Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Across the Border: Kings Cross: Fitzroy Gardens

This Saturday there is going to be a rally in Kings Cross to protest the City of Sydney council's plans to redevelop the Fitzroy Gardens on Macleay Street.
The plans also include redevelopment of Lawrence Hargrave Reserve, which is located across the street on the top of the multi-storey car park on Elizabeth Bay Road.
Fitzroy Gardens is home to the famous El Alamein Fountain - which, like the Coca Cola sign, is almost a logo for Kings Cross - and on weekends hosts a food market (Saturdays) and a flea market (Sundays), so it attracts a lot of locals. The Lawrence Hargrave Reserve, perhaps due to its location, doesn't attract so much foot traffic, although it does have a good-sized rosemary bush, which is handy when you're cooking a roast.
As a result, the rally on Saturday is more a protest against the proposed changes to Fitzroy Gardens, while it seems the council is welcome to do what it likes to the little-used reserve.
The gardens were first established in the 1950s and their present design and landscaping date to 1971.
Prior to that, from the mid-1800s, the gardens's site was home to two large residences, Osterley and Maramanah:


Maramanah - admittedly, not a great photo

And in those days Lawrence Hargrave Reserve was occupied by another grand residence, Kinneil:

Kinneil in 1944 with a smart guard of honour of Second Australian Imperial Force soldiers.

The 54 acres that is now known as Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay was granted to Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay in October 1826 and he lived at Elizabeth Bay House after construction was completed in 1839. From 1841 Macleay's land was subdivided and sold off.

Osterley was built in the mid-1850s as a home for barrister Edward Broadhurst and wife, Harriet, and the family remained there until 1894 when it was then tenanted to various people including hotelier Charles Roberts, gynaecologist Joseph Foreman and Chief Justice of the High Court Adrian Knox.
The property was demolished in 1927 and the site was used for recreational purposes including miniature golf and tennis.

Maramanah was built earlier in the 1840s for shipping merchant William Deloitte but when he defaulted on his mortgage in 1850 the house was bought by Anna Challis, whose husband, John, later left a significant sum to the University of Sydney.
Politician Arthur Hodgson purchased the property less than a decade later but only kept it for a couple of years before selling to Thomas Farrell, who leased it out for the next 20 years or so.
Later owners include Edward Sparke (he named it Maramanah) and the Hollander family, who featured in Robin Dalton's 1965 memoir, Aunts Up the Cross.
In 1943, the grand residence was requisitioned for use as a recreational centre for US Navy personnel and a couple of years later became the canteen for the Royal Navy.
After the war, in 1946, Maramanah made the headlines when returned servicemen illegally moved in to the property, saying they had nowhere else to live. Supporters rallied outside and made public appeals for furniture and cooking utensils for the squatters. The squatters were accused of being Communist agitators, as the political party hosted a number of meetings at Maramanah during this time.

Kinneil's history is not as colourful. The big stone house was built for wine merchant John Brown in the 1840s and later owners included department store king David Jones, P&O Company shipping agent Henry Moore and railway contractor Robert Amos, who subdivided the property, creating Barncleuth Square.
Elizabeth O'Connell bought the house in 1913 and subdivided again to create eight blocks for apartments and later turned Kinneil into a guesthouse.
In 1943 Kinneil played host to the Australian and Allied Officers Club, providing accommodation and meals to more than 100 men.

It hard to imagine all that now, as there is absolutely no physical trace of these buildings's existence. By the 1930s Potts Point was the most densely populated area in Australia - a title retained today - and there was increasing demand by residents for greater amenities and recreational space.
The council responded to this need, and over the next two decades began purchasing at great expense the three properties discussed above, and Fitzroy Gardens was built in stages as the land was acquired.
The El Alamein fountain, designed by Robert Woodward and Phil Taranto (from Bankstown, in Sydney's west), was installed in November 1961 and named to commemorate the Ninth Division of Australian Imperial Forces and their famed victory in Egypt during WWII.

By 1968, when this photograph was taken by Beverley Clifford, Fitzroy Gardens was a popular community asset. But its haphazard design and dust-bowl effect created by large expanses of grass led to calls for a proper development of the park, incorporating all its varied spaces.

