I received a message last week from a Darlinghurst resident and reader who was concerned about the ''nasty development planned for the little lane with the beautiful historic sandstone wall that runs behind the terraces at the bottom of Beare's Stairs.''
I had seen the development application for 40A Caldwell Street, but had no idea where that address was and assumed it was a development planned for a site with an existing house. I knew nothing about a laneway or an historic sandstone wall, so set out to investigate.
Even if you walk along Surrey Street or use Beare's Stairs regularly, you may never have noticed a large wooden gate tucked away in the eastern corner of this Caldwell Street laneway. I certainly hadn't noticed it. But here it is:
Behind the wooden gate is a landscaped area that backs on to three Surrey Street terraces. It was difficult to see the landscaping, even when I looked over the gate, and under it:
This is the laneway, which was once a ''dunny lane'' that the reader mentioned and you can see the sandstone foundation wall on the right side of the right photograph. The area is about 2.6m wide and runs the length of three terraces at 79, 77 and 75 Surrey Street and has kind of been requisitioned by them to add an extra third of space to their back gardens. So the laneway is actually a private garden now and it is very difficult for anyone who doesn't live in these three terraces (below) to appreciate the sandstone foundation wall.
The land - just 48m2 of it - is actually a separate Torrens title that dates back to the original 1800s subdivision of this area, now known as the Barcom Conservation Area. Perhaps because of its small size and obscure location, it was never developed. But now, the owners of 40 Caldwell Street (the blue terrace below right) have bought the title and want to develop the space.
The terrace at 40 Caldwell Street is owned by a company called Specialist Advocates, whose sole directors are Federal Court judge Dennis Cowdroy and his wife, Jennifer. Specialist Advocates purchased the title for 40A Caldwell Street in November last year for a token $1 from grazier John Robison, who had inherited the title.
There was a well-researched story in Tuesday's The Australian newspaper by Jodie Minus, which details the history of how the grazier came to have the title, which you can read here.
On February 2 architect Stafford Watts submitted a development application to the City of Sydney council to build a $200,000 four-storey house with three bedrooms for the little site. The house will literally be wedged in to the site, right up against 40 Caldwell Street, which will act as a support wall:
If you look in the above illustration, you can also see how the front of the house will have a 4m high ''sparrow-pecked'' sandstone ''plinth . . . to complement the sandstone base of No 40 Caldwell Street and provide a suitable backdrop to Beare's Stairs,'' according to the Statement of Environmental Effects submitted to the council.
By law, there are also no windows on the side facing the backyards of 75, 77 and 79 Surrey Street, so their privacy isn't an issue. The only issue for those three terraces is sunlight and shadow, which is minutely detailed in the SOEE - but I won't bore you with that. And, of course, the loss of some of their garden.
I understand the reader's concerns about the disappearance of the historic sandstone foundation wall, but I frankly did not know about it anyway; it is only accessible and visible to the residents of those three Surrey Street terraces; and finally, there are loads of historic sandstone walls and foundations around Darlinghurst and I doubt the suburb will suffer for the loss of this one.
Having said that, I really don't think the development application will be approved by the council because it is just seems far too daring and a little bit crazy to want to build a house on this tiny block. Access to the site for builders and scaffolding is also likely to be a major issue and just imagine if a bulldozer or grader or whatever accidentally bumped in to Beare's Stairs and damaged them. The spot would hardly get any sun and would just be a mosquito infested swamp.
I also think it is a good idea to keep these heritage dunny-lanes as they are a rather peculiar relic of the past. What do you think?
Interestingly, Mr Robison the grazier also inherited ''dunny lanes'' at 8A Nimrod Street (above left) and 24A Nimrod Street (above right, reclaimed by property owners years ago), which he has so far left unclaimed.
The Griffin Theatre Company has applied to the NSW Land and Property Management Authority for possession of the title at 8A. The title apparently runs all the way along the backs of houses on Craigend and Caldwell streets, right past the theatre to the kerb. The theatre want the title so they can use the wide footpath area (below - apologies for the grainy night pic) for an alfresco day cafe and night bar. They will add another entrance to the theatre in the wall on the right.
To view the development application for 40A Caldwell Street, Darlinghurst, visit the council's site here.
The exhibition period closes on Thursday March 3.
UPDATE: The exhibition period has been extended to March 25.
While on the topic of heritage, the submission period for the council's proposed redevelopment of Fitzroy Gardens was extended until February 25 - that's tomorrow! Be quick!
Visit the Save Fitzroy Gardens website, which has an easy one-click-wonder-way to lodge your submission.