At the end of the week, Surry Hills Shopping Village will cease trading, closing for good on the 10th January. Advertisements for the apartments to be built on the site are draped over the facade, across the building which follows the curve of the corner of Cleveland and Baptist streets. The banners announce that the ‘residences’ are available for purchase, even though construction of them is yet to begin, and beside this announcement the image of a woman in an evening dress promises impending, incongruous luxury.
Below the banners is the familiar former bank building with its striped pillars, and two columns flanking a door with a neon sign above it, for Noodle Star restaurant. Many of the businesses in the shopping centre have already left, but Noodle Star will trade to the end. Every table inside it occupied, and others wait on the inside steps for their takeaway, in the glowing yellow light of the advertisement for laksa that hangs in the entrance as a welcome. Along the side wall are further photographs of the available dishes, an honest gallery of noodles and dumplings.
The mall was built in 1981 on a former factory site, and since then has retained the same functional atmosphere, it main enticement its utility, promising nothing more than a collection of useful shops collected together under the same roof. When it opened it was called Redfern Mall, but in 1992 changed its name, to Surry Hills Shopping Village, the business owners citing the fact that it was closer to the Surry Hills shopping strip on Crown Street than the Redfern shops near the train station. Later other, meaner, names were given to it, suggesting a reputation of crime and vice. But its most abiding story has to be that for four decades it has performed the task of being an ordinary shopping centre. Some locals have shopped there regularly for that whole time, buying groceries, posting letters, visiting the newsagent, buying bread rolls.
Standing in the carpark to take this photo, I remembered my favourite thing about the Surry Hills mall: how the carpark behind the centre follows the incline of the land, and how the expanse of parking spaces forms a breathing space in this dense part of the inner city. I like how the centre spreads out across its corner lot, not making more of the space than it needs to, and that it is surrounded by eucalypts and casuarinas trees. Inside, I like its easy-listening radio soundtrack that gives it the atmosphere of a wan 70s nightclub, playing Band of Gold by Freda Payne, Sweet Sweet Love – Russell Morris and other such long-ago hits, as it does today in its last days, and as it did in the busier times of its past.
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.
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.
Trains leave Central station and head towards the city along an elevated track. There’s a feeling of gliding above the streets, looking across over the Surry Hills rooftops, the brick warehouses with old signs for tea merchants, the plane trees, the disintegrating green building where the neon golfer on the Sharpie’s Golf House sign hit his continual hole in one. Then the train heads underground. It passes through an intermediary zone where the street outside comes in glimpses through concrete columns, before entering the darkness of the tunnels.
The concrete columns are the foundations of the multi-storey car park which is built over the entrance to the underground railway at Goulburn Street. The car park is a concrete structure of beams and blocks, decorated with a breeze block facade and pebblecrete rendering. Perched above the railway tracks like a large chest of drawers it has a rather precarious appearance. The trains travel back and forth beneath it like the carpark is consuming them and spitting them back out again.
The Goulburn Street parking station opened in 1961, an era when there was a great rise in private car ownership. This was when car parks such as the Domain Parking Station were built and plans were to demolish the Queen Victoria Building and replace it with an underground carpark. Here the carpark was erected to cover the entrances to the train tunnels, which had previously been visible below Goulburn Street.
The car park is generally considered to be one of Sydney’s ugliest buildings, perhaps even the ugliest, (other well known candidates include the UTS Tower and the Blues Point Tower). In the spirit of home made carports and garages across the suburbs, it appears not quite level, especially when viewed from Castlereagh Street. Perhaps this is an optical illusion caused by the slope of the road, but it does have a rather jerry-built look.
Despite its precarious appearance and generally agreed upon ugliness, it is a Sydney landmark. The train lines running underneath it make it a curiously difficult building to modify or remove, although there are plenty of plans to improve its appearance. Plants have appeared on the exterior, trailing down over the concrete. A seagull pattern covers the panelling which faces the railway tracks. There has been talk of a rooftop cinema. Or converting it to a high school.
Up on the top level there’s a view across the Surry Hills rooftops and the tops of the trees which line the street below. The expanse of concrete is like a magic carpet, floating just high enough above the street to still feel connected to it. Parking station rooftops often have good views, or at least another perspective on familiar places. This one has a particularly good view over the Wentworth Avenue ghost zone. Wentworth is a street well supplied with vacant old warehouses in varying states of dereliction. The street was constructed after the Surry Hills slum clearances in the early 1900s, but now the large warehouses that were built to replace the maze of lanes and houses have fallen into decline. From up here the light shines through the empty top storey rooms of Sheffield House, which has been empty since the 1990s. It stands out with its three storeys of bay windows and large ghost ad on the side, its message unreadably faded. Further along the street is the Griffiths Tea building, scheduled for redevelopment, but still for now a dark brick ruin with anarchist graffiti in the windows.
Standing up here on the top of the car park the strongest feeling I have is that everything around me is going to change. It’s changing already and constantly: just a few blocks away the seemingly everlasting Oceanic Cafe has closed down for good. The long-empty old warehouses will be redeveloped, two of them – the Griffiths Tea building and Key College House – have recently been sold. In years to come if the high school plan comes into being teenagers might be sitting in class in this very spot.
The top of Sydney’s ugliest building is the perfect place for such contemplation. Here I can feel the city as a texture, a network of forces. This sensation ebbs and wanes, but it’s one that gains complexity the longer I live here. Changes cut through into it sometimes, as do particular moments and coincidences. Sometimes it just arises from being somewhere quietly, and looking closely. There’s always more to notice.