recent years been an upsurge of interest in ghost signs, those vestiges of previous eras of advertising that remain, fading on the side walls and upper levels of buildings. Sydney with its penchant for demolition is not particularly known for them, but I guarantee that once you start looking you will find them. Surry Hills’ ghost signs date from its manufacturing past, still faintly advertising overalls and workshirts, printers and chemists.
I know the answer to my Sheffield House ghost sign mystery now, and when I look at the wall from the train I can imagine the 1920s city of Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, when Surry Hills was a busy manufacturing district, or I can imagine a later incarnation, the Penfolds city of the 1940s. The sign is like a window cut into the present-day scene, allowing us to step through into the city of the past.