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.
At the edge of Chinatown is the Sydney Trades Hall, a Victorian-era office building, four storeys high, with an octagonal tower jutting from the corner like a lantern. When it opened in 1895, this area was near the wharves, railyards, and industrial areas on the city’s fringe, areas that employed many of the workers who belonged to the trade unions who had offices inside the building.
On the main staircase there’s a list of the union offices that once were found within Trades Hall. It’s an index of the city’s past occupations, among them bread carters, sailmakers, glass bottle makers, food preservers, Pyrmont Sugar Workers, milk and ice carters. The building would have been a lively place, with all of these offices, a literary institute library, and nightly social activities, concerts and dances and meetings.
Now the building is part-offices, part-museum, after being refurbished in the 2000s. I’ve come on a tour as part of Sydney Open, the annual weekend on which buildings of historical and architectural interest are open to the public. On the ground floor I walk in past an old, wooden elevator with a banner for the Lift Attendant union displayed inside it. There are other such banners hanging in the nearby hallway, for cleaners and for watchmen, and a framed painted list of offices, with a delicate painted hand pointing upstairs.
The building houses objects related to its history: the signs that once hung in the hallways, the banners that unions used in marches and processions, and the certificates and banners used by the unions to signify or reward membership. The large painted banners are ornate and symbolic, decorated with gold leaf.
Their painter was Edgar Whitbread, who worked for decades, well into his 70s, at a small studio in the glass-domed Victoria Arcade. His name can be seen printed modestly at the base of these banners, which were once used in the processions and demonstrations that would bring thousands of people onto the city’s streets. Their detail and meticulous craftsmanship are surprising to the contemporary eye, and we can imagine them held aloft, as the workers they represented marched with them.
It was in the 1960s, the heritage officer leading the tour tells us, when the building was under threat of demolition, that thought was given to whether the banners should be preserved. That they were owes much to the Trades Hall secretary, Lorna Morrison, who advocated for their restoration. The banner had been stored in a part of the building that was at the time opened up as a walkway between the original building and the new Labour Council building behind it, a grey office block with painted advertisements for the on-site broadcaster, 2KY radio, on it.
Other objects on display, he said, were found piled up in the basement during the refurbishment in the 2000s. These objects now tell the story of the building, but also of the world of work, and how Sydney’s workers have shaped the city.
**UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who entered and shared their lost and found Sydney stories. I’ve drawn the prize from my top hat and have a winner – congratulations to Kristina!**
On April 1st I’m hosting the Sydney Lost and Found bus tour with Sydney Living Museums, in conjunction with the exhibition Demolished Sydney. It’s a mystery tour that starts in the city and heads south into the suburbs, travelling through time and stories as we go.
The tour is sold out, but I have a ticket to giveaway! To enter, leave a comment with your favourite lost, or rediscovered place in Sydney. Next Tuesday, I’ll draw the prize (at random using the names in a hat method). Good luck!
Details of the tour are here.
Following on from my post of some years ago now on the Express Footway some new archival footage has arisen of Sydney’s most atmospheric subterranean thoroughfare, back on its inaugural day.
Master Jenson (aged 13 months) is not too sure what to make of it by the end, but 54 years later people are still going for footway joyrides.
UFO sightings in Sydney, while relatively frequent, are nonetheless fleeting. You have to be looking at the sky at just the right moment to notice the glowing orbs and mysterious shapes that sometimes appear above us. Some areas like the Northern Beaches are known UFO hot spots with a database of encounters to prove it. But there is no need to visit the Narrabeen Lakes and wait for the bright lights. Alien space craft exist among us on the ground.
The bright lights and weird shapes seen over Narrabeen are perhaps attracted to the three spherical structures at the centre of the public school. These are binishells, concrete domes constructed in the 1970s in a NSW government project which saw 14 of these curious buildings appear across the state. The structures were masterminded by the Italian architect Dante Bini. He developed a construction method where concrete was sprayed over a membrane which was then inflated to form a dome. In the six years Bini spent in Sydney in the early 1970s numerous binishells were constructed in primary and high schools.
