Every time I pass by The Abbey I remember what it had been like on that day I visited it for the house-contents auction in 2009. The rooms with pale, dusty light coming in through the stained-glass windows, the paint peeling from the walls and the crooked, creaking passageways that formed the maze of rooms. People had rambled unescorted through the rooms, some of them looking at the objects up for auction, but most, like me, just curious to see inside.
Ten years on, I’m at The Abbey again, visiting the refurbished house and gardens as part of a focus tour for Sydney Open. Being November, the jacaranda trees are flowering, two purple clouds above bright pink bougainvillea. This frames the house, with its tower and gothic-arch windows and gargoyles.
The house feels different – lighter, more orderly – but the details of it are much the same. The entrance, with its blue ceiling painted with golden stars, opens out into the central hallway, which has a tiled floor and stencilled patterns of dragons and flowers on the walls. I pause here, deciding which way to turn. As with my visit ten years before, the house is open to walk through without restriction, and there are many doorways to choose from.
I choose the tower, and climb up the wide staircase, past the goddesses in the stained glass windows, and the entrances to bedrooms and sitting rooms, following the narrowing staircase up to the room at the top. From here I can see the smoke haze over the city, the silver stretch of harbour water, the roads choked with Saturday morning traffic. From this vantage point there seems to be barely any movement below, although I know that on ground level, out there, it would feel very different. It is tranquil in the tower room, and I sit on the cushioned bench under the windows until I can hear another visitor’s footsteps ascending.
The Abbey is a house of details, and every wall, floor and fixture has some kind of pattern or motif to distinguish it, or a painted figure to keep watch, whether it be a goddess chiselling a sculpture, bearded gents carousing, or owls or cockatoos. The house feels alive with these characters, as if they hold within them something of the spirits of the many people who have lived here over the last century. These figures have watched cycles of residents move through, have watched the house fall into disrepair, and have seen its restoration.
The sunroom where I remember spending a few minutes on the auction day – watching the rain coming in and noticing the tendrils of vine that had snaked in from the outside – is now clear and neat, and the sun shines through the stained-glass windows. It’s an office now, with a desk and shelves and the regular details of a contemporary room. I go to look out through the patterned panes at the houses on the streets below, their front gardens decorated with giant spiderwebs made of torn-up sheets (Halloween was a few nights earlier, and Annandale houses seem to favour giant spiders in giant webs as their decoration).
The house is made up of three sections: the main wing with the tower, a connecting annexe with a long colonnade that looks over the garden, which leads to another, smaller, wing of the house. On the ground floor of the annexe is the kitchen, outside which the house’s owners chat to visitors and their two old, friendly dogs lean in for a pat.
It’s a house that excites your imagination, one of the visitors says. Yes, says another, I’ve always wondered what it is like in here. All through the house people are saying much the same as this, for it is indeed one of those houses that sets you wondering, trying to imagine what it might be like to step inside. Sometimes, on rare occasions, you get the chance, to see how it is now, to imagine how it might have been, and to look out from the windows at the harbour and the city beyond.
Thank you to Sydney Open for another year of excellent tours and openings – there’s still tickets for tomorrow if you’re reading this before Sunday Nov. 3rd and haven’t bought one yet! I’m doing a talk in the Members Lounge at 1:30pm too.
This year during Sydney Open I’m going to go on a tour of The Abbey, on Johnston Street in Annandale. I thought, as Part 1 to the story, I’d reflect on my first visit, in 2009, when the house and its contents were up for auction.
If you know Annandale, you will know the Witches Houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions on the high side of Johnston Street with tall narrow spires like enormous witch’s hats. The subject of many generations’ fantasies of mansion-living, they preside over the street and the small terrace houses that cluster along the low-lying streets below. In the 1880s the block had been bought by the architect John Young, and eight grand houses built. Most of them remain, although in the 1960s two were demolished and replaced with red-brick apartment blocks that are now conspicuous in their plainness.
At first my attention had been attracted by Kenilworth, the house at the eastern end of the row. It has the tallest spire, which extends down in a column from top to bottom like a Victorian-era rocket-ship. But over time, often passing by them, my favourite of all the houses became the one on the corner. Up until the late-2000s it was partially hidden by tall trees and vines, which grew over the sandstone wall around it. Known as the Abbey, it had the look of an archetypal haunted house, overgrown, spooky and mysterious.
The story was that, in 1881, John Young had built it for his wife, as an enticement for her to join him in Sydney. It is an unusual kind of lure, a sprawling, neo-gothic castle, made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone and attended by gargoyles, with rows of long, narrow stained glass windows, which give it the look of a reconstituted church. She was not enticed, and the house went on to various uses and fortunes. In the early 20th century, being so large and being located in the then-working-class suburb of Annandale, it was divided up into apartments, before being returned to the one owner when it was bought by the Davis family in 1959.
