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.
When I pick up the book I have requested from the stack of the university library, I see that it used to belong to the Roycroft, a subscription library and book store that once operated in the city centre. Across the book’s plain black hardback cover is affixed the Roycroft’s yellow sticker, with the name and above it drawings of two fish with big eyes and long noses. Below it is the address:
Rowe Street, that narrow street of boutique stores, studios and cafes, emblematic of mid-century Sydney’s artisan and cosmopolitan cultures, was long-gone by the time that I came to know the city. In the early 1970s the street was demolished for the MLC Centre, and now all that remains of it is a short stub of a laneway off Pitt Street, just south of Martin Place, and there is little reason to turn off along it or even to notice it. But Rowe Street’s traces are still around, in the objects that were bought, made or exhibited there, and sometimes I come across them.
The Roycroft was a bookstore and subscription lending library which moved to Rowe Street in the early 1920s. In this photo from around 1950, the entrance to the library is beside the Henriette Lamotte milliners, in which one could make an appointment to try on elite, Parisian-style headwear.
If books were more your thing, you would have followed the steps down from street level to the basement where the Roycroft library was to be found. At the time such subscription libraries were commonplace in the city, often combined with bookstores. Unlike public libraries, these were privately operated, and allowed patrons to borrow books for the cost of the subscription fee: the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts Library still operates on this model.
The Roycroft was known for its literary collection, as well as being a place where banned books could be bought, although to put this in perspective, book-bans were common in Australia in the 20th century, and included such works as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London as well as pulp and genre fiction that was deemed too lurid for the Australian public’s tastes.
In the 1920s the Roycroft was owned by Francis Zabel, who commissioned the artist Adrian Feint to design the logo for the store. She had a liking for fish as an emblem and her personal bookplate, also designed by Feint, featured a similar design. It is reminiscent, too, of the “wise men fish here” sign for the Gotham Bookmart in New York (thanks Melissa for suggesting the resemblance).
The sign for the Roycroft was so appealing that, in 1954, it was stolen and, as far as records show, was never recovered. I can’t but wonder where it might have gone. Perhaps it was a prank and it was destroyed. Maybe it’s hidden somewhere, yet to be found. Maybe it is hanging on the wall of the granddaughter of the thief.
Bits and pieces of Rowe Street can be found in the city’s secondhand stores and auction houses. On my desk I have a print in a white-painted frame, small enough to fit in my hand, of a painting of trees. A tree with a silvery trunk stands in front of a cedar tree with wide-spreading branches. I bought this picture from an op shop, liking the close-cropped view, which makes me feel as if I am looking through a tiny window. On the back of the frame, written in faded fountain-pen ink, is ‘Stanley Spencer, “Cedar Tree”‘, and a sticker showing that it was purchased from Notanda Gallery, at 41 Rowe St.
The Notanda Gallery, operated by the painter Carl Plate, sold prints, posters, art books and postcards, and was one of the few galleries in Australia at which European modern art was displayed, and where art students and artists could have ready access to reproductions of these artworks in colour. This made it something of a hub for artists, where as well as buy prints and postcards, they could browse and discuss art. That the shop fostered a community as well as being a commercial enterprise is a common story for Rowe Street businesses.
Looking at the little framed Stanley Spencer painting on my desk, sometimes I think about on whose wall it might have hung, or what it was about the scene that had attracted someone to buy it in the first place. Spencer is a painter best known for his visionary paintings of the English town in which he lived, Cookham, and his recasting of Biblical stories in these surroundings. But these trees have only their everyday transcendence, in their silvery green and spreading branches.
Soon after the library book and the framed print made themselves known to me, another Rowe Street detail appeared, one that had been with me without me realising it. One afternoon, sitting in the armchair in my office, I dropped a pencil and it rolled underneath the chair. Kneeling down to retrieve it I paused a moment, enjoying the unusual view of the room inverted. I’d never considered the underside of the armchair, which is a FLER chair loaned to me by Kate, who shares my love of secondhand objects. After she gave it to me I’d carried it down the hall and put it in place without further inspection. But now underneath I could see the stamp on the wooden frame, for Kalmar Interiors, Rowe St.
Kalmar Interiors was a furniture and interior design showroom run by Steven Kalmar, one of a number of designers who had migrated to Australia from Europe after the second world war and brought with them current trends in modern furniture design (stories which have been collected in Rebecca Hawcroft’s excellent book The Other Moderns). The FLER chair – made by an Australian company that was influenced by the lightweight, elegant forms of Scandinavian design – is a good example of the kind of furniture that shoppers bought from Kalmar. It’s unfussy but elegant, and I could well imagine it being part of the kind of scene described by Kalmar in his book You and Your Home.