Binishells rise up out of the school grounds like concrete blisters or grounded flying saucers. Many a student, while sitting their HSC exams in a binishell hall, might have wished for the flying saucer to take off and get them out of there, but the only surprise movement to have occurred with one was the collapse of the Pittwater High School binishell in 1986. This led to investigations into their safety but with reinforcement the binishells were allowed to stay. They can be found dotted across Sydney, in Turramurra (Ku-ring-gai High School), Ashbury, Fairfield, Killarney Heights and Narrabeen North. Others at Peakhurst and Randwick have now been demolished. Plans for binishell houses – known as the “minishell” – were devised, but house domes never made it to the Sydney suburbs. (For binishell fans, visit the Groundwork exhibition in October to see the bini-related work by Zanny Begg.)
Sydney does have a number of space ship houses, however. The most notorious is familiar to anyone who drives north across the Spit Bridge. It perches on the steep hillside above Middle Harbour, its circular form bulging out in segments of tall windows. It has a kind of James Bond villian’s lair ambiance, bringing to mind images of lurid flared pantsuits, cocktails and the retro futurism of 60s style.
The house was built in 1964 by architect Stan Symonds, known for his free form, sculptural designs. He is responsible for various unusual Northern Beaches houses, including the Pittwater house with the surprisingly phallic floorplan (its recent sale was a subeditors dream for headline puns) and the Seaforth Dome house (listed on Airbnb for the very curious). The Seaforth house visible from the Spit Bridge is known officially as Vendome, or the Schuchard House, although it’s known by many as the space ship house or the flying saucer house. Accordingly, the house’s renovation in 2006 by Bleyer Constructions was known as The Spaceship Project.
I walk along the pedestrian path of the Spit Bridge towards the space ship house. The Spit Bridge is not a particularly striking structure most of the time, except for the 5 or so times a day a section of it lifts up to allow ships to pass through. The part that moves is a central section of metal girders and mesh. It shudders under my feet as the traffic rushes over it and the metal booms and echoes. I endure this disconcerting experience as I stop to peer over at the space ship house. The room that bulges out is like a fishbowl and I can see the indistinct shapes of furniture inside it. Then a shape shifts and I realise there’s someone in there, wearing a red shirt, moving about. Feeling voyeuristic I drop my gaze and continue across the bridge, as men in suits and sunglasses drive by in convertibles, and buses pick up speed before tackling the hill up to Seaforth.
From the street there is little clue to the space ship below, besides the house’s curved roof. But from here I can see down across Middle Harbour with its clusters of white boats, and watch as the cars stop on either side of the bridge, the boom gate go down, and the centre slowly rises.
The Seaforth spaceship house isn’t alone. Craft have landed across Sydney, in Earlwood:
and in Eschol Park near Cambelltown, the bizarre Mount Universe, the never finished headquarters for the Universal Power society. The structure, once visible from the surrounding suburbs but now obscured by trees, was based on Saturn’s rings. Construction began in the late 1970s but not completed, although the sign remains at the gates.
The 1960s and 70s were the era of space ship buildings. They were no doubt influenced by the space age, but their other dominant influence was concrete. The adaptability of concrete as a building material enabled the construction of the binishells and the free form structure of the Shuchard House. But of all architectural styles there is none more celebratory of concrete than Brutalism. As a architectural style it produced bold, solid designs in concrete. Although the name refers to the French term for raw concrete – béton brut – the “brute” in brutalism is a good description of the assertive effect of the buildings.
Among the office blocks of Crows Nest another space ship rests. An inverted concrete pyramid inside wide columns like rocket boosters, the St Leonards Centre looks like it could blast off if given sufficient force. Rather like the Sydney Masonic Centre, its inverted shape gives it a mysterious atmosphere and it’s hard to imagine what exactly might be going on inside.
The St Leonards Centre opened in 1972 as the central computing hub for the CBC Bank. Like the Reader’s Digest Building in Surry Hills its computer was a central feature of the building, and employees could enter the viewing platform to watch the Honeywell 6000 in action on Level 8. The building was described as “an architectural first – a sculptured office building” with “one of the most sophisticated computer installations in Australia”. More than 100 CBC bank branches across Sydney were linked to this computer, making it a kind of central banking brain at the core of the space ship. The pamphlet explaining this new technology describes how each branch will be able to “talk” to the computer through their terminals and receive an immediate response. Beam me up!
