The Hunter Street entrance to the Hunter Connection shopping arcade is a canopy of mirrored tiles and neon lights, like the entrance to a 1980s nightclub. The mirror panels reflect the street and the people walking past, the angles and edges scrambling and distorting the scene below. Go under the mirrors and inside and you’ll find that the mall’s irregular shape, each floor slightly different, and the narrow stairs and escalators that lead between them, give it a maze-like quality.
Hunter Connection opened in 1982, positioning it, in the history of Sydney city shopping arcades, between the 70s excesses of Centrepoint and the postmodernism of the late-80s Skygarden. Despite the travertine marble floors and the 150 metres of skylights noted in the newspaper articles heralding its arrival, its main drawcard was its efficiency as a thoroughfare: “Soon we will be a city of hedgehogs!” wrote the Richardson and Wrench real estate news, weirdly, in 1981, “the Hunter Connection – a pedestrian refuge and mall… will provide undercover links directly from Wynyard Station through to Hunter, Pitt and George Streets.”
There’s a satisfaction which comes from navigating the city underground through its subterranean shopping malls, an experience arising from the combination of the underground railway and later 20th century high-rise developments. Picking up on this potential, the early 1970s a Wynyard Pedestrian Network had been planned, an integrated system of walkways extending out from Wynyard station. The plan proposed that navigating the network should be “a visually interesting experience for the pedestrian. Walkways should not be barren or dull; they should be full of interesting things to look at as the pedestrian walks through – changing wall and floor textures – varied spaces – differing character and atmosphere.”
This has indeed occurred, though not in the way intended by the Wynyard Pedestrian Network. The Network never came to be, but walkways were eventually built, with Hunter Connection in the 1980s, and more recently the walkway on the west side of the station linking it with Barangaroo. On the Hunter side a change in atmosphere was brought about by the refurbishment of Wynyard station, which produced a jarring underground transition between the updated sections (wide, grey, slick shopfronts) and the original underground arcade (low-ceiling, mirrors and marble).
Across the concourse from the ticket barriers there had once been steps down to a stretch of arcade which housed niche businesses such as Odette’s Perfumery and the Wynyard Coin Centre. This part of the walkway is gone, but follow the new tunnel along and you soon find yourself back in time at the Hunter Arcade.
In this section I’ve always enjoyed the infinite regress effect of the facing mirrors, and the retro, pill-shaped signs.
Hunter Arcade flows on into Hunter Connection, joining up with the lowest of its three levels. Down here the shops are of the kind that deal in minor improvements: alterations, shoe repair, nail salons, and barbers, and Wayne Massage with its window display of enthusiastic endorsements, printouts from online reviews: ‘Sir Wayne “massage” king is da “miracle” worker.’ The alterations places have displays of face masks, made of fabric offcuts or novelty prints: unicorns, chickens, kittens wearing Santa hats.
It is just over a week since lockdown lifted and some of the stores still have their shutters down or are only tentatively open. A tiny watchmaker and jeweller’s store is open but has the grille pulled across. Inside at a trestle table a man sits on a stool, bending over a repair, holding the green rubber balloon of a dust blower in one hand, a watch in the other. Handwritten signs announce that the shop is closing soon, after being in business since 1972.
From this lower level I follow the escalators upwards. There’s another wing of the arcade here, which extends out to Pitt Street. It too once had a mirrored disco entrance, although it has now been replaced with a more contemporary design: perforated beige panelling that looks like the breathable panels of an athletic shoe. Instead of heading towards Pitt Street I linger outside an alterations business (their fabric face masks include one of an illustration of a chicken, divided up into cuts of meat), looking towards the escalators that lead up to the food court on the top level. On the wall beside the escalators is a feature wall of vertical lengths of silver and smoky-tinted mirror tiles, which reflect the menu boards of the restaurants. It’s hardly the most lavish wall feature, but there’s something Tetris-like about it that pleases me.
