Every time I pass by The Abbey I remember what it had been like on that day I visited it for the house-contents auction in 2009. The rooms with pale, dusty light coming in through the stained-glass windows, the paint peeling from the walls and the crooked, creaking passageways that formed the maze of rooms. People had rambled unescorted through the rooms, some of them looking at the objects up for auction, but most, like me, just curious to see inside.
Ten years on, I’m at The Abbey again, visiting the refurbished house and gardens as part of a focus tour for Sydney Open. Being November, the jacaranda trees are flowering, two purple clouds above bright pink bougainvillea. This frames the house, with its tower and gothic-arch windows and gargoyles.
The house feels different – lighter, more orderly – but the details of it are much the same. The entrance, with its blue ceiling painted with golden stars, opens out into the central hallway, which has a tiled floor and stencilled patterns of dragons and flowers on the walls. I pause here, deciding which way to turn. As with my visit ten years before, the house is open to walk through without restriction, and there are many doorways to choose from.
I choose the tower, and climb up the wide staircase, past the goddesses in the stained glass windows, and the entrances to bedrooms and sitting rooms, following the narrowing staircase up to the room at the top. From here I can see the smoke haze over the city, the silver stretch of harbour water, the roads choked with Saturday morning traffic. From this vantage point there seems to be barely any movement below, although I know that on ground level, out there, it would feel very different. It is tranquil in the tower room, and I sit on the cushioned bench under the windows until I can hear another visitor’s footsteps ascending.
The Abbey is a house of details, and every wall, floor and fixture has some kind of pattern or motif to distinguish it, or a painted figure to keep watch, whether it be a goddess chiselling a sculpture, bearded gents carousing, or owls or cockatoos. The house feels alive with these characters, as if they hold within them something of the spirits of the many people who have lived here over the last century. These figures have watched cycles of residents move through, have watched the house fall into disrepair, and have seen its restoration.
The sunroom where I remember spending a few minutes on the auction day – watching the rain coming in and noticing the tendrils of vine that had snaked in from the outside – is now clear and neat, and the sun shines through the stained-glass windows. It’s an office now, with a desk and shelves and the regular details of a contemporary room. I go to look out through the patterned panes at the houses on the streets below, their front gardens decorated with giant spiderwebs made of torn-up sheets (Halloween was a few nights earlier, and Annandale houses seem to favour giant spiders in giant webs as their decoration).
The house is made up of three sections: the main wing with the tower, a connecting annexe with a long colonnade that looks over the garden, which leads to another, smaller, wing of the house. On the ground floor of the annexe is the kitchen, outside which the house’s owners chat to visitors and their two old, friendly dogs lean in for a pat.
It’s a house that excites your imagination, one of the visitors says. Yes, says another, I’ve always wondered what it is like in here. All through the house people are saying much the same as this, for it is indeed one of those houses that sets you wondering, trying to imagine what it might be like to step inside. Sometimes, on rare occasions, you get the chance, to see how it is now, to imagine how it might have been, and to look out from the windows at the harbour and the city beyond.
Thank you to Sydney Open for another year of excellent tours and openings – there’s still tickets for tomorrow if you’re reading this before Sunday Nov. 3rd and haven’t bought one yet! I’m doing a talk in the Members Lounge at 1:30pm too.
This year during Sydney Open I’m going to go on a tour of The Abbey, on Johnston Street in Annandale. I thought, as Part 1 to the story, I’d reflect on my first visit, in 2009, when the house and its contents were up for auction.
If you know Annandale, you will know the Witches Houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions on the high side of Johnston Street with tall narrow spires like enormous witch’s hats. The subject of many generations’ fantasies of mansion-living, they preside over the street and the small terrace houses that cluster along the low-lying streets below. In the 1880s the block had been bought by the architect John Young, and eight grand houses built. Most of them remain, although in the 1960s two were demolished and replaced with red-brick apartment blocks that are now conspicuous in their plainness.
At first my attention had been attracted by Kenilworth, the house at the eastern end of the row. It has the tallest spire, which extends down in a column from top to bottom like a Victorian-era rocket-ship. But over time, often passing by them, my favourite of all the houses became the one on the corner. Up until the late-2000s it was partially hidden by tall trees and vines, which grew over the sandstone wall around it. Known as the Abbey, it had the look of an archetypal haunted house, overgrown, spooky and mysterious.