And so it is, with the hats, and chairs, and postcards and books that were brought home from Rowe Street. They formed a part of people’s lives for decades, and as they disperse elsewhere, into other lives, they keep within them connections to this past place, and past era, of the city. Although some Rowe Street objects are held by museums, there are many others in libraries and personal collections. They appear, too, at random in auctions and in secondhand stores, waiting for someone to notice them, and the label which gives the address from where they came. Like it is an envelope, and we can travel to its destination.
I found the business card in a country antique store, inside a plastic folder of old tram tickets, maps, and pamphlets for tourist attractions and theme parks. The West Side Theatre Restaurant, Keith Petersen. I could picture the West Side, as I had passed it many times on Illawarra Road, its blank facade stripped of adornments besides the small vertical sign with West Side printed on it in red. The sign is hidden for most of the year behind the leaves of the tree beside it, but I notice it nevertheless.
After I bought the card, I added it to the stack of miscellaneous library and loyalty cards in the back pocket of my wallet. I’d be searching for the card to check out a book or print something at Officeworks, and instead pull out the card for the West Side Theatre Restaurant, as if that would provide me with the help I required.
Keith Petersen was a vaudeville and pantomime actor and comedian, who made his name performing in productions in Sydney’s live theatres, like the Theatre Royal and the Tivoli (his one notable film role was as the drunk man on the ferry in They’re a Weird Mob who slurs out abusive comments about migration as he staggers around the cabin). But by the 1960s, audiences for live theatre had been diminished by television, and traditional theatres were closing, in favour of theatre restaurants.
In 1967, Keith Petersen announced he was “Bringing Variety Back” with the opening of the West Side Theatre Restaurant. He had invested all his money in the theatre, he said in a newspaper interview, and was both the manager and the theatre’s leading actor. The interviewer wasn’t convinced about the location – Marrickville? Implying: working class, migrant, Marrickville? Petersen, however, was adamant that the people of Marrickville wanted variety entertainment as much as the people of Neutral Bay or Woollahra. Advertisements for the theatre restaurant describe how it was “the largest and most lavish theatre restaurant in the country”, and also “the only restaurant with full dancing facilities”.
The article also included the unusual detail that Petersen, as a hobby, kept a pig farm near Campbelltown. However he’d been so busy setting up the West Side, he’d had to spend much less time with his pigs. “And that’s a pity,” he said, “because my pigs are my relaxation.”
It’s hard to determine the success of the West Side from the newspaper traces. Petersen died in 1971, (at his home in Campbelltown, it was reported), and then, at some point, West Side became the reception centre it operated as until recently. In even more recent times the building has housed a series of final-days businesses – a co-working space, a rug shop – while it is on the market as a development site. I often walk past the back of it, where ferns sprout from the bricks, and the pigeons are always up to something. They used to preside over a squashed air conditioning unit, before the unit was removed, and then they took over the nook where it used to be.
The building has all the signs of having once been a movie theatre, being long and wide with a peaked, corrugated iron roof, and indeed started its life that way, as the Hoyts De Luxe in 1921, before it was redesigned and reopened in 1938, screening the film “Dead End”. The film is set in New York, amid the crime and poverty of the tenements of the Lower East Side, alongside which new, luxury apartments have just been built with views over East River.
When I stand on the corner of the former theatre, where eighty years ago audiences gathered to watch this screening of Dead End, and Keith Petersen once dreamed of his lavish theatre restaurant, I can hear the pick and churn of new apartment complexes being constructed all around. One complex is being built directly across the street. Its sign promises residents will “Wake up Wonderful”. They will wake to the view of the Westside, where the painted signs in the window of the rug store say “Everything Must Go!”, until the West Side itself goes too.
This post is dedicated to @ripmarrickville – which is an excellent chart of Marrickville past and present.
The trees are a clue, visible from Clarence Street above the two entrances to the underground parking garage. The trees’ tall, wintery shapes seem to hover, like the buildings around them are dreaming of a forest. Behind them is a wall with peeling paint and sash windows, seven storeys high. The tallest tree reaches almost to its roof.
The entrance to the arcade on this side of the building is a narrow doorway, easily passed by. So too is the entrance to the garden, which has the look of a service corridor, branching off the arcade and its row of typical city small businesses: a barber, a sandwich shop, a newsagency. But if you pass through the doors you are delivered into a courtyard with trees and palms, and a pond into which a stream of water pours.
The trees that were visible from the street below are planted to either side of the garden, and underneath them are benches and paths, enclosing this garden amid the city high-rises. They surround it, so on one side is the back of the office building on York Street, across the road is the concrete stripes of another parking garage, and above is the St Martins Office tower, the building of which the garden is part.
