William Street 1916

October 24, 2011

The full title of this book is Faces of the Street, William Street, Sydney 1916. Written by Max Kelly and published in 1982 by Doak Press. I discovered it while browsing the architecture books at my local library. The core of the book is a series of photographs documenting the south side of William St in 1916. The photos were made by the City of Sydney prior to these buildings being demolished due to street widening. They were made to document what was there, probably for legal reasons connected to compensating the owners. Along with this a thorough survey was made of who owned the buildings, the tenants and the uses to which the buildings were put.

Max Kelly, who is an historian, has based the book around this documentation along with some extra history about William Street. Probably the most interesting element of the book is the photographs. It is uncommon to find such careful and detailed documentation of Sydney from this era. There is a certain parallel with the work of Eugene Atget in Paris, although the photos were made for different reasons. There is a uniformity to the framing with all the buildings shown in correct perspective and well lit. This sort of taxonomic describing has similarities with conceptual works such as Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha as well as the serial projects of the Bescher’s.It would be possible to link all the photos together and have an extended panorama of every building along that side of the street.

Originally William St was a narrow track leading east of the city. In 1830 it was turned into a street to allow access to some of the grand estates around the Kings Cross area (then known as Woolloomooloo Heights). Anyone who has lived in Sydney for awhile will understand how powerful interests can cause well-intentioned plans to be altered for the worse. As Max Kelly notes, William Street has always been a thoroughfare, never a destination. Oxford St, Paddington is a destination – people will travel there to walk about and look at the shops. William St has always been somewhat of a barren environment that most people use to get from one place to another. The first plan was for the street to follow its current course but to go over the hill at the Darlinghurst end where the grade wasn’t as steep. However this would have caused it to impinge on some private property and the landowners objected, leading to the routing of the street to the north, where for more than a century it was necessary to divert via Bayswater Rd and Kings Cross Rd to get to the Eastern suburbs. At the time these were known as Upper William Street North and Upper William St South.

The main section of William St was 41 feet wide and in 1916 the City Council decided to widen it to 100 feet to accomodate the extra traffic of the growing city. There were also grand ideas about turning it into an impressive boulevard – Sydney’s Champs Elysees, an idea that was revived in the 1970s with similar lack of success. Most of the buildings on the south side were demolished and the owners compensated. The exceptions were some of the pubs, where the brewery owners were allowed to rebuild them on the same corner positions on the newly widened road. This demonstration of the political power of the alcohol industry is something that will be familiar to current Sydney residents.The Council survey found that most of the properties were owned by absentee landlords, with only four being owner occupied. Most landlords had no interest in maintaining the properties, leading to neglect and disrepair.The buildings predominantly housed businesses that catered to the transient working class of the area – pubs, lodging houses, tea rooms and the like.

 

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