The story was that, in 1881, John Young had built it for his wife, as an enticement for her to join him in Sydney. It is an unusual kind of lure, a sprawling, neo-gothic castle, made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone and attended by gargoyles, with rows of long, narrow stained glass windows, which give it the look of a reconstituted church. She was not enticed, and the house went on to various uses and fortunes. In the early 20th century, being so large and being located in the then-working-class suburb of Annandale, it was divided up into apartments, before being returned to the one owner when it was bought by the Davis family in 1959.
I’d long-wondered what it was like inside. Many people knew: it had been notorious for the parties held there, and in the Davis-era the house saw many visitors and residents. The Abbey’s patriarch was Geoffrey Davis, a medical doctor and member of the the mid-twentieth-century group of left-wing and anti-authoritarian writers and intellectuals known as the Sydney Push. Reading into the house’s history, I was particularly interested to find out that the writer Christina Stead, author of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, The Man Who Loved Children, and For Love Alone, had lived here at the very end of her life in 1982.
Dr Davis died in 2008, and shortly afterwards the house, and all its contents, were put up for sale. One weekend the house was open for the viewing of the contents auction. My chance to visit had arrived. Many others were also taking the opportunity, as the rooms seethed with people. Inside, the rooms seemed joined together in a confusing maze, all different sizes and levels of formality. I examined the miscellaneous objects displayed within them as I moved through the warren of interconnecting chambers. Everything was a bit dusty and motheaten, leather upholstery cracked, paint and wallpaper peeling, the rooms smelling of cats.
The objects on display were the strange, stranded junk of a lifetime and beyond: phonographs, collections of shells, magic lantern slides, landscape paintings, 78rpm records, cloisonne vases, a zither, bevel-edged mirrors, tiles painted with butterflies or scenes from Shakespeare. Everything that could be removed from the house had a tag dangling from it, from the chandeliers to a box containing rusty tins of shoe polish. I had a printed booklet in my hand but soon gave up trying to correlate the listings with the objects and just moved through the rooms, trying to imagine myself there decades before, at one of the notorious parties.
At the time of the auction of the house and of its contents, there were many articles in the media about The Abbey. Some of these included interviews with members of the Davis family who had grown up in the house. My favourite detail was from one of his children, who had admitted that it “had been difficult moving on to regular homes after a youth in the Abbey”.
I tried to imagine it as I stood in a long, narrow sunroom at the side of the house. One of the panels in the stained glass windows was missing, and rain was coming in, down onto the vases on the table below. This rainy sunroom was the only room I’d been in alone, and I felt as if I was playing a game of hide and seek as I stood there, looking at a collection of shells in a box. Inside it there was a crumpled, unfilled-in application for a dog license in between a conch and a nautilus shell, and I smoothed it out and replaced it, feeling like I, too, had ended up here at random, among all the miscellaneous objects that were soon to be moved off elsewhere.
I’ve dropped a few hints here and there, but with its release date coming soon, it’s time to announce that Mirror Sydney will be released as a book in October! Published by Giramondo, it’s an unconventional city atlas: a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, based on this blog, telling some of the stories of Sydney’s lesser-known, hidden, secret and strange places and histories, charting the city’s atsmospheres, and celebrating its recent past.
There will be a launch in October, as well as some tours and other fun things, which I’ll announce as the time draws near. For now, I’ll run through some of the cover stars.
- Hotel Westend
The mustard expanse of the Hotel Westend’s side wall, with its promise of 100 suites, is like a sunrise amid the surrounding towers. The tall, skinny building with the tall skinny wild-west-style sign seems a portal into a past era of city hotels, the kind that have steak houses on the premises and boast wall-to-wall carpet as a special feature.
The Westend is currently a backpackers, but not for much longer: it was recently sold and is destined for refurbishment, including unfortunately “replacing the letters on the sign to reflect the new name”. This new name seems to be “Ibis Budget Sydney Central“. If the Westend sign must go, I can only hope for its replacement to be an animated neon sign of an ibis dipping its long beak into a rubbish bin.
