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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
.3. St James Church
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.