A City Sun

The sun rises above the office buildings at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Martin Place. It is an urban sun, spherical and grey and held up by four columns, mounted on the rooftop of a gothic office building.

Sun_1

I didn’t recognise it as a sun at first. I was loitering at the barrier above where the Martin Place Shopping Circle, an arcade of small shops, is visible below the level of the street. As mundane as the view into the Martin Place Shopping Circle is – a baguette cafe, a McDonalds – I like it for its view into the underground world, like a circle of street has been lifted off to reveal what lies beneath.

Shopping Circle

Today, though, rather than look down, I was looking up. Even the most casual of suburban explorers knows that there are rich rewards for those who look up as they walk around the city. There’s a whole archive up above street level: ghost signs, architectural details, weird adornments.

Although I have a keen eye for all things gothic I’d not noticed the building across Elizabeth Street before, with its pointed arches and decorative columns. My eye travelled up the facade until it reached the top, where it stopped at the large grey sphere above the central tower.

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The Sun Building c. 1930. Photo: NLA.

In 1929, this sphere was painted gold, as it was the symbol of the palatial new Sun Newspaper building at 60 Elizabeth Street. The 1920s was a busy and competitive time for newspapers in Sydney. There were four morning newspapers, two afternoon ones, and four Sunday papers, all with a large range of staff from the reporters to the printers to the drivers of the delivery vans.

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Two men looking at newspapers straight out of the press machinery at the Sun Newspaper, 1930s. Photo: NLA.

The opening of the Sun Building in October 1929 was a lavish occasion, with the Governor (who had the unusual name of Sir Dudley de Chair) being presented with a golden master key, and the Sun’s chairman announcing the history of the Sun newspaper as “one of the romances of the newspaper world”.

Sun_Masthead

In 1929 the Sun Building was a striking addition to Elizabeth street, at ten stories high with its gold sphere catching the sunlight on top. The Melbourne Argus reported the sun to be “visible for several miles”. Exactly how long the sun shone for before receiving its coat of grey paint, I’m not sure. The Sun newspaper was acquired by Fairfax in 1953 and the building sold for $1.1 million the year after, to become the offices of GIO insurance.

Now it’s a building of mixed offices, like so many others in Sydney. On the ground floor there’s a For Lease sign for the shop on the left hand side, and on the other side is the showroom for Percy Marks jewellers. This seems fitting, what with the sun ten storeys up, set into the roof of the building like an immense, grey pearl.

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Five Sydney Open Highlights

Sunday was Sydney Living Museums’ annual Sydney Open, a one day festival when buildings not usually accessible to the public are open for exploration. It’s always a highlight of the year for me, someone who spends a lot of her time wondering: what is that and what’s in there? This year I spent most of my time in the northern part of the city; here are five favourites from my day.

1. Lands Department Building

This was the building I was most eager to investigate for a number of reasons: its immense, sandstone grandeur, the curious rectangular dome with oval windows like a rooftop jewellery box, and the fact it (and its sandstone neighbour, the Education building) has been sold by the government and is soon to converted from offices to a hotel.

Lands Department Building in the 1890s, State Library of NSW.

Lands Department Building in the 1890s, State Library of NSW.

It is a striking and imposing structure, taking up a whole city block, and must have appeared even more so when it was built in the 1870s. Inside this largest of public buildings was the latest in office technology at the time – speaking tubes, pneumatic bells – as well as the more standard late 19th century inclusions, spiral stairs, a mosaic of Queen Victoria’s coat of arms at the entrance.

SO_Lands

The jewellery box room is the eastern dome, accessed by a steep set of stairs from the offices below. Inside is warm and airy and it is easy to imagine it as the map-drying room, which was once its purpose. The oval windows which surround the room frame views of the harbour and the city.

SO_Lands 2

Once the maps were dried they went into the plan room, which once held around a million plans and property records. We stepped in through the heavy, fireproof (very much on people’s minds after the 1882 Garden Palace fire destroyed many government records) metal door, into a room with a domed ceiling and walls lined with the cardboard tubes that would have once held plans and records.