2. Kenilworth Witches’ House
On the high ridge at the end of Johnston Street are the witches’ houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions that were built in the 1880s, designed by architect John Young. Kenilworth is the tallest and most immediately striking of the houses for its tall, central spire (like a witches’ hat – hence the name) and imperious position. It once had a twin, an identical house next door, that was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a block of red-brick flats. But Kenilworth still has two other companions: to the other side are twin houses with spires on the side, built for John Young’s daughters.
Kenilworth is a fantasy house with its tower and gargoyles, seemingly plucked from a gothic fairytale and transplanted into the Sydney suburbs. It’s a house for dreaming about, wondering what it would be like to peer out its high windows. I still imagine I live in it every time I go past, with my pet raven and library with red velvet curtains and ladders against the bookshelves. All cities need these dream houses, places for wishes and desires to be planted.
3. Fibro Houses
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the gothic mansion are the fibro houses of the south western suburbs. Built in profusion after the second world war, these houses were quickly and easily assembled, and were a haven for many families who had moved from the overcrowded inner-city, or come to Australia as post-war migrants. Although many have been demolished to be replaced by houses twice their size, many still remain, especially around Bankstown and its surrounding suburbs.
These houses are bittersweet: their pastel colours and heart-shaped decorations belying the toxic material from which they were fabricated. They are a manifestation of 1950s and 60s suburban idealism, their neat proportions aspiring to a similarly neat life within their walls. They’re humble houses but proud ones, each customised with different colour paint, or different types of plants in the garden, or house numbers accompanied by silhouettes of horses and carriages. Their pale, thin walls give them an appearance of lightness, of malleability: Patrick White described them in Tree of Man as “brittle in moonlight, soluble in dreams”.
They are a type of house I know well, for I live in one very similar, and know its moods well. Fiercely hot in summer, icy in winter, the walls feel thin like they’re made of cardboard. Mid-afternoon, when all is still outside, I look out the window and imagine the street as it would have been when the house was built in 1960, and the past seems almost graspable, just under the skin of the present.
If you have spent time in Annandale some time in the last forty years, you would know this piece of graffiti that has been on the corner of Collins and Johnston Streets since 1977:
It’s a lot more faded these days and barely readable – this photo was taken at least 10 years ago. I read it almost like a poem, set out in a stanza, my favourite parts “taking, sneaking” and “what more can I say?” as the ending, like the writer has thrown their hands up in the air at the dishonourable scene that passed by in 1977.
What distinguishes this graffiti is firstly its longevity. It has few remaining contemporaries, apart from the slightly earlier (c.1970) Stop Vietnam War graffiti still visible on the sandstone rock face below the Tarpein Way at the end of Macquarie Street, facing the Opera House.
1970 and 1971 saw large-scale Vietnam War protests in Sydney with the three moratorium marches, the last of which occurred shortly before Australian troops were withdrawn. By the end of the 1970s peace was again the focus of activism, as was environmentalism. The anti-nuclear lobby had grown in strength and marches and demonstrations were held in capital cities across Australia. There were also a series of Rides Against Uranium, with groups cycling from Melbourne and Sydney to Canberra to protest against uranium mining and export.
The second distinguishing feature of the Annandale “taking, sneaking” message is that, unlike most graffiti, it marks a particular event that happened at that place at a specific time. By reading these words I imagine the convoy of trucks travelling down Johnston Street late at night, past houses and apartment buildings where people slept on, unaware of the radioactive cargo being transported through their suburb. But not everyone was asleep.
Friends of the Earth member Geoff Evans describes the blockades that met the trucks at White Bay, “protesting shipments of yellowcake from Lucas Heights being secretly spirited out in massively guarded convoys of trucks speeding through Sydney’s suburbs in the dead of night, only to be exposed by an elaborate network of activists alerted by the Lucas Heights campers, and mobilised through elaborate ‘phone trees’ that could get hundreds of protesters to the wharves within an hour.”
Things came to a head in September 1977. Around 200 protesters, and 240 police (numbers given in news reports at the time) were down at the wharves when the trucks carrying the yellowcake arrived. Some of the demonstrators sat down on the road to prevent the trucks moving through and were dragged off one-by-one by police, and some arrested. There is a painting by Toby Zoates (painted in 2015), who was one of the protesters, showing the scene as he remembers it (or as his “fantasy wishfully remembers” it). He describes the scene of the protest, then the benefit gig he organised to help pay the fines of those arrested.