Of all of Sydney’s spaceships the most well known, and most central, is the CTA Building in Martin Place. Designed by Harry Seidler in the 1970s, it is so unusual a structure that seems more like a sculpture than building. The thought that it actually had an interior only dawned upon me when I visited it for the Kaldor Art Projects Thomas Demand exhibition in 2012. At the exhibition visitors discovered a series of tiny bedrooms, hotel rooms for commercial travellers passing through Sydney. The slits in the drum are the bedroom’s windows, with a view out across Martin Place.
The CTA Building was a part of Seidler’s MLC Centre design, built on a large Castlereagh Street site. Demolished to build the MLC Centre was Hotel Australia, the Theatre Royal, Rowe Street and the previous Commercial Traveller’s Association Club, a tall, sandstone building on the corner of Martin Place. It was replaced by the small, neat building, often described as a mushroom, sometimes lovingly, other time disparagingly.
Having reached the central space ship I was drawn to the entrance at the base of the curved stem. Inside I entered a metal capsule and was drawn downwards into a dimly lit, red cavern. The floor was patterned with dying stars, so bright they were difficult to focus on. I sat in a curve of dark red velvet and found a tube of cold, sparkling liquid in front of me. I sipped it and underneath my feet felt the rumble of the craft readying for takeoff. Music started: to my surprise it was Pulp’s “Disco 2000”. The extraterrestrials, with their superior knowledge, had known exactly what song would keep me at ease during the ascent.
This October I’ll be leading two Sydney tours as part of the Groundwork exhibition curated by the New Landscapes Institute. They’re based on my map of Sydney Mystery Structures that will be exhibited in Groundwork. The map features some of the city’s more perplexing and obscure landmarks, of which there are many to choose from – but I will reveal more closer to the time.
The first of the tours, on Saturday October 3rd, is a city mystery structures tour: a journey past the grandiose, the bizarre and the banal alternative landmarks of the city. The next weekend, on Sunday October 11th, is a tour of Annandale’s aqueducts and their mysterious path through the parks and back streets of the suburb.
See the city the Mirror Sydney way! I’d love you to join me, you can book at the links above. Or if an exhibition opening is more your style, Groundwork opens on October 1st at Gaffa Gallery.
In the permanent shade of the elevated railway the murals appear like dreams. They are a jumble of city memories, scenes from the past of this place. The forest, the working harbour, protests for land rights and against the redevelopment of Woolloomoloo in the 1970s. In the centre of one mural protesters march under the Green Bans banner, arms linked, feet mid-step. Surrounding the mural is the suburb they marched to save.
Elsewhere in the city are fading images of dinosaurs and people waving from the balconies of terrace houses. A woman with a parrot in a cage looks down from a trompe l’oeil window, a tiger chases a bird from behind the real trees that have grown to obscure the painted wall behind it.
These community murals are more than thirty years old, painted in the early 1980s by artists and locals. As well as the histories of people and places they retain the traces of a time of optimism for art and social change. They were works that celebrated resistance and the potential of collaboration, and capture a particular era of activism, energised by the culture of protest of the 1970s. Through actions like the Green Bans communities had successfully opposed the destruction of the urban environment for development. Activism carried over to the arts: post punk gigs in abandoned buildings; the political posters produced at the Tin Sheds in primary colours and bright fluoros, protesting nuclear testing and showing solidarity for workers’ and women’s rights.
Though they were painted over 30 years ago a surprising number of 1980s murals can still be found around the city and suburbs. Some have been restored, others are now much faded. While there is no shortage of new murals these days the 80s ones have a particular energy and atmosphere that distinguishes them from the mostly decorative recent murals. The 80s murals are time capsules with a gentle and surreal presence suggesting other ways of being and thinking in the city.
