Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Rock On and On

 Throughout our Australian wanderings, we gathered as much history as we could, in museums and from the interpretive panels we came upon. The fascinating old neighbourhood of Sydney long called The Rocks did not disappoint. I'd been travelling there for some time, thanks to a wonderful work of adolescent fiction by New Zealand born Australian author Ruth Park, loaned by friend Larry in preparation for the visit. I believe he understands my tendency to time travel when in company with early buildings.

The novel Playing Beatie Bow is based on a time slip, which takes a modern girl back to the 1840s Dickens-grimy seaport neighbourhood of The Rocks. I recommend the book highly.

The top two photos are not actually  of The Rocks in 1840, but a preserved shop/house of the era interpreted at Susannah Place Museum. Have a look at their site, and some of the historic photos of the neighbourhood which Ruth Park peopled for us. (Only Frank McCourt, in my experience, has painted so well, the grittiness and community which could exist side by side, in such a place.)

A walk around today's somewhat sanitized old neighbourhood yields lots of descriptive panels, with archival photos providing the before and after.

What captivated me about the area was, well, the rocks. The old buildings and even older trees seem to sprout directly from the sandstone cliff down which the early town tumbled. Ancient stone stairs, a street running through a rock tunnel created by convict labour with pick and shovel, fernss clinging to the exquistely eroded stone...all are difficult to capture in photos, but anchored in my heart forever.

And over-arching everything, the familiar Sydney Harbour bridge (opened 1932) which was the  unstoppable force which began to change the precinct forever. Several hundred buildings were demolished during its construction.

The area had been embattled since the early 1900s (a bubonic plague outbreak put authorities on alert, and the 'slum' area was assumed by the state - the plans were to level the lot, and build modern high density housing.) The neighbourhood of moth-eaten buildings tumbling higgledy-piggledy down sandstone outcrops became especially endangered during the 'improvement imperative' of the 1970s -heritage armaggedon in so many neighbourhoods worldwide. Regent Park, down under.
It was a struggle to preserve the Rock's historic buildings. Admittedly, it was not heritage preservationists, but citizen activists opposed to the demolition of the old buildings providing affordable housing for the working class residents of the area, who carried the day. In response, the builders' union imposed a Green Ban; demonstrations and arrests ensued. Eventually, the ethic of  renovation over removal won out, and today the Rocks is a fascinating mix of low-income housing, cafes and galleries in historic buildings, overarching green canopies, and historic pubs (two of them the oldest in Sydney.)

Let me take you on a stroll.

Trees and old architecture. Was I in my happy place? A lineup of local craft IPA's only added to the joy.

 Difficult to imagine the lives of toil lived in some of these early commercial and warehouse buildings. Argyle Stores, a c1826 bond store is one of the oldest commercial buildings in The Rocks.The bond stores housed merchandise (sugar, cloth, spirits and tea for which the new settlement had a thirst) newly landed in Sydney's busy port, holding the shipments until import duties were paid.

former wool warehouse

firm foundation
If you're interested in accompanying me as I research the history of the neighbourhood, here's as good a place to start as any.
 The Argyle Cut, a rock cut through the sandstone bluff which once separated nearby Millers Point and The Rocks, manages to evoke the 1840s despite all the tourist and commuter traffic which travels its murky lengths. Backbreaking convict labour with primitive tools made unsatisfactory progress from 1843 to 1867, whereupon Municipal Council took over - you can see the drill marks indicating that dynamite was in their arsenal.

The plaque carved into the rock wall reads Cha. Moore, Mayor, 1867 & 1866.

A set of stone steps rises from Argyle Street. The Argyle Stairs were built in 1911 during widening of the Cut, and realignment of earlier streets. Great walk up to

Mayor Moore takes all the credit

The rocks of The Rocks.

47 George Street
The convict-hewn sandstone-built  Hero of Waterloo is one of thirteen pubs in the precinct, I am told. The Hero of Waterloo features dungeon-quality sandstone block walls (by-products of the Argyle cut construction) and rumours of tunnels through which unwary drinkers found their way to sea.
Harbour View Hotel 
If you would like to see what else the Harbour View Hotel looks out on, have a Streetview peek. Following these streets at my desk conjures the intense noise of the busy city, the bridge-bound traffic hurtling overhead.

Cadman's Cottage
 Cadman's Cottage sits in a welcome park that separates the noise and bustle of Circular Quay from the older part of town. It takes a minute to let the past filter in and allow the Georgian sandstone cottage built as accommodation for boat captains take you back to 1816 and the early days of the colony. A pause and you're reminded that this dense CBD was once an open bay; this cottage once sat at water's edge.
Like 'Kilroy' - the bridge looms over the Hickson Street neighbourhood

The flamboyantly Flemish gables of the 1884/5 Australasian Steam Navigation Company here's a view) now shelter a prestigious art gallery. Ken Done is one of the country's most famous (controversial?) artists. As a result, we didn't happen in, but you might pick up a coffee mug on your next visit.

