This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.
In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.
In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.
This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.
Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.
I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.
The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.
With the reappearance of the Peapes sign at Wynyard has come a wave of interest in Sydney’s ghost signs. A gift to the city wanderer who thinks to look up, these traces of a city past lurk on the facades and side walls of city commercial buildings and former suburban grocers. They are uncovered during demolitions and disappear again as new buildings are constructed. Some are painted over, others are repainted and restored, but most continue to slowly fade until they become indecipherable.
Over the five years I have been writing Mirror Sydney, I have recorded as many as I have come across, to make up this gallery of 100 Sydney ghost signs from the city and the suburbs. Some remain, others have disappeared, and others will, with time, reveal themselves.
For more on ghost signs, I recommend Nick Gadd’s excellent blogs on Melbourne and Mildura, the Ghost Signs Australia blog, Ghost Signs UK and the books Signs of the Times by Geoff Hocking, and the forthcoming Signs of Australia by Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi.
To emerge from the tunnel that leads out of Wynyard Station onto George Street is to enter a sonic mess of construction noise. There are bursts of deep, jarring reverberations and the sounds of metal against concrete, as the demolition of the buildings above the station continues.
As the buildings – the Menzies Hotel, and the 1960s office block Thakral House – have been demolished, the walls of the adjacent buildings have come to light for the first time in 50 years. As Thakral House came down, sunrays appeared at the top of the side wall of the building on the north side, Beneficial House. Then a creature, a dog with a bushy tail, inside a red shield. And then, underneath it, the word PEAPES. At first the hoardings were too high to see much of the sign from street level, but as the demolition continued, the full breadth of the Peapes sign was revealed.
Peapes was a men’s clothing and tailoring department store, which operated out of Beneficial House from when the building was erected in 1923, until the close of the business in February 1971. Its advertising emphasised the “lofty and spacious departments, where a leisurely peace reigns”. The showrooms were fitted out in polished maple, with Doric columns supporting the ceiling and a circular light well at the centre. It was an elegant place, in-keeping with the quality of Peapes’ goods, which were stressed to be of the highest degree.
Peapes’ slogan was “for men AND their sons” (the AND was in upper case, to stress the importance of intergeneration consistency in men’s style) and it was the place to shop if you needed any kind of gentleman’s outfit, from necessities to luxuries: jackets, shirts, hats, shoes, “an unusually smart shirt with tie”, “a distinctive overcoat”, “superior flannel trousers”. Clothes could be bought off the rack or made to measure. Peapes sales representatives also travelled to country towns across Australia to conduct fittings, booking out rooms in hotels, advertising in local papers, for men to come and have their measurements taken for suits.
The store had two tradmarks. The first was the Warrigal – a dingo, Warrigal being the Dharug word for dingo – the one pictured at the top of the wall sign. The second was diarist Samuel Pepys, an ancestor of one the firm’s founders, George Peapes. On the third floor of the department store was the Pepys Room, a common room of sorts, “a room of restful atmosphere…for reading, writing, smoking, or keeping appointments”. The bewigged Samuel Pepys also appeared on the labels of their garments.
Peapes had been operating on George Street since 1866. In 1912, the wealthy businessman W.J. Miles became one of the directors. These days his name may not be a familiar one, but his daughter, Bea, was one of mid-twentieth century Sydney’s most well known characters. Her distinctive figure, in long coat and tennis hat, was a common sight in the city and suburbs, seen climbing in and out of the taxis for which she never paid the fare, or quoting Shakespeare on demand for a fee of sixpence.
The royal blue of the Peapes sign is a bright window into a past Sydney. Thousands of people walk past it daily, and for those who look up and notice it, the texture of the changing city is revealed, its layers and traces. Soon the demolition will be complete. A new building will be constructed, covering over the Peapes name, the sunburst, and the Warrigal dog. But, for this brief moment, it is back in the light.
With thanks to David Lever for Peapes memories and investigations.
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.
I navigate Sydney by my own set of landmarks, places of mystery or memory that form strings of details. Some of these are obvious things, others unassuming, others link to stories personal or historical, rumours or imaginings. As I watch out a train window, or walk a familiar street, the details are my stepping stones.
One particular stretch I know well in this way is the train journey between Central Station and the entrance to the underground city circle railway. This section of track is elevated and there’s a sensation of gliding above the city, looking across the Surry Hills rooftops, a jumbled landscape of old warehouses and storehouses and steep streets.