In 1982 The Mural Manual was published, a guide to community murals by David Humphries and Rodney Monk which documented new mural projects across Australia and provided practical information on how to organise and paint them. Humphries and Monk, both mural artists, had established a mural company, the Public Art Squad, together in 1978. In the introduction Humphries wrote that murals provide “a release from drabness in the city, a splash of colour in the country, a shiver of unexpected pleasure wherever [they are] found. It allows ordinary people to communicate in unaccustomed ways, to put a personal stamp on their chunk of the world”.
With The Mural Manual as a guide, and after a few years of mural searching, documenting, and information gathering, here is a tour of Sydney’s 1980s community murals. I have noted the principal coordinating artists in the credits, but all were painted by a team of artists and community members.
1. Macquarie University Library (1978, David Humphries)
Its sheltered position in the walkway underneath the old Macquarie University library has kept bright this oldest of the remaining community murals. The Mural Manual describes its theme as “the effects on Aboriginal land rights and the environment by the media, nuclear power and intellectual training”. Like many of these murals, it’s a mix of the serious and the surreal: the university campus is pictured like a moon base among a desert; a superhero graduate couple rise up above a forest of televisions which form heads for an army of muscular charging figures.
2. Seven Hills Underpass (1979, Rodney Monk)
One of the most prominent community murals in Sydney is in Seven Hills on the underpass beneath Prospect Highway where it crosses the railway line, making the mural clearly visible from all the trains going by. The mural has been repainted since 1979 but shows the same scene of green fields modified by development and factories and also a bizarre pop cultural lineup of Ginger Meggs, soldiers, and a man with a question mark for a head. Above them Superman powers up into the painted sky, fist aloft.
The blue sky of the mural meets the real sky; Superman looks ready to leave his painted world and go off on a rescue mission. Up close the surface is peeling in parts and there are patches where the paint has peeled off to reveal the original mural underneath and its slightly different landscape of outer-space pyramids, a guess at a possible Seven Hills future.
3. The Crescent Mural, Annandale, 1980 (Rodney Monk)
The Crescent mural is painted on the railway embankment wall that runs alongside The Crescent in Annandale, where traffic feeds back and forth off the City West Link. Before the mural this wall had been a long stretch of bricks with a spraypainted slogan across it protesting the Whitlam sacking: Kerr-ist Cocky’s got an election (Kerr being the Governer General who dismissed Whitlam’s government in 1975, often caricatured as a cockatoo). The slogan reappears in the mural if you look closely.
Like the Seven Hills mural, the Crescent mural has been repainted (this one in 2004) and the design somewhat changed: the stealth bomber became a passenger jet, for example. The looming plane at the centre of the mural is one of its defining features, as is the painted tree trunk that joins up with a real palm tree growing on the embankment above, but there are plenty of details for motorists stuck in traffic to ponder (including a traffic jam of trucks with numberplates like GIVEADAMN and BUGAUP).
In the 1970s, as elsewhere in Sydney, this area was threatened by plans for redevelopment and road construction. This faced strong community opposition and the mural is in part a celebration of this spirit, as well as an acknowledgement of local history and concerns. It’s also just plain surreal and funny.
4. CYSS Mural, Rozelle, 1980 (Michiel Dolk)
This is Sydney’s mystery mural, unchanged since 1980, although now much faded and for most of the year hidden behind trees. In winter, after the leaves have dropped, the mural reappears and is visible from the street. It takes youth unemployment as its theme as it was painted on the wall of what was then the CYSS (community youth support scheme) – the building still offers youth employment services, though under a different name.
The mural shows the frame of a house with people occupied in various jobs: a woman saws a plank of wood, a man washes dishes, another man makes a call from a payphone. At the top, one figure passes a yellow sphere to the figure on top of the mural, who is seated on the window frame of the real attic windows of the building. Now this sun is faded, barely visible. Lower down the colours are brighter, and if you look in among the trees, you will find the tiger.
In 1980 Dolk, with Merilyn Fairskye and Jeff Stewart, also painted the ACI Glassworks mural in Waterloo, which commemorates the suburb’s industrial past.