The tower was built in the early 1970s on the block bordered by York, Market and Clarence Streets. Being across from the Queen Victoria building, with its sandstone warmth and elaborate detail, the St Martins tower has a functional, anonymous presence within the contemporary city. At street level, it is easy to walk past it without noticing it as a place it is possible to enter.
When I did, and found the garden, there was no one else there. It was mid-afternoon, and I could hear the city all around, a roar only partially obscured by the rush of running water from the fountain. The traffic on the street below groaned past, and the air conditioning ducts on the side of the building churned in restless interruption. I walked up to the edge of the pond and the carp swum over towards me, hoping for crumbs. They kissed the water’s surface, their bright orange backs looming up.
The sun had slipped behind the buildings already, so the garden was in shadow, but I pulled my coat tight around me and sat for a while, under the trees, listening to the city as the carp clustered, ever-hopeful, in the shallow water below.
It has been a few years since I’ve visited Smithfield. As I travel along Horsley Drive I pass by its landmarks, a Buddhist temple, a front garden planted with tall cacti, and the concrete bunker of the former Smithfield Post Office. I had expected this building to have been demolished by now, but it remains, with a ‘for lease’ sign on its roof, looking as impenetrable as ever under its coat of pale green paint, still broadcasting the postcode and the insignia of Queen Elizabeth from its postal days.
Smithfield is on Cabrogal land, a suburb half residential, half industrial, bisected by the winding path of the Prospect Creek as it flows towards the Georges River. For the most part, the factories are on the north side of the creek, but there’s a smaller area of factories and warehouses on the south side, and it’s into this area I turn into, passing by industrial units with rows of palm trees along the street-front. It is the kind of light industrial street that has places that fix, store or destroy things: building materials warehouses, mechanics, scrap metal yards and wreckers. There’s a generator hire place with a rusty crane on top of a grey shed like a giant metal spider. To one side of the street is a vacant lot, a former market garden now overgrown with high grass and a few remaining panels of colorbond fence beside a stormwater channel choked with rubbish and weeds. Across from it the industrial units continue with a kitchen warehouse and an auto mechanics with a sign for “Smithfield Diff & Gearbox” in jaunty white lettering.
I’m distracted from the mysteries of Diff by the premises next door. Here, instead of another scrapyard or warehouse, is a row of four Dutch canal houses. Painted green with white windows, the facade frames the sign for Holland House, and a mural of a Dutch port with windmills and the nose of a KLM jet painted on it. Had someone asked me to imagine what the most unlikely business to find in the Smithfield-Wetherill Park industrial area might be, I would be guessing for quite some time before I came up with a Dutch supermarket, cafe and cultural centre.
‘t Winkeltje, The Dutch Shop, has traded here in Smithfield since 1985. At first it sold only imported Dutch furniture, but soon expanded to a supermarket, stocking the herring, cheese and liquorice that is signature Dutch fare. Inside, the warehouse building has been transformed. There’s a tiled floor, a low ceiling crossed with wooden beams, and wood-panelled walls, against which delft tiles and ceramic figurines are displayed. Under the wooden clogs and orange bunting that hang from the ceiling are aisles stocking sweets, packets of chocolate sprinkles, jars of pickles, containers of chocolate milk, boxes of pancake mix: an entire pantry of Dutch groceries.
Behind the shop is the cafe, and I walk through an archway into a room of dark wood and low, golden light. Fringed lampshades hang down over the tables, which have thick, woven coverings and vases of pink artificial tulips decorating them. Around the edges of the room, in cabinets and on shelves, are clusters of objects, pennants from the NSW Holland festival, coffee tins, wooden skates, copper pots, Dutch joke books, more tiles, more clogs.
On the other side of the cafe the shop continues, with racks of Dutch CDs and LPs, then souvenirs and kitchenware, then the oak furniture showroom that started it all. There are loungeroom scenes set up, chairs and tables and cabinets with trinkets and books in them, as if, at night after the shop was shut, families might materialise to inhabit these settings, sitting around the oak tables to read, eat salty liquorice pastilles and drink hot chocolate. I’m particularly entranced by the cardboard television, of the kind produced as props for furniture showrooms. It is obviously fake – it’s even called Imitronics – but I still touch it to check.
Through another doorway is the Dutch Cultural Centre, a room with a library and display cabinets, and a model of Amsterdam on a table in the centre of the room. It is a view along the Singel canal, lined with houses which, when I lean in to look at it closely, I see have been meticulously detailed with shop window displays and patterned curtains in the windows. It had been built by a man who was a butcher by trade, the volunteers at the cultural centre tell me. He’d designed it based on photographs he’d taken of this set of streets in Amsterdam, and constructed it in his garage, where he had displayed the model until he moved into smaller premises, and it came here.
