This Sunday, I am on a panel discussing Rowe Street as part of the public program for the Sydney Living Museums’ exhibition Demolished Sydney. Nicole mentioned the street when talking about the exhibition a few weeks ago, so I thought we’d look at it a bit more closely today.Listen now
Rowe Street was a narrow laneway running parallel to Moore Street (now Martin Place) and King Street, between Pitt and Castlereagh. In the 1950s and 1960s it was Sydney’s slice of Paris.
A remnant of the street remains today, just a truncated shortcut, between Pitt Street and Lees Court as the rest was demolished in 1972 to make way for Harry Seidler’s MLC building.
For much of the earlier 20th century though it was one of the more interesting spots in Sydney. Its small shops with big windows and human scale gave an intimacy to Rowe Street and window shopping was a popular pastime. Rowe Street came into its own especially after the Second World War when the number of European migrants to Sydney increased, and despite its disappearance it still looms large in the memories and imagination of Sydneysiders. It held the promise of a more worldly, more sophisticated Sydney.
Art, interior design, bookshops and coffee lounges brought the best of continental Europe to Sydney; and Sydney’s bohemian crowd flocked to the street. There were fashion boutiques, hat shops and button shops, bookshops, even a ballet school.
French dresses were imported by glamorous boutiques and the famous milliner Henriette LaMotte had her studio there in the early 1950s. Books that had been banned could be bought from the Roycroft Book Store, which also offered a private Lending Library. The Municipal Council libraries which we take for granted now are really only a recent phenomenon and were just getting off the ground at this time, and there were a number of private lending libraries around the city.On any given day in Rowe Street you might see Russell Drysdale or Sidney Nolan browsing the prints and books in the Notanda Gallery. The Lincoln Coffee Lounge was a hangout for the Sydney Push for a number of years where they would drink coffee, read poetry and play chess.Painters and poets rubbed shoulders with journalists, cartoonists and students, sipping cappuccino. Those with money might later head to Vadim’s Restaurant in the Cross for a meal and some late night alcohol served in coffee cups.Designers in the street, including the influential interior designer Marion Hall Best who established a shop there in 1949, were introducing the latest innovations and movements.
In 1962 the author Isadore Brodsky said, ”Bijou is the descriptive word we have been searching for to account for the sparkle that almost suddenly has caused Rowe Street to glow in the darkness…Nobody, for example, likes Rowe Street on a rainy day, even when the neons shimmer on the wet roadway…For Rowe Street is the street of the savant employing each of the five senses to understand thoroughly what is to be tasted, savoured, and slowly enjoyed in art and literature in theatre and music, in legend and fact and anecdotal bric-a-brac. …always interested in any fresh expression in art and earnest to encourage it. Rowe Street! You are a gem.”
All this changed when Hotel Australia was demolished and the MLC Centre was built. The remainder of the lane is now a pedestrian walkway, and there are still a couple of cafes which give a tiny glimpse of what it might have been like.
The recent musical, Ladies in Black, set during this period of Sydney’s history, is based on the novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. Coincidentally this was the topic on this week on 2SER’s Inaugural Australian Classics Book Club and you can catch up with that here too!
The panel discussion at the Museum of Sydney on Sunday about the context of Rowe Street features Dr Lisa Murray, Bryan Fitzgerald, the president of the Rowe Street Society, and Sarah Barns, the creator of the Hotel Australia digital projection project. There are only limited tickets left so be quick!
Click here for more information.
Demolished Sydney is on until April 17.