SIRIUS, PEOPLE, COMMUNITY
The National Trust has proposed listing the Sirius apartments on the State Heritage Register, and this proposal is currently being considered. Below are stories of how the people of Sirius came to be there and why they are an important part of its heritage.
Sirius architect Theo (Tao) Gofers with three Sirius residents earlier this year.
The listing proposal notes that:
“The Sirius Apartment Building is likely to have state level heritage significance for its long and strong association with past and present residents of the Millers Point and The Rocks community. Many of The Rocks and Millers Point residents were the descendants of maritime workers who lived and worked in the area for generations. Sirius may also be of social significance to others in NSW who consider it an important achievement that the unique makeup of the Millers Point and The Rocks community has been preserved for so many generations.”
The maritime workers who walked the Hungry Mile during the Depression have a particular place in the hearts of Australians. There are many people still living in The Rocks and Millers Point whose parents walked the Hungry Mile, and there are still some residents who can trace their families further back, through five and more generations living in the area. The Rocks and Millers Point have developed essentially as isolated twin villages since the earliest years of the Colony. Such people are now part of the history of Sirius as well. Below are histories of four Sirius residents, two from the 1980s and two in 2015.
FANNY DUGGAN – 1980s Sirius resident
Mrs Fanny Duggan was born in Hart Street, Millers Point. Above is a photo of Hart Street from about the time Fanny lived there. Hart Street disappeared entirely during the excavating for High Street and Hickson Road in the early 1900s. The entrance to Hart Street was in Kent Street beside the Captain Cook Hotel and it ran west, down towards the harbour. High Street and Hickson Road now run parallel to the harbour.
After she moved from Hart Street, Fanny lived at 42 Kent Street, went to school at St Brigid’s and then St Patrick’s, and studied at Business College before marrying Frank Duggan in 1930. She and her family lived in Millers Point all their lives, including a time in a Princes Street boarding house when no other accommodation was available. Princes Street is another street that disappeared in the redevelopment of The Rocks and Millers Point in the early 1900s. It was replaced by the approaches to the Harbour Bridge.
Fanny moved into Sirius soon after it was completed.
KATIE ROWAN – 1980s Sirius resident
Born in 1894, Mrs Katie Rowan was approaching ninety when she moved into Sirius. She was born in Playfair Street and baptised in Cumberland Street at St Michael’s which was closed and demolished during the redevelopment of the early 1900s. She lived in Cumberland Street until her husband died, then stayed a while with her daughter in Ryde before returning to Cumberland Street following the death of her sister, so she could look after her nieces Daisy and Millie. Both Katie’s parents were born in The Rocks, and they were married at St Patrick’s. Katie was one of seven children, five girls and two boys, and as residents of The Rocks they considered they were entirely separate from Millers Point:
“I never went near Millers Point until 1927 when the Harbour Trust gave us a house in Little High Street, number 80. We stayed there for eleven years, and then moved back [to The Rocks].”
MYRA DEMETRIOU – 2015 Sirius resident
From 1959 to 1970 Myra Demetriou lived in Erskine Street with only a fuel stove for cooking and a copper for hot water. When her home was demolished to build the Western Distributor, she moved to 18 Trinity Avenue behind the Garrison Church. Myra began caring for her next-door neighbour Billy who suffered from scoliosis, but due to her poor eyesight she was refused the small carer’s allowance usually provided by the government. After thirty-eight years Myra had to escape the steep and dangerous stairs of her house. In 2008 she agreed to move around the corner to Sirius.
Myra regularly travels by bus on her own to attend lectures at the Mechanics Institute and State Library. She walks to the local community centre and to services at the Garrison Church, where for thirty years as a volunteer she ran their Historical and Military Museum which housed many important artefacts and records from the early years of the Colony. The design of Sirius and its adaptations for disabled living, plus the support of her community, allow Myra to live independently despite her advancing years, limited mobility and blindness.
MAUREEN HANSEN – 2015 Sirius resident
Maureen Hansen’s family have lived in the streets surrounding Sirius for five generations. She believes she walks in the shadows of her fifth-generation ancestor, Mary Ann Curry, who was convicted at sixteen for stealing and transported to New South Wales where she later met and married a boatman, former marine David Davis who had fought with Lord Nelson. Together Mary Ann Curry and David Davis lived in Globe Street. Their children and grandchilden continued living in the area, and Maureen’s grandfather, also named David Davis, with his family moved into the first flat in High Street when it was completed in 1908. It was here her father grew up, surrounded by his cousins, the Flynns, who lived nearby. Maureen was born and has lived all her life in the area near where Sirius now stands. She is the last of her family to live in The Rocks and is in seriously poor health. In case of an emergency she carries with her a letter outlining her many illnesses and the doctors and professors who are treating her.
THE GREEN BANS AND RESHAPING SYDNEY
Jack Mundey said in the early 1970s, ‘that in a modern society unions should have the right to be concerned about the end result of their labour, that things wider than wages and conditions were important… But increasingly what is the good of winning high wages and better conditions if we live in cities devoid of [places for people to live]. The quality of life is not just a cliché, it is a reality.’
Jack Mundey, Nita McCrae (the community leader who had raised a family in The Rocks), along with other residents drew up The People’s Plan for The Rocks that would allow people to remain living there.