But who painted the graffiti on the wall in Annandale? I don’t know, but I’m not the first to wonder. In 1993 two filmmakers sent out a request in the Sydney Morning Herald to try and find the writer, although the film doesn’t seem to have gone ahead. In the article one of the filmmakers said: “if we don’t find the person who did it, it will remain an unsolved mystery”.
In 1993 the filmmakers also said:”It’s been there since 1977 – that’s a long time for a little piece of graffiti”. Now it is forty years since the trucks passed by taking, sneaking.
The words are very faded and unless you had seen them there in the days when they were more visible and knew to look for them, you would probably pass by them without noticing. They are painted on a low wall, at calf-height, so I imagine whoever painted them sat on the pavement to do it, daubing each letter with a paintbrush, using the bricks like lines on a page. In their unusual position the words are like a footnote, annotating this place with one of its secrets.
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:
Across the city are the solitary remains of grand buildings and structures. They stand like sentinels as the city grows and changes around them, memorials that mark forgetting as much as remembrance. They’re lonely things, firmly planted in places that either you’d not expect or not notice.
At Bradley’s Head in Mosman is one such stranded memorial, a column positioned in the shallow waters just off the headland. Once it supported the portico of the Sydney General Post Office, one of six Doric columns added in the 1840s to enhance the grandeur of the building. When it was demolished in 1868, to be replaced by the palatial new GPO building which still stands at the corner of Martin Place, the columns were sold and sent off to varied fates.
In 1888 the Illustrated Sydney News described how the columns had been moved to the harbour as steering guides for ships: “The glistening white obelisks can be seen towering above the surrounding foliage, and one after another come into view as a vessel, entering the heads, steers up channel. One of these pillars occupies a very conspicuous situation on the low water rocks running out from Bradley’s Head.”
As curious a thought as it is to imagine a procession of Doric columns along the harbour, the majority of references to the columns trace them thus: one at Bradley’s Head used as a distance marker (one nautical mile from Fort Denison), another at North Sydney, used as a north marker for telescopes from the Observatory, and two (or three, depending on the source) others made into gateposts for the mansion “Melrose” near Centennial Park, then Vaucluse House.
The Bradley’s Head column has a marooned look, rising up from the harbour waters, like it is the victim of some kind of accident of time travel between ancient Greece and the present day. The days of its use in sea trials – testing newly built vessels for seaworthiness – are past, and now it stands as a counterpoint to the city, an exiled fragment.
One of its siblings can be found in a much busier location, in the Mount Street Plaza at North Sydney.
It is on a plinth at the end of the pedestrianised mall, where people sit on benches eating lunch, and on the day I visited, a man at an improvised stall takes advantage of the newly released Star Wars film, and spruiks light sabres (and silk ties – the perfect office combination) for $5 each.
A plaque on the base of the column traces its journey, from the GPO on George Street in the city, to the grounds of Crows Nest House, then Bradfield Park under the Harbour Bridge.
In 1988 the construction of the Harbour Tunnel saw the column move to its current location, and it is now destined to move yet again. As of 2013 Mount Street Plaza has been renamed Brett Whiteley Place, and there are plans to replace the column with a reproduction of the Whiteley artwork ‘Totem’ – an egg atop a pole (but not atop the column). The column has an uncertain fate, beyond its relocation to an as yet unspecified location. The fate of the donut fountains in the centre of the plaza has also been debated. They were designed by Robert Woodward, who made his name with one of Sydney’s best known fountains, the dandelion-shaped El Alamein in Kings Cross. The donuts are a meditative presence in the plaza, with the water spilling and trickling in and out of them – and they seem apposite in this zone of fast food shops and lunch breaks.
At Bradley’s Head the interpretive panel had described the fate of three more of the columns: “Three columns were made into the gateposts for a house, Melrose, on Old South Head Road opposite Centennial Park. Later they were moved to Vaucluse House. The whereabouts of these columns are now unknown.”
No they are not – here they are! Cut down from their original height for use as gateposts, and with one missing, but the columns nonetheless.