4. Surry Hills Murals: What Bird is That? (1981, Peter Day)
In 1981 Peter Day was the Surry Hills community artist in residence, and over this time he coordinated the painting of a number of murals. Of them one remains, a bushland scene on the wall of a terrace house that faces a tiny park. Repainted in 2012 the new design, like the old, tricks the eye, so for a moment, the wall becomes a forest.
The other two Peter Day coordinated murals in Surry Hills were the Bourke Street Park mural which had a similar trompe l’oeil appearance, where a wall opened out into a landscape of cliffs and the ocean. The other was the Welcome to Surry Hills map on the side of an electricity substation on Devonshire Street, now a block of apartments.
Randwick’s Proud of Our Elders mural includes six notable locals: Ollie Simms, the oldest Aboriginal woman in La Perouse; Miss Wilhelmina Wylie, swimming champion and daughter of Henry Wylie who built Wylie’s Baths in Coogee; Alice Gundry, founding member of the Coogee Ladies Pool; Doris Hyde, president of the Coogee Ladies Swimming Club who “taught hundreds of children to swim”; Harry Reed, ex-jockey; and Greta Fyson, who “feed the pigeons every day in the park on Coogee Bay Road near the nursing home where she lives”.
The mural was repainted in 2011 as the original was fading, and Doris Hyde’s wise gaze continues to observe the residents of Randwick as they make their way along Belmore Road.
6. Women and Work, Domain (1982, Carol Ruff)
Of all Sydney’s 1980s murals this is the most degraded, in a peeling, sorry state, mostly covered by graffiti and signs for the parking station. It makes me sad to see it this way as it is one of my favourites: every time I pass by I expect it to be gone, but for now you can still make out some of the figures. Painted in 1982 it was part of the landmark Women and the Arts festival in 1982, which included around 1000 events and generated much creative work by women across the arts.
Judy McGee from Pel Mel is still visible in her blue tights, playing her synthesiser, despite the door cut into the wall behind her. At the tallest end of the mural a woman stands in the kitchen with her dog, although she has now been imprisoned by an overpass.
Of all of Sydney’s 1980s murals the Woolloomooloo murals have perhaps the greatest status as political artworks. The pylons of the Eastern Suburbs Railway viaducts formed a gallery on which 16 murals about political and social issues – especially the Green Bans and redevelopment threats to the area in the 1970s – were hung. Eight of these have been preserved, although not repainted: the artists requested the works only be minimally restored to keep their patina of age.
The murals were the backdrop for the Midnight Oil video “The Power and the Passion” although, as related in this story of the making of the video, to the artists’ consternation the band didn’t ask for permission to film in front of the murals. Nevertheless, the video captures something of the atmosphere of these odd spaces underneath the viaduct, which itself carved up Woolloomoloo, although to nowhere near the extent of the planned developments in the 1970s which were halted by the Green Bans.
8. Redfern Bridge Mural/40,000 Years is a Long, Long Time (1983, Carol Ruff)
The 40,000 years mural, on the railway bridge above Redfern station, is named after the lines from the No Fixed Address song that are painted on the wall. It’s a striking reminder of Aboriginal land and history, and visually underlies the tall buildings of the city which can be seen behind it. The mural is currently undergoing a restoration with images this time being painted on panels rather than the wall. The wall mural is currently much faded, but you can still make out the silhouettes of the Indigenous All Stars, the first Aboriginal rugby team from 1973.
9. King George V Mural, The Rocks (1984, Peter Day)
At around 2000 metres squared, this is one of the longest murals in the southern hemisphere. It is painted along the viaduct leading to the Harbour Bridge as a trompe l’oeil. The painted arches of the viaduct trick the eye into seeing a vista beyond of the harbour in front of which, most strikingly, a hot air balloon rises. In front of much of the mural is a recreation centre which obscures it somewhat, although provides an unusual background to basketball games: the full mural can be seen in this aerial photo from before the centre was built.
This is perhaps Sydney’s most high profile mural – literally as it is painted up above the city streets on the side of Pilgrim House. The mural was painted over altogether in 2001, before being reinstated two years later after the artists campaigned for it to return.