In particular I look out for Wentworth Avenue and its row of empty warehouses, once tea merchants, factories and offices. Until recently a number of these buildings were owned by the Wakils, the investor couple notorious for amassing properties which they have left vacant for decades. Recently they sold the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House on Wentworth Avenue and both are in the process of being redeveloped. But nothing as yet has happened to my favourite empty Wentworth Avenue warehouse, Sheffield House.
Built around 1916 it is five storeys high with bay windows and rising sun motifs along the top, and originally housed a cutlery and tableware manufacturer. Before Sheffield House was built the area had been a warren of terrace houses and laneways. A sizeable Chinese community lived here as it was close to the Belmore Markets where many worked (the precursor to Paddy’s Markets, then in what is now the Capitol Theatre). After 1905 the area was resumed for slum clearance, the houses and laneways demolished, and wide Wentworth Avenue cut through.
Live in any place long enough and you become attuned to particular mysteries, and one I have long considered is the words on the side of Sheffield House. The white paint on the wall has faded to reveal layers of large, ghostly letters underneath. The words painted here must once have captured attention from a fair distance away, but now they are almost unreadably faded. Every time I passed by I made another attempt to decode the riddle, never giving up hope of cracking the code.
The sign kept up its mystery and I kept up my attempts to decipher it, year after year. As the white paint flaked away the shapes of the letters slowly became more distinct and it got to a point where I almost could make them out. I stopped looking at the surrounding details (other personal landmarks: the Brutalist ex-bank building on the corner of Foveaux St; a cluster of 80s office towers that was once the Tooheys brewery, always with offices for lease; the roof where the sign for Sharpie’s Golf House used to be) and directed my full focus towards it. On the train I made sure to sit on the correct side of the carriage for the clearest view. Down on the street I examined it from different vantage points, at different times of the day, hoping the sun would shine at just the right angle to reveal the mystery.
The day I decoded it wasn’t a moment of train-ride epiphany – my accomplice and I had decided enough was enough and went out with the express intention of deciphering the sign. Our ghost sign reading equipment was a tripod, a homemade wooden stand with a perspex clipboard attached to it, a piece of acetate paper, and a marker pen. We set up against the sandstone viaduct wall on Elizabeth Street, across from the pub I refer to as “Harry’s Singapore Chilli Crab”, after the banner picturing a joyful Harry and a not so happy crab that for years hung above its awning.
We stood there with our contraption, tracing out possible combinations of words. Then we got it! The sloping, cursive script across the wall resolved into the cursive script of “Penfolds” and below it, in block letters, WINES. Underneath it then I could suddenly see the earlier sign for PILLS – and it could only be Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, a patent medicine frequently featured on early twentieth century wall advertisements. After some archive-digging a photograph from the 1920s (below) confirmed my suspicions. To the far left was the ad for Dr Morse’s popular pills, a product purporting to cure biliousness, rheumatism, neuralgia, grippe, palpitation, nervousness and many other early 20th century complaints.
Both Penfolds and Indian Root Pills were common painted advertisements: in a curious parallel, the same ghost sign pairing exists in Abbotsford, Melbourne, as investigated on Melbourne Circle. It is a medicinal pairing: Penfolds wines also began as a therapeutic product. The vineyard was set up in South Australia in 1844 by Dr Christopher Penfold and his wife Mary, and produced fortified wines as a cure for anaemia. By the time this sign would have been painted, Penfolds had focussed on producing table wine, no doubt still regarded as medicinal to some.
There has in recent years been an upsurge of interest in ghost signs, those vestiges of previous eras of advertising that remain, fading on the side walls and upper levels of buildings. Sydney with its penchant for demolition is not particularly known for them, but I guarantee that once you start looking you will find them. Surry Hills’ ghost signs date from its manufacturing past, still faintly advertising overalls and workshirts, printers and chemists.
I know the answer to my Sheffield House ghost sign mystery now, and when I look at the wall from the train I can imagine the 1920s city of Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, when Surry Hills was a busy manufacturing district, or I can imagine a later incarnation, the Penfolds city of the 1940s. The sign is like a window cut into the present-day scene, allowing us to step through into the city of the past.