These columns mark the eastern entrance to Cooper Park in Bellevue Hill, high on the hill above stone steps that lead into the fern gully of the park below. Etched in one is the name “Melrose”, and on the other, a metal plaque announcing the “Stone columns (3) originally formed part of the General Post Office”. The whereabouts of the third column (and the one extra that has no trace, that made up the six) is still a mystery – keep an eye out for stray Doric columns as you go about.
Gateposts are often the only remaining parts of demolished grand homes and can be found planted here and there around the suburbs, often transposed from their original location. In the 19th century Annandale House, the home of the Johnston family, was a landmark of the area, and upon its demolition in 1905, the newspapers lamented its disappearance: “a matter for never-ending regret”, “a thousand pities”.
The gates to Annandale House are now in the grounds of the Annandale Public School, in between the boundary fence and the playground.
They were moved here in 1977 after being rediscovered in a council depot after decades of use at Liverpool Showground. I peer through the fence at them. Each block has patterns chipped into it, vermiculated detailing carved to suggest a worm-eaten pattern, a popular style in the death and decay-obsessed Victorian era. The sandstone wears the stains and erosion from the atmosphere, and the marks of the masons who long ago shaped it into blocks.
Another set of relocated gates are at Richardson’s Lookout in Marrickville, which once were in the grounds of The Warren, a Victorian Gothic mansion built in 1857 for businessman Thomas Holt.
The name comes from the rabbits which Holt had brought in for hunting on his estate, which also included such exotic imports as alpacas (though presumably not for hunting). The house was a mixture of castle and homestead, equally grand and eccentric and Holt shaped his estate as a kind of pleasure-ground, with a Turkish bath and landscaped gardens. After Holt returned to England The Warren became a nunnery, and then a military training camp, before being demolished in 1919.
The pillars were placed on the hilltop above the Cooks River in 1968 and stand there like two skinny castles among the grassy expanse of the park. When I visit them I find a group of kids clustered around them, using the rough edges of the sandstone blocks as hand and footholds to climb them. One boy is particularly good at it and gets two thirds of the way up, until the smooth upper section prevents him from reaching the top.
Other stranded gateposts have been more recently abandoned, like those that once held the sign to Luna Park on Alfred Street in Milsons Point.
The sign was constructed in the 1930s by Luna Park and went through a number of different designs: the one I most remember being “Welcome to North Sydney” which I’d look for from up on high as the train approached Milsons Point station. While these columns haven’t been moved around, they do appear rather lonely, the proposed restoration of the sign stalled since 2004, perhaps forgotten.
Once I got to thinking about it there are plenty of stranded columns or stones around the city. The walls and gates from demolished grand houses in Darling Point still form the boundaries of apartment buildings, here and there you might come across an old milestone (for the location of these consult the comprehensive: Discovering Australia’s Historical Milemarkers and Boundary Stones by Robert and Sandra Crofts).
Of all of them, my favourite resting place for stranded stones is at the edge of the Botanic Gardens, on a hill sloping down from the Cahill Expressway, the area known as the Tarpeian Way. Here bits and pieces of city buildings and structures lie half-buried in the grass.
This is an artwork, called “Memory is Creation Without End” by Kimio Tsuchiya, constructed in 2000. Despite knowing this the fallen stones and columns appear to have been organically, rather than deliberately, placed. This quiet spot at the city’s edges has the tall buildings of the present-day city rising up in the background. But here fragments of the Sydney of the past sink and settle into the earth. These pieces form their own discontinuous story, created in the thoughts of those who wander among them.
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.
The creek first appears off Salisbury Road, beyond a patch of unkempt grass. Ivy trails down into the concrete channel, where a stream of milky stormwater flows north towards the harbour. On one side of it are light industrial buildings, once jam and ginger beer manufacturers, now offices. On the other side is Cardigan Street and its rows of small, brick houses. The creek runs covertly between their back fences and the back walls of the old factories.
Creeks cut through the Sydney suburbs, tracing out seismographic patterns. They are an enduring feature of the landscape, even if, like Johnstons Creek, they have become a stormwater drain. Johnstons Creek still follows roughly the same path as it did before the land was cleared and the streets constructed. In Sydney it is the water which has determined the topography, the erratic outline of the bays and inlets of the harbour. Creeks form boundaries and often a suburb’s borders will run along the path of a creek.
