You Like Me, You Really Like Me!!!!!!


Many, many thanks to long-time reader and avid travel blogger Ashley Paige (no, not the Californian bikini designer – for those who fret about such things – but the East Coast anthropology student) of the fortheloveofwanderlust blog for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award.

As a condition of my nomination I must list 15 of my favourite blogs, a tricky task as I subscribe to so few. I’ve put in a little research and found some wonderful blogs that align with my interests.

My list comprises:

1/ Alice Writ Large

2/ Cliff Bott’s Blog

3/ Espacio de Manon

4/ Get Up And Go

5/ The Licentiate

6/ Aaron Leaman

7/ The Thought Experiment

8/ Classic Las Vegas

9/ Fossil Cars

10/ Dear Old Hollywood

11/ Black Dahlia Reader

12/ The Daily Mirror

13/ Old Hollywood Glamour

14/ The Oz Hitztory Blog

15/ Blame Mame: A Classic Film Blog

I must also open up and list seven things readers may not know about me:

1/ I prefers cats to dogs and just about any other animals with the exception of monkeys.

2/ I wasn’t a child prodigy and I’ve been paying the price ever since.

3/ I’m a blue guy rather than a brown guy.

4/ Disco died for me sometime around 1981.

5/ Bacon is my favourite food group.

6/ If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Chinese (Hunan preferably but Cantonese runs a close second).

7/ If it’s your shout, I’ll have a Ketel One martini, very cold, very dry, with a twist. Oh, and a bag of pork rinds, thanks.

Sorry for gushing (although with the Oscars approaching, my Sally Field moment is perhaps excusable) but thanks again to Ashley Paige and to all my readers.

Words and photos © David Latta

An Eternal Majesty: The Hotel del Coronado, San Diego’s Most Famous Resort


For many guests at The Del, as San Diego’s historic Hotel del Coronado is often known, their stay recalls the line from The Eagle’s Hotel California – you can check-out any time you like but you can never leave.

This massive and stylishly majestic pile, opened in 1888 and today one of the largest wooden structures remaining from the grand era of late nineteenth century resort building in the United States (not surprisingly, most burnt down), is a place of mystery despite the sun-washed resort ambience of its Pacific Ocean-front position. Ghost stories abound and, within minutes of setting foot inside, I’m drawn to asking the question that I’m sure the staff have heard a million times before.

I’m in the gift shop, just off the main lobby. Amongst the copious Marilyn Monroe memorabilia that fills this area almost to overflowing (Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot, ranked by the American Film Institute as the funniest US movie of all time, was filmed at the Coronado), I ask a staff member if any of hotel’s ghosts cause problems.

“Heavens, yes,” she replies readily enough, although not without a touch of nervousness. “It constantly rearranges the shelves.” The saleslady seems exasperated by the extra work. It’s bad enough when the earthly visitors leave the place a mess, let alone long-dead guests adding to the workload.

“It doesn’t like anything to do with Marilyn,” gazing back at the lunchboxes, fridge magnets and books to check they are still in a general sort of order.

The Coronado’s flesh-and-blood guests have long reported strange occurrences, from sudden plunges in temperature and ghostly footsteps to televisions and ceiling fans that turn on and off without warning.

The usual culprit is claimed to be Kate Morgan, a young woman who checked into the hotel in November 1892 and spent five days waiting a lover who never arrived. She was found dead on an outside staircase with a bullet wound to the head. The San Diego Coroner ruled the death as suicide.

Kate is said to be still seen wandering the halls while guests in her room (Room 3327) report all manner of unexplained disturbances.

Marilyn Monroe and Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot

Thankfully, the Coronado is not exactly the Overlook Hotel. It’s a most amazing building, designed in the Queen Anne revival style by Canadian architect James W. Reid, and dominated by a massive red turret.

Construction of what was envisaged as the grandest resort hotel in the United States began in March 1887. At its peak, some 2,000 workers toiled on this sandy wasteland but, when it opened the following year, it was an immediate success.

It has somewhere around 675 guestrooms and dominates the southern end of Coronado, a peninsula that is linked by a 16 kilometre-long isthmus known as the Silver Strand to the San Diego mainland. At Coronado’s northern end is the sprawling Naval Air Station North Island, comprising some 35,000 personnel and 23 aviation squadrons.

From the early days of manned flight, North Island was an important aeronautic location. Before being commissioned as a Naval Air Station in 1917, it was the site of an aviation school that attracted trainee pilots from around the world. One such aviator was Sadayoshi Yamada, who rose through the ranks of the Japanese armed forces to become Vice Admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II.

Over the years, the Hotel del Coronado has welcomed royalty, American presidents and movie stars. One of its most famous turns in the spotlight was during the filming of Some Like It Hot, which used the beachfront and hotel exteriors to great effect (the interiors were recreated in the Culver City studios of MGM).

