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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Sydney: Early Days

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Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 1

Yes, that's one of the dozen A380's Qantas operates; no, it's not powering up, just taxiing. Yes, that's downtown Sydney in the distance; no, it's not very far away--about five miles. Yes, the runway, which extends to our right, sticks out into Botany Bay, the very same where the first convicts landed in 1788 before being shifted those few miles north, where there was a better water supply. You sure do ask a lot of questions.

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It was called Port Jackson then, Sydney Harbour now, and it's an extraordinary bay--a drowned valley or ria, much like Chesapeake and San Francisco bays. The tallest structure is the ridiculous Sydney Tower--what is it that gets people so excited about these things?. The bridge is the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, beyond which the bay extends for another eight or so twisty miles, and just at the left end of the bridge you can see the bright seashells of the opera house. Oh, we're in an eastern suburb called Vaucluse and we're looking west over Rose Bay. There are several other headlands before downtown. Yes, yes, "downtown" is Americanese; Australians speak of "the city" or of Sydney Centre. Someday they'll learn better.

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Here's Sydney Cove, where the town began. Until the Circular Quay Promenade opened as part of the 1988 Bicentennial, this stretch was closed to the public. Now, of course, there are hotels up the wazoo (Pullman Quay Grand is here on the left; farther on there's an Intercon, a Marriott, a Four Seasons, and a Shangri-La. Sorry, no Hotel 6). There's also, smack in the middle here, the stunningly bland, concrete-gray Gold Fields House, built in 1966 and sold in 2014 for $425 million. Who bought it? China's Dalian Wanda Group, of course. The plan? Conversion to apartments. That's a Carnivore ship on the right. Oops: Carnival. What's that you smell? It's money, my friend.

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We're on the steps of the opera house, with the Circular Quay promenade just off to the right. At the lower right you can see the end of Macquarie Street, which separates a line of high rises on one side and the grounds of the botanical gardens on the other. Tucked in the greenery, one of the Government House turrets peep out from behind the trees on the left; the castle was built in 1845 for the governor of New South Wales. The high rises include the Chifley Tower by Kohn Pederson Fox 1992 (the taller of the two with curved faces); behind it are Deutsche Bank Place, built by the ubiquitous Foster and Partners and here kitted out with permanent scaffolding, and the grimly dark Governor Phillip Tower, named for Arthur Phillip, the admiral who delivered the first convicts. The most arresting detail is the handsome wall of Hawkesbury sandstone, a Triassic rock underlying most of the city and well adapted to quarrying. We'll see lots of old buildings cut from it.

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There's a bit of it right here in the gates to the botanical garden, but the gates aren't quite what they seem: they weren't built for the garden but for the Garden Palace Exhibition, which burned like its approximate model, the Crystal Palace in London. In this case, the fire was in 1882, three years after the exhibition.

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The gardens had been established much earlier, in 1816, by Governor Lachlen Macquarie, the fifth governor of New South Wales and the first with architectural ambitions. His name is on the street at the edge of the garden, and we'll bump into him plenty in the pictures ahead. Macquarie appointed the first colonial botanist in 1817: Charles Fraser was a serious plant explorer. So was Charles Moore, the indestructible director of the garden from 1848 to 1896 and the man who shaped much of the garden as it is today.

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You want to see Government House? Sorry, no luck. You'll have to settle for these fantastic stables, a "palace for horses" built for... wait for it... Governor Macquarie. The design was by an architect sent to Australia as a convict guilty of forgery. Macquarie rescued him and put him to work. The architect was Francis Greenway. We'll see more of him, too. The stables became a music school in 1915 and operate now as the splendidly latinate Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

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Greenway may have designed this, too. It's Cadman's Cottage, built of sandstone about 1815 as a coxswain's barracks and the only building surviving from the first settlement. Cadman was superintendent of government craft, and he lived here from 1826 to 1845. Later the building became a police headquarters, and from 1865 to 1970 it was the headquarters of the Sydney Sailor's Home Trust. Since then it's been an information center for the parks and wildlife service.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 9

Next door is an art gallery built as a home for merchant seamen. In 1979 the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority "resumed" the property (apparently that's Aussie for took it back), but the Seaman's Home organization soldiers on, since 2002 as the Australian Mariner's Welfare Society. More Hawkesbury sandstone.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 10

Between the two buildings is this beautiful staircase; part built and part excavated from... but you know the answer. The Hawkesbury is often hundreds of feet thick. Time for a disquisition: the rock originated in sand eroded from Antarctica before it had separated from Australia. Betcha you didn't know that. And the price was right, too.

