Hurstfield – Act II: Hubris (1975-1988)
…and my heart was beating fast.
Frank Lowy and John Saunders had arrived in Australia in the early 1950s, both Jewish immigrants who had been scarred by the horrors of fascism in Europe. Australia offered them opportunities, hope, a new start. In 1953, Saunders owned and operated a Blacktown delicatessen he’d bought after years of working as a packer, while Lowy was running a smallgoods delivery business. Saunders was impressed by Lowy’s punctuality and work ethic, and the two hit it off.
The pair went into business together, with Saunders shrewdly choosing to focus on the growing suburbs on Sydney, out west in particular, rather than the inner city. Soon their delicatessen was joined by a continental coffee lounge as the area’s efficient railway network delivered a steady influx of customers.
But Saunders had been keeping an eye on American developments in the small business arena. The newest trend there was a strip mall with a roof. In Australia, shops were strictly on the streets, never indoors. The duo saw an opportunity.
1975. Hurstville’s legacy as the place to shop in St George was in tatters. Long gone were the suburb’s retail pillars Diments and Jolley’s, and dying a slow death was Barter’s. Coles Variety and Woolworths Arcade came off as second best, imitators rather than the innovators their predecessors had been. It was a sorry state of affairs, but at least they had plenty of parking.
There was also the ill-conceived Super Centre, which strangled the train line, but the Hurstville Council’s hope that it would become another shopping success had long gone. For the first time since its inception, Hurstville lacked an identity.
Starting with Hornsby in 1961, Westfield had opened shopping centres all over Sydney. Burwood opened in 1966, and Miranda Fair was swallowed up by the Westfield Group in 1969. Roselands had remained beyond their grasp, however, and the group was looking to fill the shopping void in the southwest.
In November 1975, Westfield put forward a proposal to Hurstville Council: a shopping complex that would contain a department store, a large supermarket and various small shops, spread out over three floors. A town park, office space and extensive car parking only helped to sweeten the deal, with the park especially taking steps towards complying with Hurstville Council’s plan for the area. If you’re shocked to learn that Hurstville Council had a plan for the area at this point in time, join the club.
Westfield’s choice of words were kind to say the least in its description of Hurstville’s current state. The new centre would ‘reinforce’ Hurstville’s ‘existing trading character’. Well, that’s one way of putting it.
Considering it was to be placed between the current commercial area and residential housing, the centre’s design was very careful to adhere to Hurstville Council’s then-provisos that the visual bulk of the building be minimised.
A unique aspect of the building’s layout was its system of ramps. It was possible to traverse the entire centre without ever encountering a set of stairs, presumably so one could take their time browsing and purchasing, or to make it harder to escape.
What’s particularly interesting about this initial plan is the town park. This breezy artist’s conception makes it look like a kind of leafy paradise, but it’s harder to imagine in practice. How long until all the trees would have names carved into them, until all the benches were covered in gum and graffiti? Would Westfield even go ahead with the park, which by their own veiled admission was a wheel greaser? More importantly, had the wheel been greased enough? Would Council submit to this corporate shaming at the cost of their pride? The Super Centre wound was still fresh, but if it scabbed over in time it could still be a viable shopping outlet…couldn’t it?
Of course, we know how this story ends.
In order for this beast to be constructed, something had to go, and since the new centre would provide parking unlimited for St Georgians, the then-new yet deeply unpopular council car park got the axe.
Construction began in May 1977, and they didn’t waste any time. Half of Rose Street was obliterated:
…while the new-old car park was levelled:
The existing retailers looked on with trepidation, worried for their future and rightfully so.
Finally, on October 9, 1978, it was ready. Premier Neville Wran was on hand to usher in the birth of a new age for Hurstville.
As you can probably tell by the plans above, the centre was much smaller when it opened than it is now. 1978 was a simpler time when people didn’t need as much junk. But what junk did they need, exactly? What did this behemoth of retail extravagance boast that Forest Road’s usual suspects couldn’t? Let’s take a look at 1978’s centre directory to get a better understanding of just what Westfield had brought to Hurstville’s threadbare table.
Waltons! Backing winners as always, guys. We can laugh now, but Waltons was one of the biggest drawcards of the new centre, a department store that would hark back to the glory days of Jolley’s (or would it?). The rest of the shops on display are (mostly) before my time, so take your time and reminisce.