Annandale is enclosed by two creeks, Johnstons and Whites. Both now are concrete channels which drain stormwater into the harbour, running behind back fences, or through strips of parkland, until they reach Rozelle Bay. Of the two creeks Johnston is the longest and more visible. For years I lived very close to it, near where it crosses Parramatta Road. I took solace in its persistence. It seemed unlikely there would be a creek running through the cluttered, concrete environs of Parramatta Road. The creek ran down behind the 24 hour McDonalds, where fights broke out in the trash-strewn carpark. It passed under the road and then down underneath the junkyard at the end of my street, where there was an ever shifting configuration of discards.
Today I am determined to follow the creek down to the bay, keeping close as I can to its path. I stand on the small concrete footbridge behind Cardigan Street, watching the water rushing underneath. It’s a hot day, with screeching cicadas and searing sun. The heat seems to flatten everything. On the nearby street corner men are smoothing new pavement, carefully scoring the edges, trusting the sun to dry the concrete before anyone comes to scratch in their name.
At the end of Cardigan Street is the thunderous traffic of Parramatta Road. When the road was a dusty, but busy, thoroughfare in the 1840s there was a toll gate here at the creek. Now most of the cars cross it without knowing it is even there: the only sign is a small metal plaque on the footpath near the fence, and a cracked “Municipality of Petersham” marker inlaid into the cement.
I cross Parramatta Road and I head down the alleyway to the junkyard. It is still as odd as ever, there are sections of shipping container marked with messages, “White Wolf”, “Blood Storm”, beside the cabin of an old ute up on pallets. I step through a gap in the building site fence to walk up to the arch that overlooks the creek. This had always been a spooky place, this dead end between two old warehouses. The warehouse on the Camperdown side still stands, but on the Annandale side the lot is now a pile of rubble with tall weeds growing up out of it, the remains of the foundations still marking out where the shopfronts used to be.
The path ends at an archway sealed by metal bars. Here the Parramatta Road traffic above is loud but invisible. There’s no one around, only a scruffy black and white stray cat that stares from behind a pile of rusted metal. I put my face to the bars to look down at the water running below. The cool air rushes up to my face from the cavern of wet stone.
From here the creek runs underneath the junkyard path, which I follow along behind a row of houses. One of these I remember as having psychedelic flowers painted all over the side wall, but it is now a sensible white. Dry leaves crackle under my footsteps and the ravens make their see-saw calls from the trees above.
The other side of the junkyard path is also a deserted dead end. Below the fence here the concrete creek channel re-emerges. This section is the easiest to access while still being hidden from view, so it is a haunt of graffiti writers, and the concrete is crowded with tags. But unless I want to follow their lead and climb down into the creek I have to take the long way around. I go through the warehouse back streets towards the forboding, windowless concrete compound that used to be owned by the Commonwealth Bank. When, years ago, I lived in a sharehouse near here sometimes we’d wonder: is that where they kept the gold? Now, like many of the old warehouses nearby, it’s a self storage place, full of oddments and archives.
I’m glad I didn’t hop down into the channel and follow it along, because around the next corner I would have met a group of plumbers and Sydney Water engineers. They are investigating something to the side of the creek, one of the many pipes that drain into it along its route. To them, this is known as “Stormwater Channel No. 55” and forms part of the city’s vast network of drains and channels. They talk for a while and then, their business concluded, a plumber and a Sydney Water technician stand on either side of the stream and shake hands across it.
The channel is wider here. The water slowly gathers force and grows in size as it moves towards the harbour. On either side are tangles of athsma weed and drifts of ivy and wire fencing. The brightly coloured tags continue. Among them are caricatures and faces, a fox holding a syringe full of purple paint, a wizard with a bong. Every gap contains a scribble.
On the other side of Booth Street the mournfully named Orphan School Creek joins the flow of water. The streams meet behind what was once the Children’s Hospital and now is a residential complex. Leading up to the apartment buildings is a set of stairs through a drift of large stones and pebbles. This landscaping is relatively new but has been there for long enough for people to mess with it, stacking the stones into cairns.