George Street
The south portal to The Rocks borders George Street North. Quite a time-shift from the incredible bustle of Circular Quay. We recommend decompressing at The Fortune of War pub before venturing further back in time.

James Gibbs himself would be impressed by the the assertive facade of Police Station #4 nearby on George Street, which discouraged boozy acting out until 1974. A plaque honours the earlier occupant of  the site, the 1790s First General Hospital, whose nurses were commandeered from the convict population. Here's their story. The history of the area forces one to rethink the deportation story - not all were hardened criminals who entered the city's criminal class. Many were victims of fate who later contributed their skills to the growing colony - and were welcomed for it.

A plaque nearby traces one man's journey from pickpocket to Chief Constable.

Here's a look at the streetscape. Doubtless the whole character-soaked block was destined for replacement by the kind of giants you see to the left of the photo. I added the Streetview link as I failed to get the resolutely Gothic sandstone facade of the English Scottish & Australian Chartered Bank.

Argyle Street

Argyle Terrace (1875-77) is a residential terrace sensitively restored into galleries and accommodation. I found one of the 'luxury colonial terraces" on offer through Air BnB. How the original residents would marvel at the light and luxury. Towering in the distance, the chimney stack of the short-lived1900 George Street Electric Light Power Station.
Nearby, wall posters at a cheery outdoor cafe invite the occupant of the colourful seats into the story of the Rocks riots of the 1970s, and one of the heroes, union leader Jack Mundey.

I've become so homesick revisiting these photos, and vicariously this wonderful precinct of Sydney. If you're feeling the same (because surely you've been there, if only in imagination) you may want to venture further. Here's a walking tour I found online. Sorry about the ads, but then, the actual neighbourhood exists to recount our history - as well as to make a buck.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Love at First Sight

Well, it's been a while. Seven weeks of travel in Australia and New Zealand. Almost fifty days of wonder, at the architecture - traditional, colonial, Edwardian, Deco, mid-century, and contemporary, of two countries like ours, but so very different. Incidentally, I vow never again to pair them up, as we tend to do, like Newfoundland and Labrador. They are so unique, and within each, vastly different regions. We saw a scarce sampling. And we are smitten.

So, I intend to indulge in a little mandate drift for a bit. Well, it's my blog. And I will do so despite the realization that I may be a bit inarticulate, having engaged in a lot of wordless response to the natural and built world around me on the other side of the globe this winter. And I'm still a bit laggy and sleep deprived.

Taking AR on a side trip into the built heritage of those two countries, given they are/were British/European 'colonies', seems to me fair game. Each, like ours, was developed on indigenous territory, with that assumption of superiority that was the colonial mindset. I won't go on, but the growing awareness of wrong done, and redress possible is palpable everywhere. A story so similar to our own country. Yet different. In Australia for instance, the forced immigration of the penal colonies is a unique story, which shaped the country's sense of itself - and left some compelling historic sites.

"Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice" (Will Durant.) We Canadians complain about winter cold and freeze-thaw cycles that challenge our structures. A look at the reverse side of old earth reminded us that New Zealand designers and builders plan for earthquakes, volcanoes and cyclones. And tidy up afterwards, as Napier and Christchurch revealed.

Then there are the gold-feverish excesses of Ballarat and other Australian centres. And everywhere, on sheep stations and working-class suburbs, c19 vernacular houses sprouted encircling verandahs, with unique curving metal roofs, to ward off a merciless sun. And oh, the 'iron lace,'  filigree cast iron railings on porches in old neighbourhoods in many cities.

At first glance, it seemed to us that there is a greater emphasis on preservation and adaptive resuse. Oh sure, they indulged in the 1970s 'out with the old in with the new' wave that we did, but to us travelling through, it seemed that there is a repurposing imperative: "this is empty, what will we make of it?" The historic docklands reclamations in Melbourne, Wellington and Auckland leap to mind. As do the wonderfully intact historical areas of The Rocks precinct in Sydney, and the town of Oarmaru on the South Island, NZ. And countless atmospheric warehouses recreated as shops and restaurants everywhere.

Residential development is spreading fast in many cities. Population growth in some cities is shocking, residents confided, fuelled by Asian immigration. (And North Americans succumbing to love at first sight.) The style trend is modernist - crisp, clean, white, flat roofs and lots of glass. Not a  faux Georgian or Craftsman among them. Just add sun and a few dramatic tropical trees. Palate cleansing.