Of special note is the much-ballyhooed town park. True to their word, they actually went ahead and built it, even going the extra mile of suck-uppery by naming it after former Hurstville mayor and enthusiastic supporter of the Super Centre, Gordon “Snowy” Hill, who had died in 1978. From one Hill 2 anotha…
The entrance to Snowy Hill Park was located at the junction of Cross and Crofts Streets, or just opposite where you’d emerge from Jolley’s Arcade.
Or just behind that car.
The stairs led up to the park which included tennis courts, amenities, an area for exhibitions and this statue:
The statue is holding a cornucopia, supposedly a symbol of the “plenty” available to all in the Westfield. There’s something oddly creepy about that. Or creepily odd, your choice.
By the way, if you’ve gotten this far and are not happy with those image watermarks, take it up with Hurstville Council, who see fit to charge $20 per photo for a decent quality digital copy. Yeah, right, let me reach into my wallet for you, HC, since I am a millionaire. Has anyone ever paid that fee? Do the Hurstville Councillors believe they’re sitting on a goldmine of photographs once people start craving digital copies of old photos of a shopping centre? Then again, I’ve just written two articles about said shopping centre, and you’ve read them, so the joke’s on us I guess.
It goes without saying that the Westfield opening was a huge success, and galvanised shopping in the St George area. Suddenly, Roselands was looking a little long in the tooth, and Miranda was just too far away, whereas Hurstville, with its new cache of ‘plenty’, was once again the convenient option. Profits soared, retailers and customers alike flocked to the suburb, and any sourpusses in the old commercial area of Forest Road had their complaints to council fall on deaf ears.
Five years later, that momentum hadn’t slowed. Let’s take a look at a few choice pages from the December 1983 catalogue, shall we?
I’ll put more up on the Past/Lives Facebook page. If you haven’t liked it yet, go and do it! Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Best of all, the catalogue contained 1983’s centre directory. What’s changed?
Not much. Brash’s is there now, so yet another success story to look forward to.
It seemed as if Westfield could do no wrong in the 1980s – the greed decade. Hurstville in particular was outgrowing its allotment by 1986, just over ten years since the initial application. In an even more powerful position this time, Westfield approached council with plans to expand. Do you think council was going to say no?
Hurstfield – Act I: Genesis (1875-1975)
Yes, we’ve been on a bit of a Hurstville bender recently, but it’s all been leading up to this. This is arguably the defining story of a suburb intrinsically linked to its biggest resident. The story of Hurstville cannot be told without Westfield, and vice versa. It’s a long story spanning 150 years and a lot of parking spaces. Get comfy – it’s one of those ones. And away we go…
I was dreaming of the past…
Our story begins in the 1870s, at which time the St George area was home to a grand total of 2038 happy people. Suburbs such as Lugarno, Oatley, Bexley and Kingsgrove had been growing steadily for a few decades. In the midst of all this action was a large, heavily timbered area scandalously known as Lord’s Bush (after its longtime owner, Simeon Lord).
Purchased by a Michael Gannon in 1850, the area was renamed Gannon’s Forest, and the road running through the forest from Lugarno to Tempe was renamed Gannon’s Forest Road. See where this is going? The area got its first frothy taste of the commercial life in the early 1850s when – wait for this – a PUB was built. Turns out pubs and the seedy goings-on within attract people, and soon the people came. By 1864 a post office had arisen beside the Blue Post Inn, and was later joined by another pub (the Currency Lass, later the Free and Easy), a bakery (but not that bakery), and some other exciting retail outlets. A growing population means breeding, and that means kids, and kids means education (most of the time), so in 1876 a decision was made to erect a school for dem kidz wat cudnt spel ore reed no gud. A forward thinking inspector suggested the school be named Hurstville, and because it’s undeniably catchy, it stuck. Soon the post office was renamed thusly, and the population continued to grow.
Until the mid-1880s, the development of the town had centred around that original pub, the Blue Post Inn, which had become an unofficial meeting place for town development discussions and the like. It was during one of those meetings that a railway station was proposed, and if those walls could talk, I feel certain they would have uttered “Well, shit.”
Hurstville Station was built in 1884, one kilometre away from the pub. Businesses changed tack accordingly, and suddenly no one cared about the Blue Post. Perhaps it would have preferred being instantly euthanised like the Free and Easy, which was resumed to make way for the train station. Instead, the Blue Post had its licence transferred to the nearby White Horse Hotel – the greatest dishonour a pub can experience. More like the White Flag Inn, right?