Jack Mundey and Nita McCrae are the two people most responsible for saving The Rocks from demolition, and, together with architect Tao Gofers, for building Sirius as a sanctuary where the residents of The Rocks and Millers Point could continue to live. Their actions, in the centre of Sydney, changed forever the way our cities are planned, and Sirius is the embodiment of these changes.
Sirius remains a tangible link and even represents in physical form, a moment in which our city changed, and as a result, cities around the world made similar changes. After Sirius, people everywhere had more of a say in how their cities were built.
The connections between these people and Sirius, and the significance of their actions at the time, contribute substantially to the importance of listing Sirius on the State Heritage Register. This is particularly important as without this listing, there are very strong indications that the building will be sold and demolished, and a new monument to expensive harbourside living will be built in its place.
Above are photos of Jack Mundey during the Battle for The Rocks and the 1970s Green Bans, and the plaque that records Nita McCrae and her activism on the wall of her home in George Street North, now a commercial neighbourhood almost without memory of the people who lived in The Rocks. Below is a recent photo of Jack Mundey speaking as Patron of The Friends of Millers Point.
BRUTALIST BUILDING OR BRUTAL DEVELOPMENT
Sirius was designed by Theo (Tao) Gofers in 1975 for the Housing Commission. Sited beside the southern approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge, it looks out to Circular Quay and the Opera House. The original plans for the development included a commercial block to the south of the main residential block, but only the larger residential block was built. In 2014 it was made a National Trust Listed Building for its architectural and social significance.
Sirius was designed and built as a consequence of the Green Bans of the early 1970s and community opposition to plans by the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority to demolish the historic buildings along the western side of Circular Quay in order to build high-rise office towers. Below is the 1963 proposal that was halted by The Rocks Green Ban and community action. A similar result on the Sirius site is likely if Sirius does not receive a heritage listing as an item of state significance. It appears the Urban Taskforce already has suggested remodelling Sirius to ensure its heritage value is destroyed, and in turn this would allow demolition and a new building of higher density to be built in its place.
The choice for New South Wales appears to be between celebrating a rare and important Brutalist building by placing it on the State Heritage Register, and embracing its aesthetic and ethical qualities, or encouraging a truly brutal development to occur in its place.
THE ETHICAL AND COMMUNITY IMPORTANCE OF SIRIUS
It was unusual for the Housing Commission to combine aged and family units in the one development, and the early 1970s was a time when many Housing Commission high-rise towers elsewhere were failing to provide safe and secure accommodation for residents. Why was this development different? Mixing old and young people was a success right from the start. The aged units are located in the tower, where there are no steps and units are accessible by lift.
The entrance foyer is still adorned with the laminated timber animals designed by architect Penny Rosier as part of the original plans, loosely based on prehistoric cave paintings and looking entirely at home in the cave-like foyer, they are a mark of the way this development has been valued by residents because they remain unmarked after 35 years except for their deteriorating varnish. Architect Theo Gofers calls these sculptures UROs, not quite UFOs but unidentified running objects.
Also in the foyer is the distress-call panel with lights for every aged unit which can be activated by residents from inside their unit. The distress-call panel is no longer maintained by Housing NSW, but it is an indication of the consideration towards residents’ needs that went into the original designs.
Also on the ground floor and opposite the entrance is the Phillip Room, a large community room, and beyond it a series of communal courtyards. One floor up is a library, and on the eighth floor another community room. Additionally, there is a series of balconies and courtyards, both private and communal. All of these spaces have helped Sirius to become one of the great successes of public housing in New South Wales. Other pulbic housing estates do not have comparable spaces, and so in this regard Sirius captures an important aspect of approaches to public housing at the time. The ways people live in these spaces, and the particular people for whom Sirius was built, are central to its heritage significance and must be considered an essential part of it.
Below is a typical floor plan of Sirius, the 8th-floor Heritage Room and the Phillip Room (photographed during the Friends of Millers Point S.O.S. Save our Sirius exhibition in 2014).
HISTORY OF WORKERS ACCOMMODATION IN THE AREA
Sirius is the latest, and likely the last, in a long line of significant workers accommodation in this area. From the early 20th century, there were ideal workers flats built in Gloucester Street, Lower Fort Street, Windmill Street, Dalgety Road and High Street. These earlier buildings were part of the redevelopment of the wharves and this accommodation was built for working families. This has a twofold significance. These flats allowed working people to remain living in the area, and thereby maintain their unbroken connection with ancestors back to the earliest period of European settlement. The buildings also provided what would become almost a museum of social housing in Australia, and the physical trace of a maritime community which stretched back to the earliest times of European settlement.
Removing the tenants from Sirius, and severing the final link in this history of workers accommodation and maritime accommodation, especially if the building after being vacated is demolished, will result in the loss of an important aspect of Australia’s heritage, and possibly the loss of a community and precinct that is unique in the world in being a continuous history of a community and the places in which they lived that connects to the earliest times of its settlement.
In Dawes Point, Millers Point and The Rocks are many houses of the 1830s to 1880s, and this is important history, but it is even more so because of the continuous development of accommodation for a maritime community that occurred early in the 20th century as well, and then finally in the building of Sirius. It is important that all this history is kept, both the buildings and the community. At right are some of the early 20th-century ideal workers accommodation in the area around Sirius. It is important to keep Sirius as the final example of this type of building in the centre of Sydney.
This proposal has concentrated on the heritage importance of the people associated with Sirius. The Friends of Millers Point support all other heritage aspects of Sirius, but wanted to ensure the people were kept as part of the listing.