This area was once eucalypt forest and the creek a natural freshwater stream running over rocks at the bottom of a gully. The Cadigal and Wangal people lived here, hunting in the forest, fishing in the bay. But by the 1790s this landscape had already changed as the land was cleared by convict labour. Before it was subdivided in the late 19th century, the Johnston estate occupied the area in between Whites Bay and Johnstons Creeks. In some areas of the estate the bushland had regrown, and by the time English economist Stanley Jevons lived in Annandale in 1855, he found a path over Johnstons Creek was more favourable than dusty Parramatta Road.
“…the day before yesterday I found a delightful way to the town through woods and dales instead of along a dusty road. I start off in the wood at our back door, and walk through close tall gum-trees and over picturesque rocks for a full mile, when I come to a stream, an inlet of the harbour; this is crossed by a bridge formed of a large gum-tree which has been blown down and fallen across it, a long row of bullocks’ skulls being laid in the mud as stepping-stones on one side: the view here along the stream is also quite pretty, at least to Australian eyes.”
I like to think of Stanley Jevons hopping from bullock skull to bullock skull in the marshy ground around the creek. I doubt, however, he’d think the concrete drainage channel that would replace the creek as pretty, nor the spraypaint inscriptions on its sides. Despite its lack of prettiness, there is something peaceful about following the path of the creek. It forms a secret passageway between the streets, cutting through underneath the roads, going underground, re-emerging.
Like Jevons, when I lived in Annandale I often walked along Johnstons Creek. My favourite part of the journey was encountering the aqueduct. It was built as part of the sewerage system in the late 19th century and has the distinction of being the first reinforced concrete structure built in Australia. It stretches across the valley like the spine of a gigantic dinosaur, bleached white by the sun.
The aqueduct appears at the back of the Glebe PCYC. Chairs are set up in one of the arches, their legs chained to the nearby fence. Then it passes over the creek, high up on concrete pylons. On Nelson Street, at the aqueduct’s western limit, there is a mural painted on the wall beside it. It is based on a photo of the aqueduct from the time of its construction.
It’s striking how bald the land looks, how blank, the foreground strewn with rubble. The overall effect, enhanced by the grainy black and white photograph, is of a Victorian suburb being constructed on the moon. When Annandale was subdivided and allotments sold in the 1870s it was described by the auctioneers as a “model township”, with “no back lanes” and “the best of drainage”. This distinguished it from the cramped and unhealthy slum areas of The Rocks and Surry Hills and accounts for its wide streets and scattering of grand buildings.
The creek passes underneath The Crescent. By now the channel is even wider, although the water through the middle is still only a trickle. The tags and graffiti have disappeared and the only decorations on the concrete are the streams of water which flow down from the stormwater pipes. On the north side is the building site where the Harold Park Paceway used to be, and now cranes and scaffolds attend the construction of the new development. The Glebe tram sheds, once a derelict wonderland, are barricaded with fences. The access road is presided over by a security guard sitting under a tree, who breaks up the monotony of the day by nodding to everyone who walks past.
There aren’t many people out on this hot day. An elderly man swaddled in clothes, long sleeves, long trousers, a hat, gloves. Joggers with expressions of masochistic vigour. A dog walker with a Griffin Bruxellois, a pug, and a terrier panting at the end of their leads. Althought he’s not out today, this is the territory of Mark, Sydney’s most famous, and happiest, dog walker. When I used to walk here often I’d see him with his cadre of large dogs, telling everyone he passes that Jesus loves them. His basic message is along the lines of “You’re beautiful! Sweet Jesus loves you!”, with endless variations on this theme. He could be counted upon for a unique compliment: “the only person more handsome than your boyfriend is Sweet Jesus!”
The railway viaduct, a long stretch of brick archways, crosses the creek and runs through the park. The arches closest to the oval have been enclosed to form rooms: the Glebe Hockey Club has had its headquarters here since 1960, and now the Big Fag Press and the Glebe Men’s Shed reside here also. Other past uses of the arches include housing a flock of sheep, which were used to trim the grass on the oval. At night they were barricaded in under the arches. Now the this area is mostly the domain of dogs. Under the arch nearest the dog park is a dog memorial wall, with inscriptions for Dougal and Precious, Rasta and Kayne: King of the Park.
