Monday, May 30, 2011

Across the Border: Kings Cross Blog: Hensley Hall

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:

Electrical boards:

And latrines:

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.''

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Across the Border: Surry Hills Blog: Food: The Falconer

This is a post dedicated to one of my most favourite people in the world, Nicky, who I miss terribly, since she left for London about a year ago. Nicky used to always go to The Falconer cafe on Oxford Street and would rave about its great food, excellent music and the three very friendly men who run it. 
Nicky is a young bean. I didn't tell her that I remembered the cafe at 31 Oxford Street in its previous incarnation, when it was called Aristotles, had a round, glass cake cabinet in the window and would sell cocktails to under-age teenagers such as myself and my friends, way back in the dark ages. My friends and I especially liked it for its very cool American-style booth seating and its location right on Oxford Street, close to the nightclubs we would frequent. But I hadn't been there for years.

So while pining for Nicky's safe and hopefully imminent return, I decided to check out The Falconer and see if my little doll-face - for that is what I call her - was raving about the place with good reason.
The booths are still there, the cake cabinet is gone and I wouldn't dare suggest that the three men who run The Falconer would sell booze to under-age teenagers. But they do serve wine, beer and ''hard liquor'' from midday, according to their menu, which is never a bad thing.

The Falconer serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and is open until midnight from Tuesday to Saturday, and offers breakfast and lunch on Sundays and Mondays. The lunch menu starts at about $9 for the Soup of the Day and goes up to $20 for the Pasta of the Day, which is served with a glass of wine, beer or soft drink. 
There are also other items such as toasted gourmet sandwiches ($8.50), Grilled Wagyu Beef Burger with Celeriac Remoulade, Salsa Ross and ''One Big Mean Pickle'' ($18), as well as Orecchiette with Braised Hillside Lamb Ragu, Sicilian Olives, Eschallots and Tomatoes ($19). And they also do shoestring fries ($6).

The first time I went to The Falconer, I had the sandwich (above), which I think was filled with poached chicken, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise. It was delicious and didn't take long to arrive, which was good  because I was in a hurry and had already pre-ordered my coffee to go. The second time I went, I ordered the Caesar Salad with Shredded Organic Chicken Breast ($15):

The salad was a bit rich for my liking, as it was dressed in that sort of mayonnaisey dressing and it came with a boiled egg, which always creeps me out a bit when combined with chicken. It's like a weird family reunion on the plate.
I should say that I am very fussy when it comes to Caesar Salads as I have been making my own dressing for years, from a recipe given to me by a chef at a cafe I used to waitress at. And so far, I have never eaten a salad as good as my own. 
But I am still looking forward to going back and trying their pastas and soups. A woman on the table next to me ordered the Barley and White Bean Soup and when it arrived the aroma hit me and I was jealous and wanted to swap plates, but of course I kept quiet. 

Nicky was right about the three young men who run the place. They are awfully friendly and eager to please. I also suspect she likes them because they are rather good looking too. And then there's the music, which is selected from this healthy and well-organised record collection (above right). 
I also like the pared back design of the place: the old booths, the white walls and wooden furnishings. Decoration is minimal, in fact it's almost like a set, where the customers are fascinating characters in an obscure David Lynch-style film. And the customers really are a bunch of diverse characters, ranging from office workers to hip girls in pretty dresses, old eccentrics and swarthy, young, male tourists. 
I would highly recommend becoming part of the cast.

The Falconer
31 Oxford Street
Surry Hills NSW 2010
02 9267 8434