German and Latvian educated Ilmar Berzins was responsible for the project.
Berzins was the first qualified landscape architect to practice in Sydney and his designs, which include the Sandringham Gardens at Sydney's Hyde Park, were in the Modern European style.
Berzins's plans included building a better link between the El Alamein fountain and the rest of the park, as well as raised garden beds in hexagonal shapes made of convict sandstone brick. The bricks were laid specifically to highlight the indents of the worker's excavation tools.
The work was completed in 1971 and for the first time the park's disparate elements were combined in one unified design.

For forty years Berzins's Fitzroy Gardens have provided a sanctuary and meeting place for locals as well as attracting millions of tourists who seek to rest their weary feet on its benches and photograph themselves next to Kings Cross's landmark fountain.
Even thirty or so years after it was designed Berzins's garden began hosting a Saturday food market, that started with small crowds and now attracts visitors from outside the area. The gardens, with their meandering paths and secret spaces are a perfect home for market stalls.

But then the City of Sydney council, after stripping all character from Taylor Square with vast sheaths of grey granite, wanted another project to work on. In 2008 they began surveying locals about what they did and did not like about the Fitzroy Gardens.

An ''Intercept Survey'' from November of that year, in which 48 people filled out a workbook detailing their desires and dislikes, found that most liked the park just as it was.
There were a few complaints about Ibis poo and cracked paving stones but most wanted to retain the design of the park and the location of the stalls at the Saturday markets, and they certainly did not want any trees removed.

But the council is running ahead with their $9 million vision to homogenise the city and when they have finished, a visit to Fitzroy Gardens, could feel like a trip to Pyrmont or Circular Quay or Taylor Square. It will lose its identity.

The council's plans include demolishing Berzins's carefully placed convict bricks . . .

The removal of Berzins's palm grove . . .

And the razing of Berzins's artfully designed raised garden beds . . .

. . . to create a bland, flat space, paved in the council's signature grey granite.

The proposed construction also risks upsetting the root system of the 100-year-old Ficus tree in the picture above.

According to the council's concept plans their ''vision'' for Fitzroy Park is to ''tame the many levels of the park . . . the general sense of disorientation''.
But that complaint never cropped up in their Intercept Survey.
And you have to be suspicious of the council's motivation - and worried about their abilities - when they throw around sentences such as these:

''Our challenge is to reconcile two seemingly opposing impulses. Once (sic) to unify the space and to give is (sic) an urban order and a singular identity, the other to find within this organization (sic) spaces that are rich, intimate, robust and diverse.''

I'm opposed to the council's plans because if they go ahead Kings Cross will lose an integral part of its identity and, even more importantly, its heritage.

The 1970s provided few gifts in terms of architecture in Sydney, but Berzins's garden design is still appealing and is still functional. Berzins should be commemorated for this and his Kings Cross garden should not be destroyed.
When we in the 21st Century, start deriding our recent past and removing all trace of it, what will be left in 100 years time to prove that Australians and new migrants were actually capable of good design in the 1970s?
But the council wants to erase this real heritage to instead celebrate a contrived history by design-checking Alexander Macleay's butterfly and bug collection housed in the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney:

''Still Fitzroy Gardens will recall its formative past. The jewel-like curios of the Macleay collection inspiring the material's palette, beautiful glistening pavements, custom seats winged like butterflies or petalled and open to conversation.
''While tiled benches with fluted bases incised like the brass weir on El Alemain fountain draw on more recent histories.
''Combined with arching palms, strange and unusual plants, Fitzroy Gardens will once again be wonderful place (sic), matching a grand and bohemian past with this future renewal.''

So the council wants to spend $9 million on glistening pavements, seating with butterfly wings and strange and unusual plants, but the Ibis will still continue to shit on it anyway.
The Friends of Fitzroy Gardens* is opposed to the council's plans and resident and member Michael Gormly, has built an entire website devoted to the cause. (He also has a blog devoted to the hood, called Kings Cross Times.)
Gormly spent most of last Saturday manning a small desk at Fitzroy Gardens to alert residents to the proposed development and encourage them to sign a petition against the plans.

Michael Gormly

Some people I spoke to at the markets scoffed at the idea that the garden-bed bricks were made from convict stone, that the palm grove was being removed and that the Ficus roots could be damaged during construction. They accused Gormly and Co of having ulterior political motives. But I have looked at the council's plans, including the heritage assessment and the arborist report, and they truly are convict stones, the palms are being removed and the Ficus roots could be damaged (''May result in some root severance damage leading to an adverse impact.'').

The more I learn about Fitzroy Gardens, the stronger I feel about not wanting to see this beautiful, character-filled place bulldozed and turned into some hideous cookie-cutter Cockle Bay style tourist attraction.

