Sunday, March 25, 2012

Darlinghurst Blog: Heritage Items: Taylor Square Underground Mens' Conveniences

Hanging about in a men's public toilet is not how I would normally spend a day like yesterday, when the autumn sun was shining and the sky a brilliant Sydney blue.
But I jumped out of bed, rushed through my Saturday morning house cleaning and fled out the door before 11am, for the chance to explore the underground men's conveniences at Taylor Square.  

The 1907 toilets closed to the public in 1988 but opened briefly yesterday for a public art project, A Leaf From the Book of Cities, by Makeshift, a creative collaboration between Tessa Zettel and Karl Khoe. 
The installation has been open the past three Saturdays, between 8am and 1pm, with the final opportunity to experience the work this Saturday, March 31. 
A Leaf From the Book of Cities is made up of a handful of installations in the old toilet stalls and urinal areas, which are designed to make you think about the "possibilities of a quality-based economy". 
If that sounds a bits arts wank, it essentially means alternative ways of obtaining everyday items: food, clothes, books, real estate et al.
But even if you aren't interested in such ideas, it is worth a visit just to see this heritage-listed underground toilet.

The Taylor Square toilets were one of ten underground conveniences for men built by the Municipal Council of Sydney between 1901-1911, due to sanitation concerns following an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Sydney in 1900. 
Previously on the site there was an 1880s public urinal with a steel roof holding tanks of saltwater, which was used for street cleaning. 
Following the health concerns, the toilets were built underground because it was considered unhygienic for men to be relieving themselves on street level.
Placing the toilets underground was also more aesthetically pleasing and their construction coincided with the City Beautiful movement, which drove the push for the remodelling of Oxford Street and the establishment of Taylor Square.

The opening of the toilets also came four years after the neighbouring electricity substation (known as number six) was switched on.
The substation, also heritage-listed, was built following the introduction of the Electric Lighting Bill in 1896, which required the council to provide power for street lights and residents' homes.
It was an important and exciting time in Sydney's history, with the massive technological advance - that we take for granted today - changing the way people lived and worked forever.
The substation, which was used right up to 1993, also provided power for the new electric trams that cruised down Oxford Street.

1930s Taylor Square, source: City of Sydney Archives

Taylor Square was an important tram junction in those days, and the underground men's conveniences were used by hundreds of commuters, which is why there is about ten urinals and five stalls.
Designed by city surveyor and architect Robert Hargreave, the "Edwardian Civic" style toilets feature a wrought iron fence and gates with art nouveau detailing above ground, which lead to two interlocking curved staircases that take you underground to the white-tiled toilets.

While the urinals remain, the toilet bowls and sinks have been removed. 
In the washroom area yesterday there was a small table holding a large pot, jam jars and books, and seemed to suggest that we should all start buying produce in season and making our own jams and preserved fruits for the off-months.

The first stall had some of those tartan laundry bags, colourful lights, tools and dressmakers' blocks to perhaps encourage people to start making their own clothes and building their own furniture. 

The "6 Jars" stall was an interesting concept. It's an idea that encourages people to think about what they eat, befriend their neighbours, and buy less packaged food. 
To put that into practice it asked people who live locally to sign up and they would be introduced to five like-minded locals who they could share food with. 
So you cook up "a batch of goodness" put it into six jars and share them with your new friends; they in turn do the same and you only need to cook dinner once a week. I quite like the idea.

I'm not certain what the Librarium stall was about, but assume it's to encourage people to share their libraries, which I often do anyway.  

At the end of the five stalls is another urinal area, which yesterday was home to typesetters' tools and an old fashioned printing press. 

The Makeshift art duo plan to print a little mini-mag or zine featuring sustainability ideas that arise out of a workshop that runs parallel with the installation in the neighbouring above-ground women's conveniences, which are housed inside the substation and were built in 1938, following much lobbying by women.
I wasn't allowed to sneak a peek in the women's because apparently its where stuff is stored for the Saturday markets and the market folk didn't want any old riff-raff snooping about in there.
But I was more than happy to have seen the men's conveniences, which closed in 1989, because of safety concerns.
The toilets are special because they are the last remaining of the ten men's underground toilets. 
The others were gradually demolished over the years, including as recently as 2003, when the City of Sydney council, under Lord Mayors Frank Sartor and Lucy Turnbull, demolished the lavatories at Hyde Park, Macquarie Place and Wynyard Park - despite protests by the National Trust and others.
Now that the Taylor Square men's conveniences have been heritage-listed, the question is, what to do with them?



Dan Dan. said...

My God. Just how clean where these premises when you visited? To have food displayed in a public toilet (working or not) gives me the heebie jeebies. And that large green enamel looking pot on the table next to the wash basin- is that an old dunny can? now refurbished?
What's the thinking behind this exhibition? I can think of a lot of puns, but frankly I'm quite disturbed. The thinking and the people behind this, is this the future of Sydney?

Anonymous said...

Id hate for Sydney to lose any more of its historic sites (toilets or otherwise) and I'm glad an exhibition event as odd as this one could help bring awareness to such places.

Anonymous said...

Id hate for Sydney to lose any more of its historic sites (toilets or otherwise) and I'm glad an exhibition event as odd as this one could help bring awareness to such places.

Jason said...

I think they should be restored & opened up as a public toilet again cos its so hard in Sydney to find a place to go #1 or #2.