11. Think Globally, Act Locally, Redfern (1984, Public Art Squad)
This mural, another by the Public Art Squad, can be found in Redfern’s Reconciliation Park on George Street. It shares the dove motif from Peace, Justice and Unity, and shows the residents of the terrace houses and public housing blocks of Redfern and Waterloo, as well as a couple of dinosaurs framed by the outline of a demolished house.
Like many community murals, it includes groups of local people, long ago characters: my favourites in this one are the girl on the fence, and the man reading the newspaper which lists the painting’s credits.
Murals continued to be painted throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, among them notable works such as the Martin Luther King mural on King Street Newtown by Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken and the Tunnel Vision mural along the Domain Express Walkway by Tim Guider. Other iconic murals have disappeared, such as those that used to line the Devonshire Street tunnel at Central Station (Public Art Squad): now replaced by dull digital images of trains.
Others have disappeared completely, without trace, such as the oil tank mural of Matraville, painted in 1978 in a project co-ordinated by David Humphries and Rodney Monk. This mural was striking, rising up behind the headstones of the Eastern Suburbs cemetery. Across the tank was painted a blue landscape of ships and planes and dolphins, faces and structures, public memories mixed up into a dream landscape familiar and surreal.
It’s a testament to the work of the mural artists of the 1980s that so many of their works remain, although in some ways its not surprising. They have become iconic images from an era of protest and community engagement and the majority of their messages are as important as ever.
For Art Month this year I led a tour of Surry Hills, showing some of my favourite details and curious sites of the area. Surry Hills is a place that has had many incarnations and exists in the imagination in different guises. It was the place that, many years ago, I dreamed of moving out of home to. In my naive 14 year old way I imagined a kind of artistic wonderland among the run-down terrace houses, a perception based mostly on passing mentions of the suburb in the music street press. My parents spoke of Surry Hills as a dangerous place, which only added to its allure.
I never did end up living in Surry Hills but it’s a place I know well. In spite of this familiarity, it often surprises me. The part of Surry Hills I chose for the tour was the strip that runs alongside the railway line, between Cleveland and Campbell Streets. Just this small area is full of stories and connections. There are traces of all Surry Hills’ incarnations to be found by looking closely enough.
Our first stop on the tour was Prince Alfred Park. It was named after the first member of the royal family to visit Australia. To the great embarrassment of the Australian officials, during a picnic outing to Clontarf a man named Henry James O’Farrell attempted to assassinate the prince. The shot he fired at the prince wounded him but not fatally, and in celebration of the prince’s recovery, the hospital and the park were named after him, and the “golden probe” used to remove the bullet is on display at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital museum.
Once Prince Alfred Park featured an elaborate exhibition building. Unlike the harbourside Garden Palace, this exhibition building endured long into the 20th century, to finally be demolished in 1954. Nowadays the park has the pool rising out of a hill, with funnels like a buried ocean liner, and a playground with an elephant and a hot air balloon for kids to climb on, links to the park’s past, 19th century entertainments.
We stopped outside Cleveland House which, dating from 1820, is the oldest building in Surry Hills. Here I read a little from The Harp in the South. Ruth Park’s 1948 novel is from a Surry Hills long removed from the Cleveland House era, but it reveals something of the suburb’s shifting identity. It has swung between a place of prestige and a place of poverty and vice a number of times over.
Ruth Park lived in Surry Hills for a short time in the late 1940s. She found it “an antique island where the nineteenth century still prevailed” and wrote The Harp in the South about the fictional Darcy family, who lived at 12 ½ Plymouth St. The street was fictional, but there are some parts of Surry Hills that I can imagine as a setting for the book, stripping away their present-day, renovated, veneer.
There were many houses like Number Twelve-and-a-Half, smelling of leaking gas, and rats, and mouldering wallpaper which has soaked up the odours of a thousand meals. The stairs were very dark and steep, and built on a slant as though the architect were drunk, so that from the top landing you couldn’t see the bottom. On the top landing hung a little globe, very high up, so that the tenants could not steal it. It was small as a star and as yellow as a lemon.
On Buckingham Street there are a number of curious places – like in The Harp in the South there’s a house numbered 74½, a string of very old sandstone terrace houses dating from the 1860s, and the Sydney version of Buckingham Palace.