I peer along one of the streets of the model, where there’s a Bloemist, a florist shop, with a window display of tulips, leading onto a bridge over the canal, over which toy cars are travelling. This is where it is, one of the volunteers says, coming up to me with a city map that has the location of the streets traced out over it. They hand me a photocopied brochure, too, with an architectural guide to the houses and this terse description of the model: “As far as the carpentry is concerned: Number of window frames: 1800. Window panes 7126.”
I think about this as I sit at the corner table of Cafe Klein-Mokum, eating poffertjes, listening to the Dutch version of “Love is in the Air” playing over the stereo, feeling transported, if not to Holland itself, at least to a version of it. It was cosy in here: this was the feeling of gezellig, the menu informed me, and that this is the homely atmosphere created by activities such as playing board games and drinking hot chocolate by the fire when it’s cold outside. But I could not stop imagining that, instead of sitting in the cafe I had previously walked through, I had instead shrunk down to miniature size and was sitting inside a cafe in a canal house in the model of Amsterdam, looking out one of the 7126 windows at the carefully constructed city outside.
For the past couple of years I’ve been working with the Powerhouse Museum on the Time and Memory project, the book of which was launched at the end of 2018. Soon the project will be finishing up and ahead of this I thought I’d share a behind-the-scenes story from one of my visits to the Observatory.
161 years isn’t a very long time in the history of the land on which the Observatory stands, or compared to the history of the stars which the Observatory was built to examine, but until the introduction of timekeeping by atomic clock in the mid-20th-century, the Observatory was central to the city. It was Sydney’s most accurate timekeeping mechanism, keeping the city to time via precision clocks, that were calibrated through the observed movements of the stars.
The Observatory building stands on the highest point in the harbour, on a rocky ridge between the coves of Warrane/Sydney Cove and Tumbalong/Darling Harbour. Now it is on something of an island, the land around it winnowed away by roads, the city grown into high-rise, but when it was first built, it would have been immediately visible to anyone around the harbour. This, indeed, was its purpose, as the Observatory transmitted the time to the city through a simple visual mechanism: the time ball on its roof.
The time-ball is a metal sphere mounted on a pole atop the Observatory’s central tower. It is now painted yellow, although it was initially painted black, which made it easier to see against the sky. Almost every day since the Observatory opened in 1858, at 1pm the ball has dropped from the top to the bottom of the mast. Now this is continued as a tradition, but its original purpose was to communicate the hour to ships in the harbour. This was so that they could make sure their clocks were running to time, for this was essential to accurate navigation.
It was not just important for shipping: the Observatory held the time standard for all the clocks in the city. Before the construction of the Harbour Bridge the Observatory was the city’s most prominent structure, and in the early afternoon, many eyes went to it to watch for the movement of the ball. Errors in the time ball’s precision were noted in the daily newspapers:
It was a late-autumn evening when I climbed up through the rooms of the tower to the roof of the Observatory, following the two of the museum’s curators up the stairs and ladders that lead to the time ball. On the library level I stopped to look over the collection of astronomy books on the shelves. Their spines were mostly plainly bound, although some of the older ones were decorated with gold stars and comets, such as Hutchinson’s Splendour of the Heavens from 1923.
These rooms once held the Observatory’s archives, the papers, notebooks, glass plate negatives and photographs that recorded observations of the sky and the weather (astronomer Henry Chamberlain Russell’s beautiful cloud photographs, for example).
The room below the time ball contains its mechanism, a central metal column with a complicated collection of cogs and levers attached to it. Usually, this is as far as people go. It is here, at 1pm, that the gears are engaged, and the button is pressed to release the ball, and there is generally little reason to go up any further. But we keep climbing, up a ladder and then through the hatch onto the roof. It’s a shift in perspective to be standing up beside the ball, knowing that this is usually a place watched from below, or afar.
Up close I see that the ball is as tall as we are, see the bolts that hold the copper panels together and where the paint has faded and peeled (though since I visited it has been refreshed with a new coat of yellow paint). There’s a hatch on the side of it, and when I point it out, the curator tells me the unlikely-but-compelling rumour neighbourhood children would be given a ride inside the ball on their 8th birthday. Looking down over the streets of Millers Point and The Rocks below, I imagine the story taking hold, kids bragging they’d been for a ride in it, others waiting for the day when they’d have their turn.
The whole spread of the harbour is visible from here. In the west, the sun has almost slipped below the horizon, lighting up the low clouds in the east. As the light quickly fades, the white and red lights of the cars travelling across the bridge seem to increase in brightness.