Behind the rail line is an overgrown patch of land. The pathway through it, alongside the viaduct, is known as “The Street With No Name”. This is said to be one of Sydney’s most haunted sites. There have been a number of murders here since the 1960s, the bodies found in the undergrowth around the pathway. More benignly, the ghost of a man who was hit by a train when trying to save an injured possum is also said to stalk the nearby railway tracks.
On the other side of the viaduct the fences end and it is easy to step down over the low wall and into the concrete channel. I step over the mossy mud and towards the water. I’ve been following it for an hour or more but this is the first time I’ve been close enough to touch it. But I don’t do this. The water is cloudy, with bubbles of scum on the surface, run-off from last night’s rain.
The bay water and sediment is contaminated by heavy metals after decades of industry. From the 1830s noxious industries like the Glebe Island abbatoir, tanneries and soapworks were established around Rozelle Bay. The terrible smell from the abbatoir, and the offal dumped in the bay was increasingly cause for complaint and it closed in 1915. After these industries were gone the area where the park is now was timber yards, before these were closed in the 1970s. Plans to build a large marina were raised then scrapped, after strong community opposition, and the foreshore has been parkland since 1988.
I walk along the edge of the creek until I come to where it meets the bay. There are clumps of black oyster shells on either side of the inlet, and at the point where the waters merge the colours shift from grey to green. Once this was a landscape of mangroves and mudflats. There are still vestiges of this environment, a mangrove restoration area on one side of the creek mouth and on the other side, a small strip of sand. The sand is patterned with bird footprints like arrows pointing haphazardly across the soft mud. There are more clumps of oyster shells here and the expected kinds of rubbish, plastic packets, a condom, a split and sodden orange. Once I remember looking down into the water here and seeing a dead rat and a passionfruit floating together, a surrealist pairing that at the time seemed a profound environmental message.
I look up across the bay, past the wading ibis at the end of the sandbar, to the cars travelling over the Anzac Bridge. I’m not the only one on the water’s edge. Along the wall solitary people are sitting, at a respectful distance from each other. I’m tempted to think that it’s peaceful here, though I change my mind when I take a moment to listen. The roar of the traffic, planes going overhead, the mad laugh of kookaburras from one of the fig trees. It’s not exactly a peaceful place, but it is a contemplative one. I retreat to the shade and watch the cars travelling over the bridge. Beyond it, floating in the sky near the Harbour Bridge, I’m surprised to see an airship. I blink in case it’s just something floating in my eye but no, it’s like 1986 and the Swan Premium Lager, or the Tooheys blimp is gliding across the sky (except this time it’s advertising Appliances Online).
Across the bay is the superyacht shipyard and beside it a yard with older boats. The old pilot boat John Oxley, built in 1927, its faded red hull is marooned alongside a ferry, a restaurant boat and other miscellaneous craft. Behind the boatyards is the ruin of the White Bay power station, with its two tall chimneys and hulking turbine hall. Almost all of this scene will change in the coming years. The Bays Precinct Urban Transformation Program has plans to regenerate the bay areas, including the power station and the land along the waterfront.
I move along, following the water’s edge. There is a stretch of rocks then a small beach, where a dog wades into the water to retrieve a ball then stands in the shallows, chewing it. The wheezey squeak of the ball in between the dog’s teeth makes a satisfying sound. Beyond the beach there’s a fence and I can go no further. There’s another shipyard here and then a vacant lot, its fence hung with homemade Merry Christmas banners made by Maurice the window washer, who is pacing up and down between the cars in his Santa outfit.
I stop here, looking out over the bay a final time. There had been a junkyard here once, called the Thunderbird, run by a man from Oklahoma. It had a weird and miscellaneous collection of things and the one time I was brave enough to go in there I was drawn to a cardboard box among some rusty machinery. Inside there were half a dozen small brown puppies, which all turned their heads to blink up at me.
I made this map as part of my zine, Disposable Camera, to show the intersection between Annandale and me. It’s a memory map but also a memoir map, showing the six years I lived in Annandale, from 1998 to 2003. The map mostly abandons geography in favour of slippery dips, which represent different avenues of memory. At the centre is the floorplan of the house I lived in, a crumbling and mouldy terrace house that I am surprised to see still standing every time I pass by.
(The story in the zine is about the goth house and being a teenager and gathering clues for how to live from those around you, copies available here.)