In a time when building a house meant plenty of brick, mortar and asbestos as opposed to 100% pure cladding, a housing boom meant it was time to get digging. The State Brickworks at Homebush was established by the NSW Government in 1911 to (publicly) provide for the demand for public housing and (privately) to shatter the stranglehold private owners had on the brickmaking industry, because no one makes money without the NSW Government getting a piece of the action. This greedy plan backfired at the onset of the Great Depression, when demand plummeted and the site started operating at a major loss. Ironically, it was sold to a private firm in 1936, and closed soon after.
Of course, the history of bricks in Sydney reaches back much further than Homebush. Brickfield Hill (near Haymarket) owes its name to its brickmaking past, and the St Peters brickyards are still in plain view – I just haven’t been there yet. The Homebush site was adjacent to the State Abattoirs, presumably to maintain the ambience, but more likely because the ground was rich in necessary brick ingredients. The Homebush Brickworks had also served to replace the troublesome State-run sand lime brickmaking operation at Botany, which had in 1914 fallen victim to a labourer strike, and never recovered.
After World War II, during which the site had been used as an ammunitions depot by the Navy, the NSW Government sensed an opportunity to make money, and reopened the Brickpit just in time for the second housing boom. If the first boom was a Newcastle, this one was somewhere between a San Francisco and an Indonesia. Chances are that at some point during your life in Sydney, you’ve stayed in a house built with bricks from Homebush. The site even had its own train station for workers to use, which opened in 1939.
It should be mentioned that during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Brickworks was known by a different name to young hoons and petrolheads looking to blow off some steam on a Friday or Saturday night. ‘Brickies’ was a hot destination for drag racers setting off from the Big Chiefs (Beefy’s) burger joint on Parramatta Road, tearing off up Underwood Road in their Monaros towards Brickies Hill. This circuit can be seen in the 1977 film FJ Holden, which will be a major part of this blog sooner than later. The onset of development put a stop to this, but a subtle, if bizarre, homage to that era has been paid through the naming of certain streets around Hill Road, once the drag strip finish line: Nuvolari Place, named for Italian racing legend Tazio Nuvolari, and Monza Drive, after the endurance race of the same name. Sydney also hosted its first V8 Supercar event at the Olympic Park in 2009, echoing the days of weekend supercar stardom in less developed decades. Residents could still nostalgically enjoy extreme noise pollution and rowdy behaviour, but at least this time it was corporately sponsored.
From an industrial standpoint, they might as well have been making gold bricks at the ‘works for the next three decades…and then the 80s happened. The boom died down, the money dried up, and the Brickworks, which had for the most part of the 20th century poisoned the surrounding land and Homebush Bay, was clumped in the same basket as the increasingly irrelevant State Abattoirs and the volatile Rhodes industrial area – it had to go, but before it did, the crew of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (or perhaps The Conqueror 2, just give it a few years) chose the toxic site as a filming location. In 1988, the Brickworks were closed for good. Like the rest of the State-owned Homebush industrial zone, it was included in plans to reshape the area into the Sydney Olympic Stadium in 1992. The Brickpit was to become the tennis centre.
And so it would have gone, had not a funny, completely unexpected thing happened. The green and golden bell frog was nearing extinction by 1992. Once abundant in Sydney, numbers had fallen so low that a special breeding program was established at Taronga Zoo in the hope that the frog could be saved. As preliminary work was being done, 300 of the small frogs were discovered living in the quarry. Several times since, colonies of the undeniably appealing frog have turned up at proposed development sites, halting work, ruining plans, and causing PR-illiterate development bigwigs to shit a…well, you know. The frogs are no longer critically endangered, but they still have a long way to go.
As the rest of industrial Homebush was transformed for the Olympics, the Brickpit itself followed suit, undergoing heavy remediation. It’s now an environmental feature of the Olympic Park, and features the wonderful Ring Walk, a walkway suspended above the former Brickworks site complete with a giant pond filled with what can only be described as Smylex. Those frogs must be mighty happy.
It’s funny…we spent the better part of last century digging this place up and sending it off all over the city for our homes, but the frogs cut out the red tape and came to the place itself, making it their home in less than a decade. We didn’t start building units here until years later. Am I saying a frog could run Mirvac or Lend Lease?
IKEA has caused quite a stir in the suburb of Tempe over the last couple of years. Bordered by the Princes Highway and the appealingly named Swamp Road, Australia’s largest IKEA has replaced an itself-enormous Kennards (formerly Millers) Self Storage site, Tempe tip, and a manufacturing facility run by Ateco Automotive. Can I just say, who even knew Millers Storage had been taken over? I’m sorry if this is common knowledge, but I openly admit to not being up on the goings-on within the self storage industry: apparently Kennards acquired Millers’ distinctive orange storage empire in 2004. Wow. Anyway, part of the site IKEA sits upon today was owned by a widow between 1926 and 1940, when it was acquired by the Perpetual Trustee Company. In 1947, the PTC offloaded the site onto now-defunct British tobacco manufacturer W.D. & H.O. Wills.
With 2014’s “Grangegate” claiming the NSW premiership of Barry O’Farrell, what better time to take a closer look at the history of Penfolds Wine Cellars at Tempe?
Penfolds bought the site from Wills in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1959 (a good year, apparently) that the steadily growing company opened its new centre, planned as the most modern of its kind. Forward thinking wasn’t exactly in vogue that year, as in 1970 the site received a major update.
The large wine barrel out the front of this art-deco building was a familiar sight to passers-by during Penfolds’ time at Tempe, which came to a close in 1994.
Ateco Automotive moved in in 1995 and had the good taste to leave the art-deco facade alone, but for a few years prior to 2009 the building sat derelict and abandoned.
Meanwhile, on another part of IKEA’s huge site, a landfill site known as Tempe Tip was doing its part to pollute the area. Much of the tip’s runoff ended up in Alexandra Canal. The tip was closed as a landfill in 1975 and in 1988, it caught fire. Remediation attempts were made in 2005 to turn Tempe Tip into ‘Tempe Lands’ – a wetland paradise adjacent to an existing golf driving range and duck-filled ponds. But the former tip site was found to be too unstable, and the project was put into the ‘too hard’ basket until IKEA came along – then it was their problem.
And what a problem it was; in 2010, construction of the furniture megastore screeched to a halt when tonnes of asbestos from the tip were discovered on the site. Hundreds of workers were exposed and had to be quarantined. In a surprising move, the NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change investigation found no supporting evidence of related claims that run-off from the site was laced with asbestos, since the existence of such evidence would mean IKEA would pack up and go home, taking their money with them.
Magically, the asbestos problems went away, and IKEA was able to open in 2011, much to the detriment of traffic along the Princes Highway. Especially on weekends, it’s a madhouse (appropriately enough, too, given the history of the neighbouring site…but that’s another story). Above all the chaos stands the art-deco clock tower, which for years bore the Ateco name. IKEA has appropriated the building, returning the clock to working order and affixing the IKEA name beneath it.
It’s a fitting image, really: in IKEA’s world of 9pm weekday closing times, rushed construction efforts and frenzied seizure of unsuitable land, time is money.