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What have we here? It's the 1884 headquarters of the ASN, or Australasian Steam Navigation Company, which operated for about 50 years. The company merged with another in 1887, at which time the government acquired this building. By 1890 the building was storing ordnance, and in 1906 it was turned over to the Department of Defence. In 1950 it became offices for the Australian Commonwealth, and in 1989 the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority took over and began restoring the building to its original appearance and leasing it as offices and galleries.

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Another view, this time of the end tower with its perplexingly useless railing. Who for? Could have been such a cool office.

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By the time of the ASN Building, New South Wales was a busy place in part because of this man, Thomas Mort, a man with fingers in many pies.

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The statue was by Pierce Connolly (alias Pierre Francis Connelly), a native of Louisiana who was especially active in New Zealand; the Australian Dictionary of Biography records that after Mort's death "a meeting of working men in Sydney resolved to show the esteem and respect in which they held his memory; as a result his statue, sculpted by Pierce Connolly, stands in Macquarie Place." Makes you wonder if it's the same planet people live on today.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 15

To keep the harbor and the economy on time, an observatory, built in 1859 on the hill just back from the harbor, lowered a time ball every day precisely at 1 pm. Since 1986 it's been a museum.

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The Macquarie (him again!) Obelisk was erected in 1818. The governor hoped it would be "an ornament to this part of town." The designer was none other than Francis Greenway, the ex-con turned master builder, and the obelisk is the earliest surviving monument in the colony.

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It served a practical purpose, too.

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Here's another side.

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Businessmen need labor, and they got it in part from convicts. Where would those convicts sleep? At first they slept on the streets; later, for better control, they slept in barracks like this one, built by (guess!) Francis Greenway for (guess again!) Governor Lachlen Macquarie. An 1820 painting by Joseph Lycett shows the building as it appears today, though it then stood on a grassy plain. It's about half a mile south of the harbor.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 20

About 1990 the building became a museum of its own history. The museum includes this model of the building at a time when it was surrounded by a cookhouse, bakery, and soldiers' quarters.

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The outbuildings have mostly been removed. Graham Jahn, writing in his very handy Guide to Sydney Architecture , 1997, comments that the building was "miraculously saved from demolition after it had been left to decay for a century."

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Fine, fine brickwork, though much of it was repointed during the conversion to a musuem. In many cases, the bricks were reversed because the exposed edges had weathered.

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Built to last.

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The building was designed to house 800 convicts. They slept like this for decades but only until 1848.

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For the next 40 years, until 1886, the building housed Irish immigrant women--some 40,000 all told. This room shows how they lived. In 1862 the building also began operating as an asylum for aged, infirm or destitute women. Then, from 1887 to 1987, it was a courthouse with related offices.

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This is the Mint Museum, but that's recent: the building opened in 1814 as one wing of the Sydney Hospital. (The central wing was demolished about 1880 and replaced by the masonry building on the left.) The architect is unknown, but Françoise Fromonot and Christopher Thompson write (in Sydney: History of a Landscape, 2000, p. 20) that it is "generally believed to have been based on that of the Government House at Madras." If you've seen that building, which hides somewhere in this website, you'll see a resemblance.

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Fromonot and Thompson include a photo from 1870 showing the building as it is today, except with simpler railings and a small gable front and center. They call the architecture "dog Palladian." Ouch!

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Definitely not doggy anything, this is the Darlinghurst Courthouse, opened in 1844 and designed by Mortimer Lewis, the busy colonial architect from 1835 to 1849. He did only the central section; the wings were added, as they state, in 1884. Why columns were stuck on the front of the wings is anybody's guess; maybe the building-supply house was overstocked.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 29

Out back, there's a fine wall of Hawkesbury sandstone. What's behind it? The answer is the fine, Panopticon-style Darlinghurst Gaol, designed with eight cell blocks around a central chapel. The jail opened in 1841 but closed in 1914; for a time it became a technical college, but since 1995 it has housed the national art school. Several of the old cell blocks appear to survive.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 30

What a relief! Some brick, at least mostly. This is St. James, begun as a courthouse but converted to a church. The architect was ol' Mr. You-Know-Who Greenway. Begun in 1820, in the last years of Macquarie's tenure's as governor, the church is complemented here by the excrescential Sydney Tower, from 1982.

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Inside the church; the interior is not Greenway. The plaques are really interesting, however, though they mostly tell the same story with variations.

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Murder most foul.

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Ditto. The Latin is from Ovid's Metamorphoses, VII, line 518, "With weeping we began, but better fortune followed" (trans. from Theoi Classical e-texts).

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No euphemisms there.

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Same story, another colony.

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Variant: a shipwreck.