The food court level is the busiest, and with its mirrored ceiling and gold handrails it is reminiscent of one of the Chinatown malls (a cross between Dixon House and the Sussex Centre food court, perhaps). My favourite part of this food court is the narrow terrace, just wide enough for a row of six tables, where you can sit and overlook the street as you eat your lunch. It has a view over Hunter Street, where the road dips down and then angles up again, following the declivity which marks the path of the Tank Stream as it flows towards Warrane.
Sitting at one of the tables on the terrace, I watch the clouds drift over the patch of sky in between two buildings, and listen to the city, its roar of traffic, air conditioning units, and the crunch and clang of construction.
The city continues to be torn up for the Metro, which has claimed numerous city blocks. The Hunter Connection will not escape. It is slated for demolition too, to be replaced by a station, and already some of the businesses have relocated. Handwritten signs are taped to their shutters, some noting their new addresses, others just offering thanks and farewell.
On the foot court level is the walkway that leads to George Street, another stretch of marble tiles and gold handrails. I could follow it out to the third of Hunter Connection’s street entrances, across from the George Street entrance to Wynyard Station. If you enter this way you have the choice of going up, via the walkway, or going down, on the path that leads down to the lowest level. The downward path, with the intersecting angles of the three buildings surrounding it, has an unusual geometry, the red bridge of the walkway in conversation with the textured concrete wall it faces.
Instead of going out to George Street I stop halfway along the red walkway and follow another set of escalators up, following the signs for the GPO Box Centre. Unless you rent a GPO box, or you have engaged in a thorough investigation of the Hunter Connection, you likely wouldn’t know that this is where the General Post Office Boxes are located, instead of, say, the actual General Post Office (now a hotel). Upstairs from the post boxes is the Post Restante counter, the staffing of which must surely have been the quietest job in Australia Post over the last few months.
I like it in here with the GPO Boxes. It’s calming, this open space with plants in tall pots and buzzing fluoro lights overhead. Walls of post office boxes extend and follow corners which lead into hallways with more rows of post office boxes. Walking through here the theme song from Get Smart plays in my head, and I imagine I’m here on some kind of secret spy business. That I know which, out of the 7119 post boxes that wait above the Hunter Connection, is the one that holds the message for me inside it.
To emerge from the tunnel that leads out of Wynyard Station onto George Street is to enter a sonic mess of construction noise. There are bursts of deep, jarring reverberations and the sounds of metal against concrete, as the demolition of the buildings above the station continues.
As the buildings – the Menzies Hotel, and the 1960s office block Thakral House – have been demolished, the walls of the adjacent buildings have come to light for the first time in 50 years. As Thakral House came down, sunrays appeared at the top of the side wall of the building on the north side, Beneficial House. Then a creature, a dog with a bushy tail, inside a red shield. And then, underneath it, the word PEAPES. At first the hoardings were too high to see much of the sign from street level, but as the demolition continued, the full breadth of the Peapes sign was revealed.
Peapes was a men’s clothing and tailoring department store, which operated out of Beneficial House from when the building was erected in 1923, until the close of the business in February 1971. Its advertising emphasised the “lofty and spacious departments, where a leisurely peace reigns”. The showrooms were fitted out in polished maple, with Doric columns supporting the ceiling and a circular light well at the centre. It was an elegant place, in-keeping with the quality of Peapes’ goods, which were stressed to be of the highest degree.
Peapes’ slogan was “for men AND their sons” (the AND was in upper case, to stress the importance of intergeneration consistency in men’s style) and it was the place to shop if you needed any kind of gentleman’s outfit, from necessities to luxuries: jackets, shirts, hats, shoes, “an unusually smart shirt with tie”, “a distinctive overcoat”, “superior flannel trousers”. Clothes could be bought off the rack or made to measure. Peapes sales representatives also travelled to country towns across Australia to conduct fittings, booking out rooms in hotels, advertising in local papers, for men to come and have their measurements taken for suits.
The store had two tradmarks. The first was the Warrigal – a dingo, Warrigal being the Dharug word for dingo – the one pictured at the top of the wall sign. The second was diarist Samuel Pepys, an ancestor of one the firm’s founders, George Peapes. On the third floor of the department store was the Pepys Room, a common room of sorts, “a room of restful atmosphere…for reading, writing, smoking, or keeping appointments”. The bewigged Samuel Pepys also appeared on the labels of their garments.