As always when I see the harbour from this perspective, I can’t help but thinking of time differently. The time ball represents the colonial perception of time, as something to be measured and controlled, but the harbour carries the ancestral time of this land’s first peoples, and the geologic time of the land’s formation. The skies have shifted over the harbour throughout all these times – the clouds, the changing elements, the positions of the stars above – and been observed in different ways. I am one of countless observers who have watched the sunset from this hill, as I stand here beside the metallic sun of the time ball, thinking about the day moving into night, watching the scene below me change.
Big thanks to the curators and editors at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences who have guided me in my research.
After trading for 55 years, Lawson’s Record Centre is closing. At 380 Pitt Street is the last remaining of what was once a row of secondhand record stores on this block between Liverpool and Goulburn streets. When I started shopping there the top three on this stretch were Ashwoods, The Pitt, and Lawson’s. At that time there was a vast vacant lot across from the record stores, the whole block between Pitt and George Street empty. The Anthony Horderns department store had stood here until it was demolished in the 1980s. But I paid the vacant lot little attention. The city had many such holes at the time, on pause between demolition and development. Instead my energies were focussed on the record stores, and what I might find within.
I found records inside them, of course, but as much as I enjoyed looking through the racks, I enjoyed being in the stores themselves. They were cluttered, serious places, dense with records and books, with layers of gig posters decorating their walls. Their mood was one of studious attention to the pursuit of treasure, and I joined the searchers with enthusiasm. When I was a teenager books and music were my lifeline. I navigated the city with subcultural intent, frequenting the record book stores, navigating by the cinemas and arcades.
Approaching Lawsons this feeling returns to me, although the rest of the street has changed and is now mostly restaurants. Through the door I can see the long rows of boxes inside, through to the back wall lined with 7″ records. As I turn to go in I note the handwritten sign in the window thanking customers for their support and announcing that the last day is April 27th. Once through the narrow entranceway lined by vinyl records, I see this date is also marked on the calendar affixed to the pinboard behind the counter. There’s a circle around the last Saturday in April and the words “last day of Lawson’s” written below it.
Knowing that this may well be their last visit, the store is busy with people searching through the records and CDs, heads down, flipping through. As I browse ’50s 60s R&B’ a man beside me explains to his son the system of alphabeticising artists under their first names, one of the store’s quirks.
I turn my attention to the walls and their layers of posters. My favourite, which has been on the wall since the first time I came to the store in the 1990s, is the State Rail fare evasion poster that shows a figure being consumed by a Tyrannosaurus Rex. “There are harsh penalties for those without a ticket”, ran a line of text at the bottom of the poster. No matter how often the LPs displayed on the rack below it changed, the day-glo scene of prehistoric fare evasion was a constant.
Lawson’s too has been a constant, a reminder of an era of the city that now has fewer and fewer traces. Climbing rents have now priced it out of the city, a familiar story for other secondhand book and record dealers such as Goulds, which had to downsize from its iconic Newtown store last year, also due to increases in rent. Another stalwart of the city book and record store circuit, Comic Kingdom, closed in recent years, and the copies of Captain America and Spiderman grow ever-dustier in its unchanging front window.
For many years Lawson’s has been the last store left of its kind in the city, but now its time is coming to a close. A For Lease sign is displayed in the front window beside David Bowie and Prince. But inside, for these final weeks, it has the same atmosphere of studious searching, looking through, hoping for treasure.
For a guide to Sydney’s record stores see Diggin’ Sydney map of record stores.
In the floral calendar of Sydney, after the pink of the crepe myrtles in late summer comes the velvet purple of the tibouchinas. Like the city’s most renowned non-native flowering tree, the jacaranda, the tibouchina also originated in Central and South America. Yet the tibouchina is still an unfamiliar name to many, even if their iridescent purple blooms are a recognisable marker of the change of season.
For most of the year the dark green leaves and slim branches of tibouchina trees seem unexceptional, camouflaged by other garden plantings. But in March and April, when in bloom, they flare into a mass of intense colour. Like jacarandas, they transform streets into constellations of purple. This purple is richer, darker, as befits the time of year when the days grow shorter, and there’s a briskness to the air, a colder wind. Pale mauve jacarandas flowers are light, airy spring; deep purple tibouchina flowers are the dark of the lengthening autumn nights.
A tibouchina – or as they are were then known, the Lasiandra – formed part of a Horticultural Society Exhibition in 1869; by 1887 they were being grown and sold in nurseries. By the 1920s the tibouchina was a familiar tree in suburban gardens along Australia’s east coast, and the beauty of their flowers was celebrated: “The head-piece of most of the shrubs is just covered with loveliness”, extols one 1928 article, “lasiandra is a gem thing”.
