My dear friend John Webber was telling me last week that Barry Minhinnick, who has been the caretaker-resident at Hensley Hall since 1992, was about to be evicted. If you live in the area, you would know Hensley Hall, a grand old former private hotel at 35-39 Bayswater Road. You would probably also recognise Barry from either seeing him sitting on the front-steps of Hensley Hall playing guitar, or just around the streets of the Cross on his latest bicycle.
I was quite bewildered about the news of Barry's potential eviction, so John and I rushed over to Hensley Hall to see if he was home. We cased the joint from the back alley . . .
. . . and around the side past Barry's ''Simple Garden'', which he has been developing over the past ten years from objects salvaged from construction sites and dumpsters:
It's a really creative garden with sculptures and garden beds made from old spring-beds, hot-plates, ovens, fence palings and other found objects.
The garden was the subject of a Gardening Australia television segment last month called, A Kings Cross Treasure.
It has also inspired the imaginations of many people who walk by.
When John and I came around to the front of Hensley Hall, there were piles of books on the front steps and along the footpath that Barry was giving away for free.
Luckily, while having a snoop through the books, Barry spotted us, stuck his head out the window and called out: ''News gets around fast.'' He was referring to the eviction and then invited us inside to explain. I can't go into the details of the eviction as it is subject to court proceedings, but I can take you along on a tour of Hensley Hall.
Barry is in packing up mode, so there were piles and piles of books everywhere. He is also a bower bird, so the place is full of curios, both historical and just plain interesting.
We sat in Barry's kitchen while he filled us in on the history of Hensley Hall and showed us some of his collection.
Barry moved into the residence in 1992, shortly after it closed down as a boarding house.
While packing up his belongings he came across this old copy of The Sydney Morning Herald from 1989. He had kept it because it was about the fire in the Down Under Hostel, on Darlinghurst Road, in which six backpackers lost their lives.
According to the headlines, Abe Saffron owned the building, which was just next to McDonalds on the strip.
Barry has also collected a dead rat (which I nearly trod on):
Some oil paintings salvaged from the Hampton Court Hotel on Bayswater Road, which is currently being converted into apartments:
Anyway, as Barry was telling us, Hensley Hall was built in 1912, designed by architect Barry Greig, and the present owner purchased it in 1938.
The last person to live in the building before Barry was a Rat of Tobruk called Ernie Joyce. Joyce was among dozens of tenants in the then boarding house in the 1980s, but during that decade the owner evicted everyone, save for Ernie and about four other diggers.
As the diggers dropped off, Ernie remained and was kept company by his friend, Austin Roonan. But when Austin died inside Hensley Hall, Ernie became too frightened to live on his own, so he moved out and Barry moved in to keep the squatters away.
There are 36 rooms in Hensley Hall, which are located across two wings and a double storey building in the back yard.
I must admit that I rather lost my bearings while being led through the rabbit warren of rooms.
The building is presently owned by Hensley Hall Pty Ltd, a company directed by John Chapman and Stephen Williams, who are based in the suburbs south of Sydney.
I imagine that if they choose to sell Hensley Hall, they could make millions, based on its location. But the building would have to be demolished as there are vast sections that are just rotting away from the rain. Barry mainly lives in the front section of the building, which is less damaged, and he even demonstrated the ''bucket of water out the window'' method that he has to employ when it rains.
It's a sad end to a once grand building, which was initially known as Mercedes.
The first mention of the building in The Sydney Morning Herald was in September 1921 when Harold Julian Wilberforce of 52 Bayswater Road, sued Marie Boeck, the boarding-house keeper of Mercedes for the recovery of 75 Pounds in damages (the value of a suitcase, jewellery and personal effects) as well as 10 Pounds for alleged detention.
Mr Wilberforce had been a boarder at Mercedes and when he enlisted in the AI Forces in February 1918, he arranged for two suitcases of his belongings to be stored at the boarding house while he was away at camp. But when he returned from war only one suitcase could be found.
