Nestled at the Harbour end of Macquarie Street facing the Botanic Gardens is The Astor, the grand old dame of Sydney’s apartment blocks. Built in 1923, it was then Australia’s tallest residential building – at 13 storeys.
The Astor was always a prestigious address, and the building featured a café, retail, fruitshop, hairdresser, restaurant. Guests visiting The Astor would enjoy afternoon tea, listen to music, admire the lush views, lounge by the fish pool or in the roof garden.
One of the Astor’s most beguiling aspects is the history of the residents themselves. Every room and apartment abound with scandals, tragedies, lawsuits and affairs; amidst a backdrop of fine art, antiques and collectibles. Many of the residents were modern independent women able to foster their careers, and political movements in a room of their own. Ruby Rich, feminist and pianist, lived with her mother there from 1923-1927. Ruby worked with Maybanke Anderson to open the Radical Hygiene Centre to help treat STIs in sex workers and their clients, and towards the first family planning clinic in Australia. Artists Portia Geach and Mary Alice Evatt painted and lived there; Jean Garling, physiotherapist, balletomane and philanthropist, was resident from 1963 to her death in 1998. Her entire estate was bequeathed to the State Library of NSW which she had also supported for many years.
The great wealth symbolised by The Astor’s was also in stark contrast to the huge class tension and disparity of the time. The Depression was around the corner and the fight for working conditions was something the well-to do residents would have seen and heard from their lush roof top when monster trade union rallies took place on Sundays at the Domain in the 1930s.
Within the building too many working hands made light work. The caretaker’s day began at about 5.30am and ended 11.30pm managing staff dealing with everything within the life of the building from the hot water boilers, cleaning, security, delivery of fine art and collectables and even the transportation of deceased residents from the building.Today The Astor is listed by Heritage NSW as rare intact example of an early 20th century prestige residential apartment building in the city. The prestige and price tag remains; in 2020 Cate Blanchett soldher apartment for $12 million.
Further reading: Jan Roberts, Ed, The Astor, Ruskin Rowe Press, 2003
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Woodford Academy and Middle and Georges Head. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!
For more Dictionary of Sydney on the radio, tune in to 2SER Breakfast with Alex James on 107.3 every Wednesday morning to hear more stories from the Dictionary of Sydney.