Today tibouchinas can be seen across city parks and gardens, usually in isolation, but in some areas such as in Ashfield and Summer Hill, they have been used as street trees, forming an autumn corridor of bright colour. It is a surprise to turn a corner and encounter such a street, as if colours have inverted, the greens changed to purple, as if they have pulled the last of the summer’s heat from the air, in order to glow so richly.
Maybe it has been a little while since I’ve travelled up this stretch of Parramatta Road, or maybe it happened suddenly, but now there’s a great gap between Pyrmont Bridge Road and Mallett Street, where a whole block of buildings have been demolished. The light is the first thing I notice, how the demolition has opened the streetscape to the sky. I try to remember what had been there. A golf store, that’s right (and before that, a building supplies store distinguished by a window display that included a mannequin on a toilet) and a 1930s bank building with a brick and sandstone facade, a gym, then a row of former warehouses that had been repurposed as furniture stores. It was a bleak stretch: the other side of the road more favoured by pedestrians, with its slightly more appealing businesses – a toy store, vacuum cleaner store, and school with a row of jacaranda trees along the fenceline.
There’s no signage – apart from advertising – on the hoardings that seal off the block, but soon perhaps it will come, extolling the benefits of the Westconnex M4-M5 link tunnel, for which this land has been cleared. This will be a tunnelling site, from where the drilling machinery bore in to create the tunnel that will undercut Parramatta Road Creek on a path between Haberfield and St Peters. On the Westconnex website, a progress bar announces the works for the overall scheme to be now 47% complete. When I click on the “connecting communities” icon, a message comes up: “You are not authorized to access this page”. The benefits to communities may be concealed but other information is more easily accessed. I find out that the start of this year local residents had the opportunity to vote on the preferred colour of the hundred-metre-long construction shed that is to be built here to mask the drilling operations: mangrove, ironstone, or shale grey?
For now, the site is still being cleared, the remains of the buildings and their utility lines still in the process of being removed. The shed of mangrove/ironstone/shale grey corrugated iron is yet to be constructed. As I look across this newly opened stretch of land, I notice there are a few remaining buildings, a small cluster at the narrow end of the block. The wall at the edge of them has a sliced-cake look, and reveals a vertical strip of ghost signs: CASHDOWN, then below, Brown and Dobinson, with the note they have “removed to 145 Australia Street Camperdown”, and below it the tail end of a logo, interrupted by a doorway: “-oid”. Whatever it is, it is “Perfect”, the one full word to remain on this section of the wall.
I stand by the gate, looking up at the sign, trying to decode it, as the works go on inside: digging and churning, clods of earth and splinters of building rubble being chewed by yellow excavators. It would be useful if they could remove a few more bricks from the wall to resolve anothe letter of “oid”, but I don’t try my luck with the asking the man at the gate, who has already shifted the blue mesh that covers the wire so I can take a photo through the fence.
Later I get to sleuthing, find out that Cashdown was the C. Ashdown Carriage Company, that in 1913 it manufactured items such as Buggies, Phaetons, Buckboards, Sulkies, with or without Rubber Tyres, to suit pony or horse.
I feel as if I, too, am “under the paint” as I work to solve the puzzle, inside a network of details. On the way home I go past the building on Australia Street to where the motor garage Brown and Dobinson removed in the 1930s, though it reveals to me no further information. I take the fragments of the words “oid” and “ouer” and they rattle around in my head like an unsatisfying Scrabble hand. But then, like Cashdown became C. Ashdown, I realise “ouer” is probably “quer”, and I guess that “quer” is probably “lacquer”, which means “oid” is possibly an automotive paint.
A chain of associations stretches out, across time, and the city and its transport technologies. C. Ashdown closed in 1919, as the automotive era was about to begin, giving way to the motor garages, petrol station and car dealerships that are still a large part of Parramatta Road’s landscape, as much as it is reshaped, on and under the surface. A hundred years on cars dominate this landscape, and will continue to do so into the future, as the land is carved up to accommodate them. A sign such as this one is a chance to slice a few layers back through the recent past, to consider how much, and how little, has changed.
(update: I worked it out with the help of my fellow sleuth David Lever: the sign is advertising, as I suspected, an enamel automotive paint called “Lusteroid“… though now the sign has lost its lustre…)
As I look up at the Orchards Corner clock – it is 2pm but one of its faces says 5:20 and the other 7:25 – the crackle of a round of fireworks erupts from the direction of Chinatown. I follow the source of the sound, walking down Quay Street until I catch sight of two red and gold lions, cavorting amid a cloud of fireworks smoke outside the noodle shops in the courtyard on Thomas Street. Once the fireworks have burnt through, the lions move on slowly, further into Chinatown, as people descend on the pile of red fireworks papers with brooms, sweeping it up before the wind can disperse it.
