North Sydney has a diverse and fascinating range of dwellings dating from the first half of the 19th century.
That so much survives is remarkable given the impact of public works, changing tastes and the ever increasing property prices that make Sydney one of the most dynamic - and expensive - cities in the world. The construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the 1920s, and the Warringah Expressway that followed logically as car use increased in the 1950s, resulted in the demolition of as many as 1,000 dwellings. The development of high rise apartments, once just called flats, on pre-existing house sites accounted for many more. The desire to consolidate and ‘improve’ has resulted in further change.
Despite these shifts and transformations, the built environment remains our most enduring link to the material culture of the past. While so much of what we have used, ridden and worn over the past 50 years has changed, we can still readily find houses whose century-old facades, at least, are barely altered. As a result it is possible to appreciate the original scale of a dwelling, its relationship to other buildings, the design and detail chosen by the architect, builder or owner. We might value, too, the skill that went into shaping timber brackets, picking stone blocks and moulding ironwork. By surveying a range of houses we can see change over time; from the 19th and early 20th centuries when technology and relatively affordable labour and materials still allowed hand-crafted detailing – so that even modest homes might feature delicate stained glass windows – to the modern era which rejected even mass-produced decoration.
By presenting the history of a range of houses, from the humble to the grand, I also hope the visitor will discover something new about the social and cultural history of North Sydney, an area of 10 square kilometres that was home to fewer than five hundred people in the 1850s but now accommodates 70,000.
At Home in North Sydney features documents, photographs and oral recordings held by Stanton Library. These represent a portion of the archives and historical collections of North Sydney Council and its predecessors. Local government began here when the Borough of East St Leonards was proclaimed in 1860. When that first Borough amalgamated with the adjoining St Leonards (1867) and Victoria (1871) Boroughs in 1890, North Sydney Council was established. The initiation of this exhibition in 2015, therefore, also marks Council’s 125th anniversary.
Over time this exhibition will grow, as further research uncovers more stories and we understand more about what it has meant to be ‘at home in North Sydney’.
Dr Ian Hoskins
North Sydney Council Historian