The row of 19th century buildings at the start of Campbell Street are surrounded by more recent, taller buildings, like a piece has been cut out of the modern city to reveal a past version.
The row is a miscellany, each building different. On street level there is a string of Thai groceries with displays of pickled grapes and dried bananas, and posters for the grand opening of a new Crocodile Junior restaurant (Crocodile Senior is around the corner on George Street). Number 14 Campbell Street is a butchery, with cuts of meat laid out in the window. If you find yourself here, stand back and look up, above the butchery and the two levels of barred windows on the upper storeys. The building is painted a liverish red, with white details. It is further decorated by three entwined letters – PRL – in a crest and, at the very top, a wild-eyed horse.
The Campbell Street Horse is captured in motion, ears alert, nostrils flaring, mane tossed by the wind. Its eyes are spirals of black paint against the pale, verdigris green, and it watches the city around it warily. It looks over at the outlines of the claw machines inside Purikura Photoland across the street. The horse has seen plenty of amusement fads come and go. Beside Photoland is the Capitol Theatre, a building the horse would have known in its days first as a market, and then a Hippodrome in the 1910s. Under a retractable stage the Hippodrome, run by Wirth’s Circus, had a concrete pool for aquatic shows, sometimes featuring seals and polar bears, other times King Neptune and his attendants.
The horse’s presence on 14 Campbell Street is something of a mystery. Myself and fellow Sydney scrutineer David Lever have puzzled over it again anew in the past few weeks, wondering what could have led it to be the mascot of this building. We followed the building’s previous identities, beginning around 1888 as a pub called the New Haymarket Hotel, then becoming the Nottingham Castle and then the Capitol Hotel. I found plenty of stories of interest, none of which were about horses. There were various accounts of woe and misfortune that took place at the hotel over the years: a man’s death after a fire caused by him smoking in bed, the death of a lion tamer named James Lindo, the arrests of swindlers and rogues. The heritage report on the row of terraces has plenty of information, describing Number 14 as “highly unusual” with “no comparable examples within the City of Sydney”. As compelling as this is, there is still no mention of the horse.
The initials in the crest were of the man who’d had the buildings constructed, P.R. Larkin. Larkin was known as a publican and liquor wholesaler on George Street. There are plenty of cheerful turn of the century descriptions of the “huge casks filled with spirits fit for the gods” at Larkin’s, but no mention of horses. In those days, though, horses were everyday creatures. The streets were full of horses and carts, people travelled by horse bus, and “block boys” had the dangerous and unenviable job of dashing out into the busy streets to sweep up the horse manure. They would have been busy: at the peak of Australia’s horse population there was one horse for every two people.The Campbell Street horse is one of a small number of city horses, statues most of them, of the bronze, memorial kind, as well as the weirder, rooftop kind.
But back to Campbell Street, and our mystery horse. Campbell was once one of the boundary streets of the market district of Haymarket. In 1929, a newspaper article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in which a man named Mr Alfred Byrne remembered the days in the 1850s when wild horses would be brought in for auction. Alfred would join the crowds who clustered around to watch the men trying to catch the horses, especially if it were rainy, and “the men holding on to the horses would be dragged ingloriously through thick mud”.
So perhaps the Campbell Street Horse is the last of Sydney’s wild horses, captured in perpetual vigour, turning a fierce eye to the ever-growing city.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
In 2012 I wrote a story about Millers Point and mentioned the threats to the community from the surrounding developments and the government’s proposed sale of public housing. Last year it was made official, the houses would be sold and since then residents have been fighting to stay in their homes and keep their community together.
It’s almost three years since I wrote about Millers Point, and High Street has a very different atmosphere. It has changed from one of peaceful community to one of struggle. Banners are hung over balconies, spray painted onto sheets in stencil letters: Millers Point Not 4 Sale; Say No to the Total Sell Off of Public Assets. The street has a stripped feeling, some of the houses already empty, others clinging on.
The building site beneath High Street is busy as the Barangaroo project continues. The construction site makes a mechanical churning, digestive kind of noise, and I imagine this is the sound of it chewing up the past. Already the shape of the land below has been altered from the straight lines of the wharves. Now the curved shoreline is a neatly curated return to a past shape, based on an 1836 map. Blocks of sandstone, each labelled with a barcode for correct placement, have been assembled at the water’s edge. A larger sandstone block than the others has been unveiled on the point, renaming it Barangaroo Point.
Millers Point is facing disappearance. Some of the houses are now empty, their windows blank and curtainless, the residents moved elsewhere. Other residents are fighting, their houses hung with handmade signs: No One wanted to be here when I came here over 30 years ago, so now should I have to go? Some Millers Point residents have lived here for three or even five generations, and all speak with sadness and anger at the loss of their community. Many are elderly and have been fighting to stay in homes where they have lived for much of their life. Most recently, a petition for Mary Vo to stay in her home for the last few years of her life has been collecting signatures.
The state government says the houses must be sold for reinvestment in the public housing system, although how exactly the money will be invested hasn’t been revealed. The houses are being gradually auctioned anyway, and continual pressure is being put on those remaining in their homes to relocate. People fear that Wooloomooloo will be next, then Glebe, until all the city’s social housing has disappeared.
Last year, just after the announcement the houses would be sold, I went to Millers Point one afternoon and spoke to the industrial heritage artist Jane Bennett who was painting the High Street vista, her easel set up near the fence. I looked through her folder of previous work, paintings of industrial landscapes that have disappeared, most of them around the harbour. It was late afternoon and a soft, sunset light was cast over the street. I watched for a little while as she painted and we talked about the Harbour Control Tower at the end of the street, where she was an artist in residence for more than a decade. Now the tower is owned by the Barangaroo corporation and will be demolished. (See Jane’s paintings of Millers Point, and read about her involvement with the suburb here.)
The scene Jane was painting that day, the houses in the lush afternoon light, has already changed. Construction seems to bear down upon it from all sides, Barangaroo down below, roadworks. Last June I went on the tour of the development. Like all the other visitors I was given a branded water bottle, cap and tote bag as I entered and then spent time trekking around the construction zone, asking the same questions everyone else seemed to be asking: what’s going to happen to the tower, and where had the fire been? The barcoded sandstone and reptile petting zoo was meant to distract me, but it didn’t, or at least not in the right way. My eyes drifted to the streets above, and the banners hung over the railing. I didn’t want the carefully arranged development, the park where I could go down to actually touch the harbour water, if I had to look at the rows of Millers Point houses glossed up and made into exclusive residences.
Walking around Millers Point in 2015, I have a grim feeling. For as long as I have known it the suburb has been a gentle place in the city, small, old houses, with miscellaneous window decorations, and always people around, leaning over their front fences, chatting. It was out of step with the cut-throat city surrounding it, and that made it precious.
On Kent Street one house has on its front wall a carefully assembled collection of laminated A4 posters of heroes and villains: Cat memes next to Tony Abbott, Johnny Rotten next to Margaret Thatcher, Clover Moore next to John Howard, amid a storm of laminated monopoly money.
The protests continue. Follow their progress at the Millers Point Community, which has resident’s stories, history and links to other resources. There are also a number of facebook groups, including Save Our Homes.