With the festive season over, decorations have almost disappeared from shop windows and front gardens. Suburban frontyard light displays have been packed away, and the dry, dead remains of Christmas trees protrude from green waste bins. The decorations that are still up seem stubborn or stale, behind the times, which have churned on into an already stressful new year.
Driving through North Sydney, I’m not yet thinking about Christmas decorations or anything much except making sure I’m in the right lane for the Arthur Street turnoff. Berry Street splits in two like ram’s horns, left to go north, right to the bridge. Choose wisely, for the Warringah Expressway awaits below. There’s an intensity to this intersection, perched as it is at the edge of the North Sydney high-rises. Here the view opens up towards the sky and the harbour and the far shore of the eastern suburbs. Below is fifteen lanes of surging motorway traffic although this is, from this high vantage point, out of sight.
I turn into the lane closest to the edge, which is hemmed in by a barrier and a railing. Beside the lane is a narrow strip of concrete, which runs the length of the road. Something glittery catches my eye. A short way along the roadside, from a crack in the concrete, against the odds, a tree is growing. It is a casuarina tree, about two metres high, roughly the shape and size of a Christmas tree. Evidently someone had noticed this, as its lower branches had been decorated with glittery plastic ribbons. What a tenacious little tree, there amid the concrete and the traffic, thriving where no tree is meant to grow.
I might have noticed the tree and keep going on my way, but instead I change lanes and travel back around the block. I park the car in a laneway between two rows of office buildings, where the mood is concrete, security cameras, and garage doors with ads for Magic Button (featuring the cheerful mascot of a magician figure in a tuxedo with a button for a head, pressing down on the top of it to release a shower of sparks).
No one much is around, a combination of it being the first week of the year and the recent huge upsurge in Covid infections. This means there’s less traffic, too, which is helpful as I dash across the road, to the siding just before the strip of pavement with the tree. Here it’s wide enough to stand to take a photo, though I feel conspicuous as the cars go past. Like the tree, here by the precipice of the motorway, I stand in an unlikely place. For a moment I take in the view of the lanes of traffic below and then the harbour, before dashing back across to safety.
Later, I look up the slices of time captured by Google Street View to follow the tree’s growth. It’s not there in November 2017, but then by the next image, October 2018, it’s a small, sturdy sapling. By November 2019 it’s up above the railing. I watch it get taller over 2020, then 2021, until the last capture in May, in which it looks much like it does now in its decorated form. I think of it growing these last four years, nourished by the sunlight and the rain, as the skies filled with bushfire smoke for months, and then the traffic dwindled as the city went through lockdowns. Maybe it was during lockdown that the person who decorated it had noticed it, in that time when local details were our comfort.
I walk the long way back to the car, deciding to look around North Sydney a little bit. My mental map of it is outdated by decades: going past on the expressway I still look up expecting to see the clock/temperature that used to be up on the side of the Konica Minolta building (then the Sunsuper building). I had a childhood association with it, where it represented for me both the high rise world of business and something closer to home: the orange numerals resembled a bedside alarm clock. A few years ago the view of it disappeared when a new gleaming glass office tower was built in front of it, but I could see it was still there, a black box high up in the top corner, visible in the gap between the buildings.
All was quiet around the offices buildings, apart from a few construction sites and removalist vans. The smokers’ courtyards were empty, and few people waited to cross at the street corners. I watched my reflection move across mirrored glass that sealed off the views into office windows. Only real estate signs gave a sense of what might be inside them.
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.