The Pacific Highway meets the Gore Hill Freeway in a confusion of off and on ramps. On the Artarmon side of the intersection is a large Spanish Mission hotel now called the Shore Apartments. In the 70s they were the Shore Motel, advertised as “like a city in itself”, offering ‘Parisian Elegance’ and ‘Isle of Capri Escapades’. The Shore remains a highway oasis of palm trees and white stucco archways, a European holiday resort stranded in the wrong hemisphere.
On the other side of the freeway overpass is a block of old shops earmarked for demolition. This assorted bunch of structures once contained a boating store, a cluttered factory seconds place and a construction firm, but now are hung with banners for a new development. The ads promise “city meets village lifestyle” in the new 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments that will be built there.
It’s reaching the end of a Sunday afternoon and the light is golden, the shadows long. I drive past the Shore Apartments but can’t pay too much attention to the Parisian elegance as I’m watching the lane markings to avoid being drawn down onto the freeway. The freeway is quicker but I feel compelled to take the highway today. I like its curves and details, and travel it so infrequently that something is different every time.
A message from the past has reappeared. The banners on the front of the buildings might promote “village lifestyle”, but on the side is a flashback to DEFENDER SLUG AND SNAIL KILLER, in neat block letters underneath a line of metal flashing remaining from the building that once stood beside it.
In front of this old battle slogan is the concrete and flattened dirt of the recently cleared lot. It doesn’t look like a place where there would be much of a threat from slugs or indeed any creatures at all. Yet the sign gives me cause to imagine them. In particular I imagine the future, when the residents of the apartments find themselves dreaming of snails, mysteriously and incessantly. They google “snail dream meaning” and ponder the sensitivity and vulnerability it symbolises, but it’s to the power of the ghost sign their dreams really refer.
For Art Month this year I led a tour of Surry Hills, showing some of my favourite details and curious sites of the area. Surry Hills is a place that has had many incarnations and exists in the imagination in different guises. It was the place that, many years ago, I dreamed of moving out of home to. In my naive 14 year old way I imagined a kind of artistic wonderland among the run-down terrace houses, a perception based mostly on passing mentions of the suburb in the music street press. My parents spoke of Surry Hills as a dangerous place, which only added to its allure.
I never did end up living in Surry Hills but it’s a place I know well. In spite of this familiarity, it often surprises me. The part of Surry Hills I chose for the tour was the strip that runs alongside the railway line, between Cleveland and Campbell Streets. Just this small area is full of stories and connections. There are traces of all Surry Hills’ incarnations to be found by looking closely enough.
Our first stop on the tour was Prince Alfred Park. It was named after the first member of the royal family to visit Australia. To the great embarrassment of the Australian officials, during a picnic outing to Clontarf a man named Henry James O’Farrell attempted to assassinate the prince. The shot he fired at the prince wounded him but not fatally, and in celebration of the prince’s recovery, the hospital and the park were named after him, and the “golden probe” used to remove the bullet is on display at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital museum.
Once Prince Alfred Park featured an elaborate exhibition building. Unlike the harbourside Garden Palace, this exhibition building endured long into the 20th century, to finally be demolished in 1954. Nowadays the park has the pool rising out of a hill, with funnels like a buried ocean liner, and a playground with an elephant and a hot air balloon for kids to climb on, links to the park’s past, 19th century entertainments.
We stopped outside Cleveland House which, dating from 1820, is the oldest building in Surry Hills. Here I read a little from The Harp in the South. Ruth Park’s 1948 novel is from a Surry Hills long removed from the Cleveland House era, but it reveals something of the suburb’s shifting identity. It has swung between a place of prestige and a place of poverty and vice a number of times over.
Ruth Park lived in Surry Hills for a short time in the late 1940s. She found it “an antique island where the nineteenth century still prevailed” and wrote The Harp in the South about the fictional Darcy family, who lived at 12 ½ Plymouth St. The street was fictional, but there are some parts of Surry Hills that I can imagine as a setting for the book, stripping away their present-day, renovated, veneer.
There were many houses like Number Twelve-and-a-Half, smelling of leaking gas, and rats, and mouldering wallpaper which has soaked up the odours of a thousand meals. The stairs were very dark and steep, and built on a slant as though the architect were drunk, so that from the top landing you couldn’t see the bottom. On the top landing hung a little globe, very high up, so that the tenants could not steal it. It was small as a star and as yellow as a lemon.