The advent of the public transport hub was like the shot from a starting gun. Hurstville just couldn’t, wouldn’t, be stopped. It became a municipality in 1887, a local newspaper started up (the St George Observer, NOT The Leader, although you could be forgiven for thinking it had been around that long), those big expensive looking mansions were being built all over the place. Even a bank crash/mini depression in 1893 was made less severe by the commercial area that had prospered in the area surrounding the train station.
The land opposite Hurstville Station was swampy marsh named ‘Frog Hollow’. Originally one of the sources of Bardwell Creek, it had been further softened by runoff from both the station and the increasingly busy Forest Road. But Hurstville’s insatiable need for retail saw the swamps drained in 1907 to make suitable foundations for an all new concept in shopping – Croft’s, a two-storey building with four shops within. Why…that means I could get FOUR times the shopping done AT ONCE!
One of these shops was occupied by a mercer named Bert Jolley, who would later describe himself as “a young man with more confidence than money”. Success wasn’t instant; three months after opening, Jolley’s ledger recorded this lacklustre return: ‘Total Customers, 1; Total Sales, 1’, despite being open from 7am to 8pm.
The story goes that Jolley, despondent and faced with bankruptcy, found himself moping around the city looking for a cup of coffee. He ended up at the Black Cat Cafe beneath Her Majesty’s Theatre, and as he drank his black coffee he was transfixed by the walls of the cafe, which were plastered in pictures of black cats. In his crazed desperation, Jolley became convinced the black cat was his spirit animal and good luck charm, and immediately devised a ‘Lucky Black Cat Sale’ for his store. Amazingly, the gamble paid off: by 1910 he’d bought the whole building, leaving both he and his variety-starved customers very jolly indeed.
Jolley’s success as a suburban department store inspired plenty of copycats (heh); in 1917 local trader Diments, a hardware and produce store, expanded in size to rival Jolley, while 1921 saw the advent of Barter’s, a rival department store.
In a tale so similar to Jolley’s that these days copyright lawyers would be involved, Charles Barter bought a single-storey shop at the approximate location of the former ANZ Bank on Forest Road. Before long it wasn’t enough, so Barter very shrewdly bought a piece of land beside the entrance to the railway station with the intention of building the greatest department store the suburbs had ever known.
Can I just interrupt the narrative for a moment to ask where Hurstvillians were getting all this money to spend with these guys? Like maybe you wouldn’t have had to live on a swamp filled with frogs if you’d invested in making your town nice instead of buying hats and black armbands or whatever it was they bought back in those days.
Anyway, during excavation for his wonderful new three-storey building, Barter unearthed an old horseshoe, which he hung in his office for luck. Yes, Barter was such a plagiarist he even swiped Jolley’s good luck charm concept. But Barter would get a taste of his own medicine in 1922 when the Allen brothers opened their own department store (with an emphasis on menswear) further up Forest Road.
Now, do you think that’s enough department stores? Let’s review – at this point, there’s Barter’s, Diments, Jolley’s and Allen Bros., all on Forest Road, all creepily surrounding the station like vultures. Spoiled for choice much, Hurstville? Wouldn’t it be more convenient if, oh, I dunno, they were able to combine many stores and even department stores into one giant superstore?
Jolley was somehow able to stave off these attacks, maintaining a healthy profit throughout. Healthy enough to – you guessed it – expand yet again in 1933. Jolley had grown tired of paying council rates for his ever-expanding shop frontage on Forest Road, so in an ingenious move, he dug out an arcade of shops beneath his existing building, allowing for several new businesses without having to pay any excess rates. The move opened Hurstville’s eyes to the idea of an even greater shopping experience at the expense of cutting into the heart of Hurstville itself. But you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs, right?
Jolley’s clever tactic paid off so well that he was able to retire in 1937, selling his 24-shop building and arcade to Woolworths. While at the time it was seen as a ‘local boy done good’ success story, today it’s easier to see the development as the beginning of a pattern; local businesses nurtured by the community being taken over by the big boys and allowed to rot. And oh, how the big boys were beginning to sit up and take notice of Hurstville successes.