I watch until the lions dance across the street, and then turn towards the restaurants on the ground floor of the Prince Centre, the mall that fills the corner block. The restaurant I know best here is the Chinese Noodle house, with its plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling, tapestries hanging on the walls, and the tables in a tetris-like arrangement that leaves only just enough space to sit down at them. For years I came regularly to the noodle house before realising that it was connected to the mall behind it on Quay Street. On the Quay Street side it has a plain facade, but on the Thomas Street side the building tapers to a point, opening up into a courtyard with glass stairwells at either end.
For as long as I’ve been visiting them I’ve loved the malls in Chinatown: the mirrored interiors, escalators and food courts and the travel agencies, hairdressers, fashion boutiques and herbalists, that are collected within. Aside from the busy food courts, the malls have a mood of quiet industriousness, their businesses tucked away above street level, there for those who need or want to find them. The majority of Chinatown’s malls were built in the 1980s, and Prince Centre is a good example, with its pink granite tiles, peach and grey colour scheme, and palm trees. One tree is interred inside an octagonal glass box alongside what is now a drained water-feature, which makes a perfect place to sit to wait for a table in the Chinese Noodle House. Sometimes the proprietor of this establishment comes out with a violin under his chin and plays a tune, using the acoustics of the courtyard to good effect.
On the Quay Street side of the Prince Centre there was, until its partial renovation a few years ago, a cascading crystal light feature and a ceiling decorated by thousands of white scales, which produced a shimmering, seashell-interior effect.
This interior was modernised in 2015, and replaced with a plain ceiling instead, although some of the 80s details persist.
The next mall of this kind is at the corner of Hay Street and Thomas Street: the Citymark, on the lower two levels of a late-80s-era office building. It is a fairly plain commercial building, but upon scrutiny of its facade it looks recognisably dated, a product of the late 1980s, as certainly as shoulder pads in a jacket. To build it, an 1800-seat picture theatre was demolished, one of the many that were built in Haymarket in the early 20th century, when this was the city’s theatre district.
The Citymark cuts through from Thomas Street to George Street, through an arcade of shops selling products such as shoes, cosmetics, and rice cookers. I often take it as a shortcut, but rarely have a need to venture upstairs. As is usually the case, the upper levels of the malls is a tranquil place, with few people around. I startle when I look through the window of a shop with a plain facade and see two headless mannequins in hazmat suits poised for action (the fork and spoon were a clue to its identity: it’s the office for a restaurant delivery service).
Across from this store is China Books, which has a copy of The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar in the window, and a view out towards Dixon Street and the Market City mall.
Of all of the Chinatown malls, Market City has the most conventional interior, and perhaps the most bizarre exterior, a postmodern collage of architectural features. Built to incorporate the shell of the 1909 market building, Market City resembles a rambling castle, with turrets and columns and cupolas, the kind a child might draw to fill up a sheet of paper. At the back of the castle, a residential tower of 48 storeys mushrooms up, so tall and embedded within the overall structure it seems oddly invisible from street level.
I have an affection for the one square window in the brick wall beside the Ultimo Road entrance of Market City, through which piles of folders are visible. It is the only window on an otherwise-windowless long wall, and after looking up and noticing it once, it has been conspicuous to me ever since.
Across Hay Street from Market City is Dixon Street, its ceremonial gates with green-tiled canopies marking each end of the pedestrianised section that forms the Dixon Street mall. The pedestrian mall was created in 1980, when the street was closed to traffic, a deliberate attempt to formalise the area’s identity as Sydney city’s Chinatown. There has been Chinese businesses in this area since the 19th century, although the location of Chinatown had moved a number of times before this: first in The Rocks, then Surry Hills, before settling in Haymarket. Although now Dixon Street is thought of as Chinatown’s centre, its boundaries have shifted and continue to do so. In the early 20th century, Chinatown was thought of as spanning Surry Hills and Haymarket: “a winding dragon with its head in Campbell Street, its body curling up Ultimo Road and its tail in Dixon Street”. The creation of the mall in 1980 settled Chinatown into this part of the city, reclaimed land which was once a swamp with a creek which fed into Tumbalong/Darling Harbour.
