Sydney Trades Hall

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.


Five Sydney Open Highlights

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.

1. Lands Department Building

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.

Lands Department Building in the 1890s, State Library of NSW.

Lands Department Building in the 1890s, State Library of NSW.

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.

SO_Lands 2

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.

SO_Lands 3

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.

Surveying for Central Station in 1900, State Library of NSW.

Surveying for Central Station in 1900, State Library of NSW.

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.

CBA interior

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).


A description of the door from the Sydney Morning Herald, 1929.

A description from the Sydney Morning Herald, 1929.

.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.

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.

Childrens Chapel

4.  Lucy Osburn-Nightingale Museum

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.

Pharmacy_LON Museum

.5. Property Council of Australia House

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.

Bees and Banking

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.

Sydney Open Scrapbook

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.

Photo by A.G Foster, from the NLA archives.

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.

The AWA zodiac

Scenes from around the world, including a giant Parisian woman

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.