On the corner of Clevelend Street we stopped at the Athena sign and I explained the dwindling fortunes of this corner block. Once it was a nightclub, but now it has the boarded-up and drooping appearance of a building awaiting demolition. The sign for the Athena nightclub remains at the side, a secret message invoking the goddess of wisdom.
Back along Elizabeth Street we stopped at the park at the corner of Devonshire Street. Here there used to be a large mural painted on the side of the substation. The mural was a Surry Hills directory, picturing a map of the streets and their notable features.
This was one of the many community murals painted in the early 1980s, of which a few still remain in varying states of repair. This mural has long since disappeared as the substation has been made into apartments. It’s a curious building where the apartments look to have been slotted in over the top of the old substation, like the buildings are lego bricks.
Another unusual Surry Hills building is the Reader’s Digest Building on Waterloo Street. Its style has been described as “gothic brutalism”, although the architect, John James, did not ascribe to brutalist principles. His inspirations were medieval church architecture and organic forms: the façade of the building has a design based on the Fibonnaci series.
I was standing on my milk crate outside the Reader’s Digest Building, explaining this and how it rises up out of the streets like a retro futuristic palace, when I noticed a man had come out from the building and joined the group. When I paused he said “would you like to look inside?” He runs the Arisaig Tea Rooms, the Scottish restaurant on the ground floor. We followed him through the restaurant and up the central stairs. Once the stairs had ascended alongside the $1 million dollar computer that had been positioned in the centre of the building. In 1968, such a computer was a rarity, and this one was a large contraption that stored all the information for the Reader’s Digests’ mail order subscriptions.
The computer is long gone, but we looked across at the roof garden, another feature of the building that was ahead of its time. Planted in the 1960s, the she-oaks and paperbarks are now tall trees. Another favourite detail was the circular ashtrays built into the directory panels near the lifts.
After our unexpected peek inside the Reader’s Digest building we walked down to Randle Street. This street is only short but has some curious businesses, like the surreal blacklight basement rooms of Ding Dong Dang karaoke. It’s a street of old warehouses. The signs for some of them, like the Henderson Hat factory, are still there, just visible high up above street level. It’s a street of bricks and textures and details.
Recently there has been an upswell of interest in ghost signs, the faded remains of painted signs for businesses and products still visible on the sides of old buildings. Surry Hills has plenty for the ghost sign hunter. Just off Randle Street, this sign still advertises Overalls and Workshirts from the days when Surry Hills was the centre of Sydney’s garment industry.
We passed by the “more New York than New York” Hibernian House, and Sydney’s flatiron building, the wedge-shaped Dental Hospital. Here I stopped to point out the Oceanic Café across the street. On the awning was a for sale sign, announcing that the auction had taken place a few days earlier. The Oceanic was a Sydney institution. In Sydney it’s surprising enough to come across a business that has been the same since the 1970s or 80s, but the Oceanic had been much the same since the 1930s. The café only closed last year, with the death of Nellie, the owner. The Oceanic was famous for its ads for Lamb’s Fry painted over the window, and its 1930s interior, with wooden booths and hat hooks along the walls. It was still there, sealed up as if Nellie and her daughter were about to return, the toaster still out on the bench and the fake flowers and the telephone in the window.
On nearby Foveaux Street we then visited the Vladimir Tichy ceramic mural. Tichy is a ceramic artist who came to Australia from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. From the 1970s he produced many large-scale ceramic murals in Sydney and regional NSW. Many, now, have been destroyed in the process of renovation or demolition, but the Foveaux Street panels remain. I’ve long admired them and their earthy, bejewelled texture.
After a stroll up Commonwealth Street and some talk about post punk Sydney in the early 1980s, we stopped at the corner of Campbell Street for the most minor feature of the tour.
Who was J. Canham and why is their name written in tiny letters on the side of this house? I like to think of it as a small, obscure, piece of graffiti from some time long, long ago.
The tour ended with the vista of one of Sydney’s ugliest buildings, the Goulburn Street Parking station.
That’s it! Thank you to everyone who came along and to Art Month for inviting me to give the tour.