Last weekend I had a day to myself, a rare event, and I was at a loss for what to do. I could sit on the sofa and do nothing, I could lay on the ned and read all day or I could lay about by the pool, but no I thought to myself, I will get up and do something. That something turned out to be a walk around my neighbourhood…
Ok, so that does not sound too exciting I know, the walk was actually a way to discover some of the cultural history of the area I live in that I might not have taken notice of before. I downloaded an app “Sydney Culture Walks” and off I went. I live right by The Cross, or Kings Cross as it is officially called, in fact it was first called Queens Cross to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria (Victoria road being one of the main roads here), and is the site of the now heritage listed Coca-Cola sign which is now the key landmark of this area. I then walked down Victoria Street (Potts Point section) to 202 which is where Juanita Nielsen, the heiress used to live; she was so much more than that though. She was a publisher, activist for conservation and community issues, and very anti-development campaigns. She disappeared in Kings Cross in 1975 in mysterious circumstances and her remains have not been found and those who killed her have never been identified. It is thought her refusal to sell her house to make way for development is why she was murdered.
It is thanks to Juanita Nielsen and her legacy that many of the very grand buildings along Victoria Street still exist, and a slow walk down here taking the time to really take in these building is worth it. A little way down this street you will find The Butler Stairs, these were built in 1870 to link Woolloomooloo and Potts Point, they are beautiful sandstone steps and will give your gels a real work out (these are not to be confused with the wider, less pretty, McElhone stars which are further down the street).
I then made my way to Embarkation Park, a park I did not even know existed! You get great views of the city and the wharfs of Woolloomooloo from here, this is actually a park built on top of a multistorey carpark. St Vincent’s College is right by the park, The Sisters of Charity acquired what was an old residence on this site, for a convent. They established a free hospital in 1857 (which is now the more modern hospital near Oxford Street) and a school for the local children in 1858, the college now has about 700 students, with 160 boarders in what must be one of the most regal buildings in the city. The college itself is on Challis Avenue, which is named after John Henry Challis, who arrived in Sydney in 1829 and became a successful local merchant. The Challis Bequest was his way of leaving all his property to the University of Sydney on his death. The street has some amazing town houses built in Greek Revival style, as well as Romanesque style terraces with elaborate colonnaded verandas, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Europe.
This was about halfway through my walk and it was a warm day so I decided to sop for some refreshment, and what a coincidence once of the spots on my walk was Yellow House, which just happens to be a very fine restaurant now. This 1897 terrace was once owned by Frank and Thelma Clune, who were patrons of the arts. In 1957 it became the Terry Clune Gallery, and artists who exhibited there included Russell Drysdale, John Olsen (whose work I know from staying at the Olsen Hotel in Melbourne) and John Perceval. For a short period in the 70’s it was an ‘artist community’ and in this time nearly every surface was painted with images inspired by the Surrealists and Van Gogh, which is where the modern name comes from, being named after Van Gogh’s Yellow House in Arles. In 2003 it was reinvented as apartments, with a restaurant space on the ground floor.
After my refreshment I walked on to Elizabeth Bay House, a place I have often walked past but never entered, if I remember correctly it was only $8 to get in and worth every cent. I went to the cellar, as instructed, and started my tour there buy watching a short vide that gives you a nice introduction to the house and its history. It was originally the home of Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay from 1839. The design is attributed to John Verge, who also designed Tusculum (anther spot on my walk) and Rockwall. It is a little bit crazy to think when originally built this was surrounded by lush bush land and was about a mile and a half from the nearest building of Sydney, given that it is now overlooked from behind by high-rise apartments. Before being subdivided into different lots it was a 54 acre (21.8 hectare) estate. Between 1928 and 1935 it became a squat where some of Sydney’s Bohemian artists lived rent-free with beautiful harbour views. The NSW Government finally restored and opened it to the public as a house museum in 1977. I love this kind of place, it is a real eye into a world from the past, and it is worth going in just to see the wonderful oval, domed saloon with its curving, cantilevered staircase, this is said to be one of the finest interiors of a 19th century Australian building and I am sure it is.
I then made my way up Greenknowe Ave to make my way back to The Cross and passed the Kingsclere Building on the corner with Macleay Street, now I have always loved this building, I would live in it in a shot. What I did not know was that it was built in 1912 and was designed by Halligan and Wilton, and was the first block of high-rise apartments built in the area and indeed was among the first in Sydney. They were the height of luxury when built, aimed at an exclusive market, with not just one but two balconies and two bathrooms for each flat (not so common back then), the apartments also included luxurious wood panelling and get this, automatic passenger lifts!!!!
I then made my way to Tusculum house on Hughes Street, when the first land grants were made in this area houses had to meet several conditions — they had to cost at least £1000 (see Sydney property prices have always been crazy), they had to face the city, and be approved by the Governor. Tusculum, as mentioned, was also designed by John Verge for the merchant Alexander Brodie Spark in 1835. It is very imposing today but was typical of the houses that once dominated this area. Since it was built it has been through many uses, becoming almost derelict before being restored in 1988 to house the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.
I then took a walk down Orwell Street, if you like Art Deco buildings, this is a must. The Metro building, designed by Bruce Dellit in the 1930s is a near perfect example of this style of architecture. Another great Art Deco building nearby is what is now the Kings Cross Neighbourhood Services Centre (No.52 Darlinghurst Rd), be sure to look up above street level away from the sex workers and drug addicts and you will see a beautiful façade.
And I ended my little walk at the El Alamein Fountain, designed by Robert Woodward, and built in 1961. The dandelion effect of its bronze pipes has become a emblem of Kings Cross, this is on the site of what was Maramanah House, once occupied by eccentric aunts in Robin Eakin’s book Aunts up the Cross (1965). The house was sold to the City Council in 1945 and demolished to build Fitzroy Gardens.
Who would have thought I had so much to learn on my very own doorstep, playing tourist in my own city reminds me why I call this place home.