Ashleys, a big city clothing store, swallowed its pride and expanded to the sticks of Hurstville in 1940 (the 1926 electrification of the Hurstville train line meant it was easier than ever to get to the retail paradise from the city should Mark Foy not satisfy your desires). When eponymous owner Ashley Buckingham died in 1962, Woolworths were there to buy up his stores. Uh-oh.
Diments had done its dash by 1961, and the 40-year-old business was liquidated that year. The empty store, on the corner of Forest Road and what is now Diments Way, was bought by Coles. Double uh-oh.
Perhaps the biggest boy to observe what was happening in Hurstville was Grace Bros., which was arguably the biggest department store chain in Sydney at that time. In a show of true spite, and indicative of just how worried they were by this commercial boom they weren’t getting a piece of, Grace Bros. schemed to sap Hurstville’s custom by buying up a disused golf course in a nearby suburb. It was far enough away to appear innocuous, but the intent was clear.
When Roselands Shopping Centre opened on the site in October 1965, it was only the biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere. To top things off, the beating heart of this beast was – yep – a giant Grace Bros. department store. You hear that, Hurstville? Oh, does Barter’s have a rain-themed water feature? Does Jolley’s Arcade have a cinema? I didn’t think so. Roselands has parking space for 3500 cars, what have you got?
Ooh, I’m shaking!
Hurstville’s commercial sector was starting to feel the heat. No, Roselands didn’t have a train station nearby, but who cared when it had that much parking space? Could Barter’s three storeys really compare to the 30 acres occupied by Roselands’ 80 stores? No. No, they couldn’t. With Miranda Fair having opened the year before, Hurstville found itself besieged on two fronts, and immediately began taking stock of its assets and liabilities. Coles Variety and Woolworths just weren’t cutting the mustard. The train station was no longer pulling its weight…weight…wait a minute…
In 1956, a cake shop owner at Wynyard Station lodged an unusual application with Hurstville Council. Inspired by the way shops sat above Wynyard’s train line, he proposed an five-storey development above Hurstville Station. Flush with cash from years of financial prosperity, council approved the plan. The Railways Department approved the plan. Kogarah Council, which had jurisdiction over the Ormonde Parade side of the train station, approved the plan. With all this approval, what could go wrong?
Construction of the Bowes Supercentre began in 1957 by Bowes Corporation, but was pipped at the post by that year’s opening of the Top Ryde Shopping Centre, the first American-style retail hub to open in Sydney. Plans for the Super Centre, already changed from five storeys to eight storeys during development, were altered again, with final plans blowing up to ten storeys. And parking? You’d better believe it:
But Bowes was more adept at making increasingly outlandish promises (‘LUXURY HOTEL TO STRADDLE RAIL LINES’ read one headline) than he was at construction, which ground to a halt in 1959, the same year two former delicatessen owners opened a small shopping centre, ‘Westfield Place’, at Blacktown.
In 1961, the project, now known as the Hurstville Super Centre, was taken over by W H Duffy, who projected a completion date of late 1962. The Supercentre became the object of special interest of both Hurstville Mayor G W “Snowy” Hill and the Federal Transport Minister John McMahon, even as setback after setback stalled construction.
By the time of the Hurstville Super Centre’s grand opening in September 1965, only the first stage had been completed and Roselands was only a month from opening. Even worse, attendees who could get a park then had to endure an appearance by Premier Robert “Don’t call me Robin” Askin among others:
In the same year, Transport Minister McMahon lost his position following election defeat, and was criticised by the Opposition for a “lack of vision in providing transport infrastructure”. Even Snowy Hill was no longer mayor by the time it opened. Am I calling the Super Centre a total failure that stained the character and reputation of all involved? Yes.
Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, empty promises were made to finish the Centre and bring it up to speed with the original vision, as if anyone was hanging out for that to happen. It was the modern age, no one relied on trains anymore. Department stores and giant shopping centres were a thing of the past in the city, and Roselands and Miranda (purchased by Westfield in 1969) were only quick drives away.
Away…from Hurstville. It seemed that despite that initial promise, no one had the vision to truly exploit Hurstville to the full extent of its commercial potential. Of the giants of the 20s, only Barter’s was still around (I guess that horseshoe worked), and even it had been overshadowed (literally) by the disastrous Super Centre. With no money coming in, council was sweating. Retailers were coasting on fumes. The swamp suddenly seemed thicker than ever.