On Buckingham Street there are a number of curious places – like in The Harp in the South there’s a house numbered 74½, a string of very old sandstone terrace houses dating from the 1860s, and the Sydney version of Buckingham Palace.
On the corner of Clevelend Street we stopped at the Athena sign and I explained the dwindling fortunes of this corner block. Once it was a nightclub, but now it has the boarded-up and drooping appearance of a building awaiting demolition. The sign for the Athena nightclub remains at the side, a secret message invoking the goddess of wisdom.
Back along Elizabeth Street we stopped at the park at the corner of Devonshire Street. Here there used to be a large mural painted on the side of the substation. The mural was a Surry Hills directory, picturing a map of the streets and their notable features.
This was one of the many community murals painted in the early 1980s, of which a few still remain in varying states of repair. This mural has long since disappeared as the substation has been made into apartments. It’s a curious building where the apartments look to have been slotted in over the top of the old substation, like the buildings are lego bricks.
Another unusual Surry Hills building is the Reader’s Digest Building on Waterloo Street. Its style has been described as “gothic brutalism”, although the architect, John James, did not ascribe to brutalist principles. His inspirations were medieval church architecture and organic forms: the façade of the building has a design based on the Fibonnaci series.
I was standing on my milk crate outside the Reader’s Digest Building, explaining this and how it rises up out of the streets like a retro futuristic palace, when I noticed a man had come out from the building and joined the group. When I paused he said “would you like to look inside?” He runs the Arisaig Tea Rooms, the Scottish restaurant on the ground floor. We followed him through the restaurant and up the central stairs. Once the stairs had ascended alongside the $1 million dollar computer that had been positioned in the centre of the building. In 1968, such a computer was a rarity, and this one was a large contraption that stored all the information for the Reader’s Digests’ mail order subscriptions.
The computer is long gone, but we looked across at the roof garden, another feature of the building that was ahead of its time. Planted in the 1960s, the she-oaks and paperbarks are now tall trees. Another favourite detail was the circular ashtrays built into the directory panels near the lifts.
After our unexpected peek inside the Reader’s Digest building we walked down to Randle Street. This street is only short but has some curious businesses, like the surreal blacklight basement rooms of Ding Dong Dang karaoke. It’s a street of old warehouses. The signs for some of them, like the Henderson Hat factory, are still there, just visible high up above street level. It’s a street of bricks and textures and details.
Recently there has been an upswell of interest in ghost signs, the faded remains of painted signs for businesses and products still visible on the sides of old buildings. Surry Hills has plenty for the ghost sign hunter. Just off Randle Street, this sign still advertises Overalls and Workshirts from the days when Surry Hills was the centre of Sydney’s garment industry.
We passed by the “more New York than New York” Hibernian House, and Sydney’s flatiron building, the wedge-shaped Dental Hospital. Here I stopped to point out the Oceanic Café across the street. On the awning was a for sale sign, announcing that the auction had taken place a few days earlier. The Oceanic was a Sydney institution. In Sydney it’s surprising enough to come across a business that has been the same since the 1970s or 80s, but the Oceanic had been much the same since the 1930s. The café only closed last year, with the death of Nellie, the owner. The Oceanic was famous for its ads for Lamb’s Fry painted over the window, and its 1930s interior, with wooden booths and hat hooks along the walls. It was still there, sealed up as if Nellie and her daughter were about to return, the toaster still out on the bench and the fake flowers and the telephone in the window.
On nearby Foveaux Street we then visited the Vladimir Tichy ceramic mural. Tichy is a ceramic artist who came to Australia from Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. From the 1970s he produced many large-scale ceramic murals in Sydney and regional NSW. Many, now, have been destroyed in the process of renovation or demolition, but the Foveaux Street panels remain. I’ve long admired them and their earthy, bejewelled texture.
After a stroll up Commonwealth Street and some talk about post punk Sydney in the early 1980s, we stopped at the corner of Campbell Street for the most minor feature of the tour.
Who was J. Canham and why is their name written in tiny letters on the side of this house? I like to think of it as a small, obscure, piece of graffiti from some time long, long ago.
The tour ended with the vista of one of Sydney’s ugliest buildings, the Goulburn Street Parking station.
That’s it! Thank you to everyone who came along and to Art Month for inviting me to give the tour.