I’d long-wondered what it was like inside. Many people knew: it had been notorious for the parties held there, and in the Davis-era the house saw many visitors and residents. The Abbey’s patriarch was Geoffrey Davis, a medical doctor and member of the the mid-twentieth-century group of left-wing and anti-authoritarian writers and intellectuals known as the Sydney Push. Reading into the house’s history, I was particularly interested to find out that the writer Christina Stead, author of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, The Man Who Loved Children, and For Love Alone, had lived here at the very end of her life in 1982.
Dr Davis died in 2008, and shortly afterwards the house, and all its contents, were put up for sale. One weekend the house was open for the viewing of the contents auction. My chance to visit had arrived. Many others were also taking the opportunity, as the rooms seethed with people. Inside, the rooms seemed joined together in a confusing maze, all different sizes and levels of formality. I examined the miscellaneous objects displayed within them as I moved through the warren of interconnecting chambers. Everything was a bit dusty and motheaten, leather upholstery cracked, paint and wallpaper peeling, the rooms smelling of cats.
The objects on display were the strange, stranded junk of a lifetime and beyond: phonographs, collections of shells, magic lantern slides, landscape paintings, 78rpm records, cloisonne vases, a zither, bevel-edged mirrors, tiles painted with butterflies or scenes from Shakespeare. Everything that could be removed from the house had a tag dangling from it, from the chandeliers to a box containing rusty tins of shoe polish. I had a printed booklet in my hand but soon gave up trying to correlate the listings with the objects and just moved through the rooms, trying to imagine myself there decades before, at one of the notorious parties.
At the time of the auction of the house and of its contents, there were many articles in the media about The Abbey. Some of these included interviews with members of the Davis family who had grown up in the house. My favourite detail was from one of his children, who had admitted that it “had been difficult moving on to regular homes after a youth in the Abbey”.
I tried to imagine it as I stood in a long, narrow sunroom at the side of the house. One of the panels in the stained glass windows was missing, and rain was coming in, down onto the vases on the table below. This rainy sunroom was the only room I’d been in alone, and I felt as if I was playing a game of hide and seek as I stood there, looking at a collection of shells in a box. Inside it there was a crumpled, unfilled-in application for a dog license in between a conch and a nautilus shell, and I smoothed it out and replaced it, feeling like I, too, had ended up here at random, among all the miscellaneous objects that were soon to be moved off elsewhere.
At the edge of Chinatown is the Sydney Trades Hall, a Victorian-era office building, four storeys high, with an octagonal tower jutting from the corner like a lantern. When it opened in 1895, this area was near the wharves, railyards, and industrial areas on the city’s fringe, areas that employed many of the workers who belonged to the trade unions who had offices inside the building.
On the main staircase there’s a list of the union offices that once were found within Trades Hall. It’s an index of the city’s past occupations, among them bread carters, sailmakers, glass bottle makers, food preservers, Pyrmont Sugar Workers, milk and ice carters. The building would have been a lively place, with all of these offices, a literary institute library, and nightly social activities, concerts and dances and meetings.
Now the building is part-offices, part-museum, after being refurbished in the 2000s. I’ve come on a tour as part of Sydney Open, the annual weekend on which buildings of historical and architectural interest are open to the public. On the ground floor I walk in past an old, wooden elevator with a banner for the Lift Attendant union displayed inside it. There are other such banners hanging in the nearby hallway, for cleaners and for watchmen, and a framed painted list of offices, with a delicate painted hand pointing upstairs.
The building houses objects related to its history: the signs that once hung in the hallways, the banners that unions used in marches and processions, and the certificates and banners used by the unions to signify or reward membership. The large painted banners are ornate and symbolic, decorated with gold leaf.
Their painter was Edgar Whitbread, who worked for decades, well into his 70s, at a small studio in the glass-domed Victoria Arcade. His name can be seen printed modestly at the base of these banners, which were once used in the processions and demonstrations that would bring thousands of people onto the city’s streets. Their detail and meticulous craftsmanship are surprising to the contemporary eye, and we can imagine them held aloft, as the workers they represented marched with them.
It was in the 1960s, the heritage officer leading the tour tells us, when the building was under threat of demolition, that thought was given to whether the banners should be preserved. That they were owes much to the Trades Hall secretary, Lorna Morrison, who advocated for their restoration. The banner had been stored in a part of the building that was at the time opened up as a walkway between the original building and the new Labour Council building behind it, a grey office block with painted advertisements for the on-site broadcaster, 2KY radio, on it.