The lion dancers are at the end of Dixon Street now, and I watch them tossing their heads, dipping and weaving, as the fireworks bang and sizzle. Throughout their dance, Elder Paik stands at the side of the gates, continuing to spin a green hula hoop from his usual busking position. Paik, who is now in his 80s, is reliably found in this spot, wearing white facepaint and outfits wreathed in fake flowers, twirling a hula hoop around his hips. Underneath the crackle of the fireworks the drummers beat out a steady rhythm, giving the lion’s steps a regular pace.
There is a crowd of people around the lion dancers and so I walk up to the very end of the Dixon Street mall, skipping over Sussex Centre and Dixon House for the time being, until I reach the Harbour Plaza building at the northern end. It is best known as the location of Eating World, the chthonic food court on the ground floor with its rows of worn and sticky laminex tables. For many years the bar here was staffed by a man who had an impressive crest of lacquered hair and always wore a cravat, a style which made me feel I should be ordering a cocktail rather than a chrysanthemum tea.
Underneath Eating World is an arcade which, on this Saturday afternoon, is deserted apart from a few people sitting inside their stores: a nail salon, a foot massage place with decals of huge hands pressing into huge feet, and a real estate agency which had, hung up in the doorway, a lettuce for the lions, a red envelope attached to it with a toothpick.
I could hear from the drums that the lions were approaching, so I doubled back along the mall and into the Sussex Centre, the brighter of the two central Dixon Street malls. Both it and Dixon House have interiors like an Escher engraving, their plentiful escalators producing a confusing optical effect, but Sussex House particularly so, as the levels of shops ascend in a series of ramps that lead up to the food court on the top level. As I walk inside the Sussex Centre I remember that in the 1990s there used to be a Laserdisc shop on the Sussex Street side of the shopping centre (for those who don’t remember them: CDs the size of vinyl LPs, pretty much redundant by 2000). In the 90s I’d pass by it on my way upstairs to have a Happy Chef laksa, sitting at the window facing the old Boyd and Hanlon produce store building on Sussex Street. Until recently it was decorated by faded L and P signs, an advertisement that I enjoyed for its lack of supplementary signage.
My favourite Chinatown mall is Dixon House, on the corner of Little Hay Street. Built inside the shell of what was formerly a Myer warehouse, it was completely remodelled in 1983, when it was bought by the heiress to the Tiger Balm fortune, a Hong Kong businesswoman named Sally Aw. She sold it in the 1990s, and then it was sold again last year, and described in the article announcing this as a “D-grade commercial building”.
Building grades are probably not the same as movie-grades, but even so, I will spring to Dixon House’s defence. My love of it comes from it being an 80s time-warp, with mirrored ceilings and columns, pink walls and carpet, artificial plants and a collection of small, independent businesses. Like Eating World its basement food court has a worn atmosphere, although it does have the additional novelty of the mirrored ceiling.
At the Dixon Street entrance are two directories that list the businesses inside, some of which seem to no longer be in residence, including the enigmatic Dockets and Forms Australia Pty Ltd. Escalators lead to the upper levels, and underneath them is a watch store, with a Seiko neon sign of a diamond. The usual Chinatown mall collection surrounds it: travel agencies, fashion boutiques and hairdressers. At the Sussex Street entrance is the tiny office for John Wong, Chinese Soothsayer, which has photos of him with prominent past politicians and at local events in the window.
I step onto the escalator, entering more deeply into Dixon House’s peaceful, mirrored world. Mirrors reflect off mirrors, so the journey up the escalators appears to be transporting multiple versions of me forwards, backwards, upside down and into other dimensions.
In the back corner of the top level is the legendary Ching Yip coffee lounge, a Hong Kong-style cafe-restaurant. Enter through under the pink neon sign and you find yourself in a pink and grey, laminex and vinyl oasis, soon examining a menu printed on pink paper, listing hundreds of items, from Hot Lemon Coke and Hot Tea & Coffee Mix to rice, pasta and borscht. In the corner, a cake fridge glows, its contents mostly lemons.
When I come to Ching Yip I usually have jam toast and tea with lemon (it seems important to help out with the lemons), and while I consume these I take in the cool, quiet, pink atmosphere. Tinkly musak plays in the background, and I stare over at the line of tropical fish ornaments behind the counter, and the ads for Fanta and the laminated pink menus offering the afternoon special. Often it’s busy in Ching Yip, but I’m here at an in-between time, and so mostly my company is the artificial palm trees and the framed pictures of flowers and sailboats.
After I finish the tea I leave Ching Yip and descend down via the mirrored escalators, heading towards Dixon Street. The lion dancers have moved through and gone, leaving a trail of the red paper from the firecrackers in their wake. The red scraps mix up with the pink petals from the crepe myrtle trees, which are blooming for this last, humid month of summer. Both the red paper and pink blossoms seem to promise good luck for the new year ahead.