Ms Boeck claimed that Mr Wilberforce had actually taken one of the suitcases with him before he went to war. Judge Curlewis of the NSW District Court found in Ms Boeck's favour.
On Tuesday November 13 1934, there appeared in the Social and Personal column of the Herald, this short mention:
''Mrs David Aitken has returned from Moree. She is staying at Mercedes, Bayswater Road, until her own flat at Darling Point, which she let while she was away, is vacant.''
On April Fools Day, 1935, an advertisement was placed in the Herald:
''Watch - Lost Gold Elgin Watch and Gold Fob in Bayswater Road between Alexander Flats and Mercedes Private Hotel at 1pm Sunday. Person who picked up phone FL2343 or return to Mercedes, 39 Bayswater Road, Darlinghurst. Reward.''
In 1936, the owner of Mercedes, Neville Mayman, began placing advertisements in the accommodation pages of the Herald:
Established a quarter of a century.
For better food, better service, and better and cleaner accommodation.
Very moderate breakfast and terms for permanent or casual guests.
Unfailing hot water, laundry facilities free.
Inquiry and inspection invited.
Neville Mayman, proprietor, Tele FL2343.
Three years later, in 1939, the building was mentioned in the ''From Day to Day in Sydney'' column in the Herald, when Mrs L. M. Bloom hosted a fundraiser at her Bayswater Road home, Mercedes. About 150 people attended to raise money for the Lord Mayor's Bushfire Relief Appeal.
The building's name must have changed from Mercedes to Hensley Hall in the 1940s, for in January 1942 among the many To Let listings in the Herald there was:
''Kings Cross, Hensley Hall, 37 Bayswater Road - Attractive, furnished flats, community bathrooms, kitchenettes, accommodate one and two persons, rentals include clean linen, daily cleaning, electric light. Low rents. T Elliott and Co, FL 2721, Kings Cross.''
Similar advertisements continued to appear into the 1950s.
Razor author Larry Writer was born in Sydney in 1950. At the age of seven his parents split up and Writer and his mother went and stayed at her sisters's place at Hensley Hall.
''We stayed there six to eight months and I went to Darlinghurst Primary for a while,'' Writer told the Sun Herald's Matt Condon in 2001.
''I remember people sitting around in their singlets and braces watching the horse racing on television.''
I imagine Hensley Hall stayed in much the same state right up until the early 1990s when Barry moved in. But without much investment in keeping the building upright, it is really starting to crumble.
After looking through the front wing, we headed out the back where there is a two-storey building. We climbed up a spiral staircase in the building to a kind of loft apartment, which opened on to a large outdoor area.
The outdoor area looks down to Roslyn Street and would be a great place for a party.
From the rooftop, Barry took us back downstairs and outside to an entrance to the second wing, which is really falling to bits and quite dangerous to be in or near:
We had to walk really carefully over the floor, which had pretty much rotted away and was covered with old roof sheeting. We also had to be careful not to stomp around or make too much noise as the vibration could have caused the ceiling to fall off. It was dangerous but Barry really wanted to show us this amazing stairwell:
Back in John's rock photography days he apparently paid Barry $100 to use the stairs as a set for a photograph of Australian hard-rock band, The Screaming Jets. In those days - say mid 90s - the stairs were still in good condition, but look at them now. John has promised to dig out that Screaming Jets photo, so that I can see what the stairwell once looked like (when he does, I'll add it to this post). Now though, I don't think the stairs would even be safe to walk on and the ceiling also looks like it could collapse at any minute:
Still, I'm not averse to a bit of a ruin and I find it quite remarkable that this dilapidated 99-year-old building still exists in the busy heart of Kings Cross in 2011. After John and I farewelled Barry and wished him luck, we stopped again to look at the free books on the front step and noticed this little piece of Minhinnick wisdom:
''Who knows, maybe along our journey through life we may pause and contemplate the beauty of learning, in so doing building a positive world. Happy reading.''