Other objects on display, he said, were found piled up in the basement during the refurbishment in the 2000s. These objects now tell the story of the building, but also of the world of work, and how Sydney’s workers have shaped the city.
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.
My day started in a brick bunker behind Australia Square, tangling myself in a safety harness (a volunteer saw me struggling and intervened) in order to go on a tour of the Tank Stream. Tank Stream tours are very popular, attributable to the fact that the Tank Stream is symbolic of the city’s origins. Sydney grew from around the Tank Stream, the source of freshwater that convinced Arthur Phillip to move the proposed settlement from Botany Bay to Port Jackson in 1788. The stream soon became polluted and was eventually contained in a series of pipes and drains that run underneath the city. Stories of despoiled waterways usually make me feel maudlin, but in this case I like that the Tank Stream still runs secretly underneath the city. Soon my gumboots were splashing through the stream as the guide pointed out the makers marks on the sandstone blocks that make up the walls of the drainage channel, and the most enthusiastic photographers of the group posed by the entrance to the oviform drain pipe at the end of the chamber.
Once I was on the surface again, I started my journey across the city. Here are some of my favourite details.
Badges from the Royal Automobile Club on Macquarie Street. I notice this building every time I am in a car going towards the Harbour Bridge, as its windows are very close to the road. How fitting that it is an automobile club! It is a grand brick and sandstone building with a stately interior, although my favourite part, apart from the cars whizzing past the dining room windows, was the collections of badges.
History House book sale: also on Macquarie Street is the home of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Past the elegant room with the rare square piano in the corner and down the hall there was a sign for a book sale in the back room. A book sale never fails to quicken my pulse, and I bought a number of 50c books, “The Palace of Winged Words” which is about telephone exchanges in Australia, and another book about the Hume Highway. On the table of free books was a book about conservation of heritage houses in the Willoughby District. The house which I have lived in many versions of over the years is the one with the identity crisis, pictured above. Also on the free table was a commemorative guide to Expo 88. Sometimes photos of the 1980s looks like scenes from another planet.
Next I walked up the hill to the AWA tower, which is best known for having been Sydney’s tallest building in the 1940s and 1950s. Like the Tank Stream, the city has grown up around it, and now the AWA tower looks quite prim and polite, rather than the towering ediface to the power of radio it was in the 1940s.
I waited in a queue along the footpath in front to climb up to the roof and to the base of the metal tower, referred to by some as Sydney’s Eiffel (I favour the less impressive Eiffel Tower on Canterbury Road). As I waited I spoke to a woman who was clutching a handwritten list of her picks for the day. She had already been to most of them, even though it was only 12:30; she must have moved fast. Soon we were ushered into the clothing store on the ground floor of the AWA, in which a woman at the counter continued her serious conversation about alterations to a garment as a group of Sydney Open tourists took photos of the friezes which lined the walls.
Friezes observed, we then climbed the spiral staircase to the roof. There’s something magical about climbing a spiral staircase, especially one which leads to what was once the top of the city.
On my way out of the Henry Davis York Building, a grand art deco building in Martin Place, I peeked into the doorway of the ground floor shop to discover this strange scene. A tall goth boy looked in at the same time and said “What are they?” to which I replied “They’re peacocks…resting.” A small crowd gathered and we all beheld this strange sight.
In the State Theatre were many information panels about Sydney’s lost theatres, the result of many hours with a photocopier and a glue stick. As a zinemaker, I naturally approve of this. There was so much ephemera collected here that these old cinemas and theatres would get the award for Sydney’s most found lost places.
A few blocks down on Castlereagh Street I dropped in on the fire station. Immediately I went in search of the fire pole, this being the most exciting part of any fire station. Accordingly quite a number of people were crowded around it, asking questions of a fireman, who was explaining how it had been removed, replaced by stairs, but then reinstated. I liked it best for its highly specific sign.
I also liked the fire hoses, which looked to me like giant strands of spaghetti from the world’s largest pasta maker.
Further down Castlereagh Street I was excited to visit the Sydney Masonic Centre. On the Sydney Open information board outside it was a quote from the Sydney Morning Herald architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly “one of the least endearing buildings on Earth… no one has ever loved it, nor ever will”. It is a concrete bunker of a building, but I have always been rather fond of it. And, as noted in the description, Brutalism is now fashionable, so now the Masonic Centre is being heralded for the symphony in concrete that it is. Simon has asked me to enquire if the building was really built to withstand a nuclear blast, but I didn’t feel brave enough to ask any of the Masons this. Instead, I enjoyed the concrete and the strange iconography.
The G stands for the Great Architect of the Universe, and seems like a good place to end my Sydney Open oddities tour. Sydney Open is on every two years and presented by the Historic Houses Trust. Thank you HHT for the treasure hunt.