Peapes had been operating on George Street since 1866. In 1912, the wealthy businessman W.J. Miles became one of the directors. These days his name may not be a familiar one, but his daughter, Bea, was one of mid-twentieth century Sydney’s most well known characters. Her distinctive figure, in long coat and tennis hat, was a common sight in the city and suburbs, seen climbing in and out of the taxis for which she never paid the fare, or quoting Shakespeare on demand for a fee of sixpence.
The royal blue of the Peapes sign is a bright window into a past Sydney. Thousands of people walk past it daily, and for those who look up and notice it, the texture of the changing city is revealed, its layers and traces. Soon the demolition will be complete. A new building will be constructed, covering over the Peapes name, the sunburst, and the Warrigal dog. But, for this brief moment, it is back in the light.
With thanks to David Lever for Peapes memories and investigations.
I’ve been writing Mirror Sydney for long enough that many of the places I have featured have now been demolished, or changed, or transformed. On my train trips across the harbour I have been observing the start of the demolition of the Port Operations Tower in Millers Point. The tower at the top is almost gone now. Once it is fully removed the concrete stem below it will be eaten away by robotic excavators from the top down. Could there be a more sci-fi fate than to be eaten by robots?
Despite all the city’s changes there are places that remain stubbornly consistent, and of all the different types of city places the stubborn ones are perhaps my favourites. Stubborn places can quickly turn elusive, though, because coming into notice is usually a harbinger of disappearance. Earlier in the year I had been quietly noting that, despite all the reconstruction at Wynyard station, the trip up to York Street required a journey through the 1930s via the steep, wooden escalators.
So it was no surprise when, back in July, there were reports of their potential removal. The arguments in favour of their replacement were more than simply their age. They pose a fire risk, and the wooden slats can be dangerous, as guide dogs’ claws have become stuck in the wooden steps. But as yet the Office of Environment and Heritage are yet to give their final decision, and the escalators remain for now.
This exit from the train station gives you a triple choice: you can either enter the Concourse Bar with its lingerie-clad bar staff, turn off for a trip along the corridor of a spacecraft (the new Wynyard Walk pedestrian tunnel), or climb aboard the wooden escalators. The row of four escalators, divided by shiny, wood panels have always reminded me of furniture, a sideboard, perhaps, or a cabinet, or a piano. This early photo of them, with one of the wells boarded over, looks even more cabinet-like – and with the added bonus of “shadowless lighting”.
Now panels are decorated by thick, round studs, like the heads of giant wooden nails, no doubt to deter people from sliding down what would otherwise be an excellent slippery dip.
In 1932 when the station opened escalators were regarded as much a novelty as a piece of infrastructure, and article after article in newspapers made mention of them as the city’s latest attraction, a “source of almost endless joy” for children. School groups coming from the country to visit Sydney made certain to ride the escalators for a taste of city life. For those unaccustomed, the Broken Hill newspaper the “Barrier Miner”, described the new contraptions thus (please feel free to skip the next paragraph if you know how to use an escalator):
The escalator looks just like an ordinary staircase when it is at rest, but when in motion all that one has to do in order to ascend to the top is to get on the bottom stop, take hold of the rail if desired, and stand quite still and be carried up to the top landing, just as a bucket of ore is carried up on a conveyor belt. At the top the passenger is gently slid on to the solid lauding; but as it seems unlikely at the first glance that the sliding will be as gentle as it really is there is often a bit of a jump by the inexperienced person, though those accustomed to travelling up the machine simply walk straight on as they reach the top.
Even into the 1940s the escalators were still entrancing young visitors.
It wasn’t just children who found the escalators exciting. A 1932 newspaper article describing an acrimonious failed romance between a 50 year old widow and a 70 year old travelling showman made mention of “a happy time riding on the escalators at Wynyard Station”, before the troubles began.
The trip may only take 48 seconds (or 18 if you are a “hustler”), but this is enough time for romance, thrills and altercations. Keep this in mind if you find yourself in Wynyard and choose to travel the 1930s way.