SO_Lands 3

Inside the Lands Department Building I could imagine it how it might have been in its early years, a busy office building with clerks ascending the spiral stairs or surveyors calibrating their equipment in the hallway along the Surveyor’s Baseline set into the marble floor, before setting out on a survey.

Surveying for Central Station in 1900, State Library of NSW.

Surveying for Central Station in 1900, State Library of NSW.

2.  48 Martin Place (Government Savings Bank of NSW): the vault

Of all the Sydney Open buildings this was one of the most popular, with lines stretching around the corner down Martin Place. This isn’t surprising: it’s a wealthy and powerful building which is simultaneously of the past, present and future, with a neoclassical, Beaux Arts banking floor from the 1920s, and on the office levels above vistas of glass and light accessed by a cylindrical glass elevator.

CBA interior

Once inside, after marvelling at the ornate interior, there was a choice: the roof or the vault? The roof journey included a trip in the glass cylinder from the lavish surrounds of the ground floor through the futuristic-office-scape, but I decided to go underground, to the vault.

We descended the staircase into a sombre, marble room, to peer through the bars at the door of the vault. It is a cinematic moment staring through at the round metal door, 7 feet high and said to weigh 30 tonnes, knowing that behind it are the safety deposit boxes with their mysterious contents. It’s a place of high security and high secrecy. There were no photographs in the vault, but here is a photograph from the National Library of Australia from the vault’s early days (hand on right hand side for scale).

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A description of the door from the Sydney Morning Herald, 1929.

A description from the Sydney Morning Herald, 1929.

.3. St James Church

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St James Church is the oldest church in Sydney, designed by Francis Greenway, built by convict labour and consecrated in 1824. The interior was redesigned in the early 20th century, and it is here that I found one of my favourite Sydney Open details. One of the pleasures of being able to investigate these buildings is to have the chance to notice things up above and the things underfoot, such as ghostly strength.

Ghostly Strength

The Children’s Chapel, painted in the late 1920s by the Turramurra Painters (a group of women in the 1920s who painted murals in city and rural churches), based on the carol “I Saw Three Ships” is beautiful too.

Childrens Chapel

4.  Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Museum

Sent by Florence Nightingale at the request of the premier, Henry Parkes, Lucy Osburn arrived from England in 1868 and set up the Nightingale School of Nursing in a gothic building in the grounds of Sydney Hospital.

Osburn

Although this resulted in huge reform to nursing and was the foundation of modern Australian nursing, it was a difficult path for a woman to take. One of the information panels included the detail that: “Lucy Osburn’s own father had turned her portrait to face the wall when she entered the Nightingale College of Nursing”.

The museum is a collection of dioramas of nurses’ quarters, collections of nursing equipment, including a large magnetic contraption to remove metal shards from eyes, and two rooms of resin-mounted specimens with what seems like every conceivable body part in some state of disease. There are handkerchiefs embroidered by nurses for soldiers to send to their sweethearts, and a collection of building plaques, collected from the hospital as it has changed. As a lover of small, dedicated museums, this was a wonderful place to discover, even if the specimen room was somewhat disquieting.

Pharmacy_LON Museum

.5. Property Council of Australia House

One of the great things about Sydney Open is that it encourages you to visit places you would never even know about otherwise. Every time I go into at least one or two buildings I’ve not noticed before, such as this one, the Property Council of Australia House, which was originally constructed as the Savings Bank of NSW in 1849. The interior has been reconstructed but the leadlight windows remain in the stairwells.

Bees and Banking

The beehive, symbol of work and industry, and the kingfisher, symbol of prosperity, are fitting emblems for a bank, and for a city. The city is itself a kind of beehive, enclosed and full of activity. Yet here and there are details and moments that flash up  like the blue of a kingfisher, and lead to stories and speculations, other times and places and things to discover.

Thank you to Sydney Living Museums for another highly enjoyable Sydney Open in 2015, and I look forward to discovering more next year.