The Friends is organising the rally, which is being held this Saturday at Fitzroy Gardens from 11am. Visit the Save Fitzroy Gardens website for more details.

*The Friends is a coalition of local business and resident groups including The Potts Point Partnership, the 2011 Residents Association, Potts Point and Kings Cross Heritage Conservation Society, Darlinghurst Residents Association, the Kings Cross Arts Guild and the Kings Cross Community Centre.


Vitrolite said...

I trotted a couple of hundred metres up to one of the more recent 'sham consultations', and I think the council's architect is (mostly) right. I don't find the current gardens pedestrian friendly, or particularly successful, or even very egalitarian. They're a great host for markets, and the fountain cafe must be raking it in, but the walls make no sense to me - why divert us around the sides of the park, alongside the shops and past that caged playground, when we could walk through the middle, under the tree? A good place for doing business is not my sense of a good place.

Opinions differ, obviously.

What's most interesting is the strangeness of the allies. A middle aged woman on Saturday told me that the changes would bring revellers and nightlife into sleepy Elizabeth Bay. My partner agrees. But Michael Gormly, the one-man lobby for drunk kids, surely doesn't care - and I agree with him. If anything, the most repugnant aspect of the Cross is the smugness of those who lay claim to some long-gone inner-city sophistication - some 'raffishness' - by making snide remarks about kids from the suburbs. I don't mind yelling abuse at them when they wake you up (I do it), but when Mackenzie Wark puns knowingly about kids in the cross 'Slouching towards Bexley', it makes me sick. So does the idea of designing parks to ensure kids from the suburbs know they're not welcome in our expensive arts enclave. Novelists and playwrights and journos, however much they congratulate themselves for congregating in the cross, don't make it 'raffish', nor egalitarian.

Someone else I overheard on Saturday complained that the kid's park was not going to be fenced. Presumably the children will then be liable to roam dangerously in a park, and climb on things that are not age-approriate, and not constructed of plastic and soft-fall. Best perhaps to leave them in the Lexus, or the sunroom. The kid downstairs from me is about three, and his two favorite things are riding his scooter in rushcutters bay, and climbing down the new steps to the water. Here's hoping the raffish activists don't have his mother cautioned and his harbor steps fenced off.

None of that was to the point. The purpose of my comment was really just to recount an afternoon four or five years ago with my then neighbour, Marie-Claire (tiny white dog, pink lipstick, ventures out thrice daily, you'd know her), who lived opposite the car park since well before the big house and the townhouses were pulled down. She wasn't upset when they were torn down, because they were untidy and full of immigrants who always sat outside. I asked a lot of leading questions and she conceded that they were beautiful and probably shouldn't have been demolished for a road extension. But she wasn't convinced. Didn't like the people.

It's not the same as the DMR demolishing by the thousands the houses of immigrants and workers in north sydney and woolloomooloo (and the cross too, on craigend). Or at least, it's not the same scale, just the same idea. Progress means getting out of the way. Mostly of cars. It'd be a shame if, in saving fitzroy gardens, we also preserve intact this nasty episode.

Violet Tingle said...

Hi Vitrolite, thanks for your comment. I agree: I don't like it when locals make snide remarks about people from the suburbs coming into the neighbourhood and ruining the place. I know plenty of locals who vomit in the gutter too!

Andrew Woodhouse said...

The Lawrence Hargrave Reserve, Ward Avenue, Kings Cross, should not be altered in any way that obliterates the Memorial erected in June 2005 to those who sacrificed their lives serving Australia.
This registered memorial including the brass plaque set into the concrete wall and the important garden bed surrounds include Rosemary.
Rosemary is a widely-used symbol of fidelity and is handed out by Legacy and the RSL on Remembrance Day: it has particular poignancy for Australians because it flowers naturally on the Gallipoli peninsular.
Memorial Services conducted by the Rev Graham Long are held annuually at 11:00 am on 11th November, with last Thursday's service also well-attended.

Any new garden design should respect the past for our future.
Lest we forget.

Thank you,
Andrew Woodhouse
President, Potts Point & Kings Cross Heritage Conservation Society

Anonymous said...

Great article . I use to own a house that backed onto Shannon Reserve in Surry Hills. They have almost finished putting in a new playground with orange umbrellas and denuded it of trees. The playground is a disgrace in my opinion. But don’t take my word for it go an take a look for yourself then do all you can to stop this tasteless design taking hold in potts point .