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?
Raben Footwear may seem like it’s been at this Haymarket corner location for a thousand years, but in a time before Doc Martens and skinheads, the site belonged to Richard Beaumont Orchard, a watchmaker, jeweller and politician. Orchard’s original building had been demolished by the city in order to extend Quay Street to George Street, so to compensate he was given this building. Not sure whose idea it was to add the cheesy orchard-themed clock, though.
Orchard was a Sydney personality in the early 20th century; a sailor, an actor, founding Commissioner of the ABC and Federal Member for Nepean (Lib). By all accounts he seems like the kind of guy who’d have the ‘My Family’ stickers on the back of his car. His skills as a sloganeer left much to be desired, however; ‘Orchard’s: where the watches grow’. These days, you can find Orchard at Rookwood Cemetery, where he was buried after his watch stopped for good in 1942.
Since 1913, this address on Hay Street in Haymarket had been used as a produce merchant, importing and exporting goods to and from China and Hong Kong. The first leaseholder was a ‘Lee Sang & Co, and throughout the first half of the 20th century, all subsequent leaseholders were companies run by descendants of those involved in the Lee Sang & Co outfit. These companies provided fruit, vegetables and other fresh produce to the city produce markets across the street, now Paddy’s Markets. When the produce markets moved to Flemington in 1977, this address was taken over by Dominic Choy, an architect who had emigrated to Australia in 1962. He refitted the building and opened a restaurant, Choys 1000 A.D. in 1981.
At that time Choy already had other restaurants in Randwick and Gordon, and by 1989 he had six locations all around the city (you might say Sydney was spoiled for Choys), each with a distinct theme. The rustic theme of 1000 A.D. was ancient China, with large wooden tables and benches replacing the traditional restaurant setup. Choys 1000 A.D. seems to have closed sometime after 1996, and today only Choys Randwick remains of the Choy Chinese restaurant dynasty. Even its reputation appears to have declined in recent years, but it says a lot about the well-regarded 1000 A.D. that it took three businesses to replace it: MH BBQ Restaurant, the Hay Street Dental Care above that, and a massage parlour above that. You’d probably have a memorable date night taking them all on in a sort of Game of Death-style tower challenge. I’m not sure what became of the man himself, all I could find was this. For his sake, I really hope he isn’t that kind of architect.