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.