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.