Every day a constantly changing array of people sit on the steps of the Sydney Town Hall, waiting for friends or just watching people go by. It is the best known of all Sydney’s meeting spots, one of those city places – like Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station clocks or the “mall’s balls” in Rundle Mall in Adelaide – that has enough prominence and space to override all other street corners, squares and statues to become number one.
Saturday Afternoon, Sydney Town Hall
Sitting and waiting on the steps is usually punctuated by the bells of the Town Hall clock chiming out the quarter hours, but currently restoration work is taking place on the sandstone and the bells are silent. The clock tower and western facade of the building are disguised by a large screen printed with the image of the building and the tower: the clock now shows a permanent quarter to 12.
The Clock Tower in disguise, as sandstone restoration work takes place.
The Town Hall is the city’s civic heart, and gives its name to the train station below it and the tall 70s office building behind it, Town Hall House. Prior to the establishment of the Town Hall in 1868, when the foundation stone was laid, the site was a graveyard. The Old Sydney Burial Ground was established in 1792, at what was then the edge of the city. Although the graves were exhumed before the construction of the Town Hall, remains are still being discovered on the site, often during building works.
George Street looking north, showing the Old Burial Ground in the left, now the site of the Town Hall. An 1842 drawing by John Rae, courtesy Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.
Sydney Town Hall and George St during the construction of Town Hall station in 1930. Photo courtesy Powerhouse Museum: http://www.flickr.com/photos/27331537@N06/2644640321
The Town Hall has been site of countless performances, demonstrations, protests, exhibitions, ceremonies and organ recitals (the Grand Organ was, at the time of its installation, the largest in the world) since it was officially opened in 1889. It has been draped in lights, covered in coloured projections, and red carpets have been laid across its steps time and time again.
Sydney Town Hall illuminated for the Inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1901. Image from Wikipedia/State Library of NSW
But on the average day the steps are host to many smaller moments, people waiting, sipping coffee, checking their phones, watching people go by and scanning the passing faces for the person they’re waiting for. Like most people who have grown up in Sydney, I’ve waited on the Town Hall steps many a time. So I decided, for this month’s Public Sydney blog, I would take up a spot on the stairs for an hour one Saturday morning and record a few of these everyday moments.
Waiting on Town Hall Steps
When I approached the stairs the people waiting were sitting towards the sides of the steps, leaving the centre vacant. This provided a kind of stage for the boy who was standing in the middle of them, being given directions by his mother. She stood at the bottom of the steps with an iPad, giving him his lines. “Say ‘Here I am at the Sydney Town Hall’,” she instructed.
The boy wasn’t very enthusiastic. Seeing this, two teenage girls leaning against the balustrade began to cheer him on. “This is your moment,” one of them said, “your time to shine!” The boy didn’t look convinced and his mother explained to the girls that they were doing a school project for which he had to visit notable Sydney locations: the Opera House, Harbour Bridge, Sydney Tower.
Another Town Hall steps moment: a photograph from the 1920s of a car driving down the steps at the side of the Town Hall. Photo from the Powerhouse Museum. http://www.flickr.com/photos/24785917@N03/4361741782
This was not the only video made on the steps that day. Soon after the boy and his mother moved on to their next Sydney landmark, a group of people climbed the steps. At the top of them they formed a line and began to practise a dance. This dance was one that is instantly familiar to anyone who has attended a school dance or a wedding in the last three decades. As they revised the movements the song began to play in my head: they call it Nutbush...
Seeing me looking, one of the group came up and asked me if I could film them doing the dance on the steps. “Sure,” I said, and went to stand where the school project mum had been only a few minutes before with one of their iPhones ready to record. “We’re doing an Amazing Race challenge,” one of them explained after I’d recorded their dance with the Town Hall steps in the foreground and amused/bemused people in the background.
An average Saturday at the Town Hall steps.
As interesting as the people waiting on the steps are those going by, and it is a good spot for people-watching and concocting stories. Wondering what is inside the big yellow envelope carried by the man in the army uniform, or whether the man wearing the T-shirt that says “As Real As It Gets” thought about the slogan when he got dressed this morning. Noticing the woman wearing all purple, from fingerless gloves to hairclips. Watching people either avoiding, or giving the thumbs up, to the happy man who wears the “Smile for Peace” sandwich board.
Beyond the building’s civic importance, perhaps it is the ever-changing view of passers-by that makes Town Hall steps Sydney’s premier waiting location, imagining where people must come from and where they are going, until it is time to leave the steps yourself, and rejoin the city crowds.