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.
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.