Sydneysiders, are you ready? This Sunday, 2 November, is the 10th edition of Sydney Living Museum’s famous bi-annual event that allows you to unlock the city’s secrets: Sydney Open.
Fifty buildings around the city centre will open their doors to visitors with the prized City Pass. Included on the list this year are historic highlights such as Government House and the National Art School (housed in former Darlinghurst Gaol), architectural landmarks ranging from new eco-friendly skyscrapers to Harry Seidler’s best-loved creations, creative spaces, churches, and more. Click here for information on buildings and tickets.
Focus tours of several properties are also held for those who want a more detailed look. Plus, a nifty app – click here to download – complete with maps, building information and several self-guided itineraries will make exploring the city that much easier.
In anticipation of this year’s Sydney Open, Inside History decided to revisit our notes on the event last time around, two years ago, filed by one very impressed correspondent (yours truly).
Sydney Open 2012 saw 50 of the city’s most fascinating, historic and private buildings open their doors and welcome eager hordes of history nerds, architecture junkies and sightseers alike.
Proudly sporting the pink wristband that marked me as one of these explorers, I too was determined to uncover Sydney’s hidden secrets, by immersing myself in her historic buildings, from the grand to the little-known. Particularly appealing were those which open to visitors only during this biennial event. With 50 Historic Houses Trust properties inviting exploration in only seven-and-a-half fleeting hours, it was a race against the clock and around the city streets.
Stop number one was tucked away at the eastern end of King Street, its spire overshadowed somewhat by nearby Sydney Tower. St James’ Church was a particularly special spot, designed by convict-turned-eminent-architect Francis Greenway. Consecrated in 1824, it is Sydney’s oldest extant church, yet perhaps most fascinating is the golden secret beneath it: the tiny Children’s Chapel.
Entering the Chapel was like stepping into an illuminated manuscript of distinctly Australian design. Glimmering gold leaf and native flowers adorned the walls alongside vibrantly coloured frescoes of young children sailing in the nearby harbour. One corner even depicts the construction of the Harbour Bridge, which was built around the same time as the fresco’s design, by Ethel Anderson in 1927.
Next on the agenda was a behind-the-scenes look at Sydney Fire Station on Castlereagh Street. Constructed in 1887, the site remains a functional fire station – firemen were on-site, their long hoses splayed and fire trucks at the ready in case of an emergency. The old uniforms and 1890s fire engines on display attested to their forebears, who laboured with equal dedication yet under remarkably different conditions.
Before the advent of fire trucks, firemen had to push manual engines along as they ran towards the blaze on foot. Stations were micro-communities, the compulsory home for all firemen and their families. And horses were part of the crew – one named Ranji served for 13 years until retiring to Lismore in 1922! Photos on display, and their accompanying stories, illustrated the brigade’s camaraderie and underlined the tragedy of the inevitable deaths on the job. It was an absorbing insight into an institution that has been coming to the rescue of Sydneysiders for generations. Across the city, beneath a modern apartment block on Windmill Street, The Rocks, an underground archaeological dig beckoned: the Parbury Ruins. A small window at street level showcased ceramic fragments of 1830s origin – a mere fraction of the 20,000 plus artefacts the site has yielded to date, thanks to its use as a depot in the 1880s. Descend below the current street level, however, and you enter a dark, humid space that formerly occupied the Windmill Street Cottages.
Former convict come good Hugh Noble resided in this cottage until 1831. Bulky sandstone walls crisscrossed a diagonally steep hill, with a hand-hewn well situated worryingly close to what was presumably the privy. As we plunged farther down the hill and further back in time, the stories shared by our guide Belinda had us envisioning how the house must have looked in their colonial heyday, from the slightly visible salmon pink wallpaper to the supreme harbour views beyond.
By the end of the day, I had ventured behind the scenes of New South Wales State Parliament, frolicked backstage at Sydney Theatre, learnt about Judaism at the Great Synagogue and wrinkled my nose at bottled human specimens at the Sydney Eye Hospital. I had visited Sir Henry Parkes’s offices, tiptoed through the vaults of Sydney Town Hall, then admired its distinctive slate-covered from the overlooking balcony of neighbouring Hong Kong House. Not to mention inadvertent celebrity-spotting, having passed comedian Tim ‘Rosso’ Ross, an event ambassador, outside Town Hall. Exhausting, yes, but well worth it.
I concluded my day with an unsuspecting office building, 30 The Bond, near the waterfront at Millers Point. In 1839, Sydney’s first gas works were built on this site, and a massive hand-hewn sandstone wall remains from the original structure. Strikingly, this wall is used to full effect, standing like a cliff face cross feature wall within the central atrium of an otherwise modern building. Clusters of glass offices, almost futuristic in comparison, overlook the 19th-century wall, embodying a perfect melding of Sydney’s heritage with cutting-edge sustainable design. The perfect ending to a day spent exploring the places and learning about the characters of my home city’s past.