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Shy, withdrawn, but kept herself busy.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 38

Dead at 28.

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This is the so-called Judge's House, built 1821-2 by William Harper, a surveyor, and occupied by Judge Dowling, second chief justice of New South Wales. It's smack in the CBD, and Jahn calls it "a survivor from the redevelopments of the 1960s and 1970s" and "now the oldest surviving free-standing dwelling in the central business district."

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The hedge is a nuisance, but around the side we can get a slightly better view. Severe dry rot meant that when the house was finally restored little could be saved of the original, except some of the columns.

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 41

Most of Sydney's surviving 19th century housing is in terraces or (by another name) row houses, and they're almost all equipped with verandas and cast-iron railings. The group here is on Lower Fort, close to the water and the observatory. The style was apparently introduced as early as 1805 when, according to Fromonot and Thompson (p. 18), a notice was published seeking builders for a courthouse with "varando in front, with a small room at each end." There must be thousands of such "Australian colonial bungalows" in Sydney. At first they were occupied by the well-off, but a suburban tide got underway later in the century. Conditions in the older core grew especially grim with an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900. The Harbour Trust was established that year to take over and clean up the nearby wharves.

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We've jumped two miles to the southwest and to a late 19th century suburb, Paddington, which boomed in the years after the establishment of the nearby Victoria Barracks in 1841. Yet the style is the same: row housing with verandas and cast-iron railings--in this case with L-extensions (Glenmore at Brown).

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We're back on Lower Fort Road. Jahn writes, "By the 1840s verandahs were essential features of middle-class terraces despite attempts to suppress them in 1838."

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Here's the rear view of the same lineup, secure on a sandstone ridge overlooking Pottinger Street and the docks of Walsh Bay.

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Another view of the same row.

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Many of these old terraces have been carefully maintained. In this case (lower George Street) they've become shops in the touristy neighborhood called The Rocks.

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Another nearby example of renovation for commercial purposes: Playfair street.

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One study calculates that median prices of housing in Inner Sydney rose from $A500,000 in 2002 to over $A800,000 in 2013. The rise was much greater here than in the suburbs. You want proof? Prices within three miles of the center rose from $A250,000 in 1980 to about $A1,000,000 in 2010; 30 miles out, prices rose in the same period from about $A150,000 to $A350,000.

See "Millers Point and The Rocks: An Alternative Way Forward," by SGS Economics and Plannina, 2014.

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It turns out that the New South Wales Land and Housing Corporation owns hundreds of these houses, which are occupied by tenants, some for generations. In 2014 the Corporation announced plans to move the tenants and sell some 293 government-owned properties. "Social cleansing," protesters cried.

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Cry from the heart.

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"No surrender."

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Some of the houses front Argyle Place, now a park but once a tram stop. The same area came under attack in the 1960s. The developers were successfully resisted then.

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At one end of the green, there's a fountain from 1869. Remember that statue of Mort? Next to it there are some sandstone gate posts that also carry the name of Mayor Renny, a businessman in the wallpaper and glass trade.

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Any variants of terraces? Here's one, very close to Argyle Place.

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And here's another, the much grander Tusculum Villa, built 1830-32 though with the upper colonnade added twenty years later. This is in Pott's Point, a half-hour's walk east of the Circular Quay and a neighborhood to which governors Ralph Darling (1825-31) and Richard Bourke (1831-37) worked to attract people with money. The neighborhood was long ago invaded by massive apartment blocks, and Tusculum survives only because the Royal Australian Institute of Architects rescued the place and made it its headquarters. We'll be back out this way later.

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Leisure before the internet? Beer figures prominently, here found in what may be Sydney's oldest hotel, built 1834-43. Jahn calls it "one of the few remaining pubs of the 37 original licensed premises in The Rocks." A columned veranda has been lost. What's the work under way?

Australia: Sydney: Early Days picture 57

Roads, roads, roads, no doubt related to the plans to redevelopment the neighborhood. The hotel here, the Palisade, is from 1912 and was designed by Henry Walsh, the chief engineer of the Sydney Harbour Trust. For a time it was the tallest building in Sydney. The hotel closed for restoration in 2008 and in 2015 was up for sale.

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Nice glazed brick.

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Does the rooftop restaurant do it for you?

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Another hotel, its plans drawn up in 1921. The hotel was a joint venture between the government, which owned the land, and a local brewer with a chain of pubs. The business relied heavily on workers building the nearby Sydney Harbour Bridge. The place was renovated after 2000.

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The brewer/owner, in pretty tile.

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Less than a mile though world's away from the controversy, Admiralty House looks south across the harbor. It's the official Sydney residence of Australia's Governor-General.


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