Another famous guest was Frank L. Baum, author of the Wizard of Oz series of books. Although from the East Coast, he was drawn to California’s more welcoming climate. He spent months at a time at the Coronado between 1904 and 1910, after which he built a home in Hollywood that he named Ozcot.

The Coronado also inspired novelist Richard Mathieson (whose 1954 novel, I Am Legend, has been filmed four times, the last with Will Smith in 2007) to create Bid Time Return (1975), that deftly interweaves a love story with time travel. When it was filmed as Somewhere In Time (1980), with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, the setting was changed to the equally-elegant Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan.

Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis during filming of Some Like It Hot at the Hotel del Coronado

However, one of the most interesting connections with the Hotel del Coronado is actually one that could have happened but didn’t. When Bessie Wallis Warfield married Earl Winfield Spenser Jr. – an aviator and lieutenant in the United States Navy – in 1916, no-one could have foretold the effect it would have on the world.

Win, as he was known, was posted to San Diego in 1917 to oversee the establishment of the nation’s first naval air base. Wallis, as she was known, was the dutiful but ultimately unhappy military wife of a dissatisfied and alcoholic officer, a woman who loved to entertain and be entertained.

On 7 April 1920, the Hotel del Coronado hosted a ball in honour of Edward, Prince of Wales, who had arrived aboard the British warship HMS Renown en route to a royal tour of Australia. In later years, Win himself recalled he was on hand that evening with his wife who was introduced to the Prince.

Such is the cachè of such a momentous meeting that it has passed, unchecked, into popular legend. Even the Coronado’s website hedges its bets by stating that “many have speculated that they may have first met at The Del”. However, as Anne Sebba reveals in That Woman: The Life Of Wallis Simpson, Duchess Of Windsor (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2011), the reality is more like the golden opportunity that never occurred.

Several days before the ball, Wallis left San Diego for San Francisco to visit a socialite friend and didn’t return until the week after. This is confirmed by newspaper social columns of both cities.

In actuality, it would be another 11 years before Wallis finally met the Prince. In the interim, Wallis divorced Spenser in 1927, moved to England and married Ernest Simpson in 1928. She met the Prince at a country house party in 1931 and they became involved sometime around 1934. He ascended the throne as King Edward VIII in January 1936, Wallis and Simpson divorced in October 1936, and Edward abdicated in December of that year. In June 1937, Edward and Wallis married.

And the rest, as they say, even in the character-saturated hallways of the Hotel del Coronado, is history.

Words  © David Latta

Main photo courtesy of the Hotel del Coronado. Other photos copyright MGM

Architecture In Helsinki: Music To An Art Nouveau Lover’s Soul


The Bright Young Things out there may be surprised to learn that architecture in Helsinki is not just the name of a fashionable Australian indie pop band whose songs, as much as I’ve been able to ascertain, have little to do with the work of Alvar Aalto or Eero Saarinen. Architecture in Helsinki (not the band) is quite a delight, none more so than in its extensive catalogue of Art Nouveau classics.

This is particularly relevant with Helsinki being elevated to the role of World Design Capital in 2012, an event that is set to generate even more unbridled excitement than that of Seoul last year.

National Museum of Finland

Art Nouveau straddled the closing years of the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th centuries and achieved an artistic glorification throughout much of the world including Britain (where the Arts & Crafts Movement began in the 1880s), Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. In many countries, it was not just a design philosophy encompassing architecture, interior design and decorative arts but was shaded by political agendas.

This was certainly the case in Finland where Art Nouveau, known locally as jugend, underpinned the struggle for independence from Russia (which finally occurred in 1917) and produced a stolid, nationalistic tone often tied to the Kalevala, an epic poem first published in 1835 that is credited with developing the country’s national identity.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

The main figures of Art Nouveau in Finland included Eliel Saarinen, Hermann Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, Lars Sonck and Ernst Jung. The Helsinki Central railway station, designed by Saarinen, which opened in 1919, is an outstanding example of the Art Nouveau style.

Another is the National Museum of Finland, designed by Saarinen, Gesellius and Lindgren, which opened in 1916. Wander the streets of central Helsinki and there are many more outstanding examples to be found in commercial buildings and apartment blocks.

Helsinki Central Railway Station

In Helsinki’s many museums, Art Nouveau is also well represented. Recommended is the Ateneum Art Museum, Finland’s national gallery, showcasing a collection from the 1750s to the 1950s, and the Designmuseo or Design Museum, founded in 1873, with a collection that encompasses more than 75,000 objects, 40,000 drawings and 100,000 images.

Any visitor to Finland will find its museums and art galleries compelling although most are inclined towards the studious; an exception to this is the Outboard Museum in Porvoo, about 50 kilometres outside Helsinki. This attracts boating enthusiasts from around the world and includes a fascinating recreation of a 1950s-era outboard engine repair shop.

Words and photos © David Latta

Travelling Small Town America: The Other Las Vegas


It may come as something of a surprise (or not, depending on how well you know me) if I declare an eternal fascination for Las Vegas. Not, I might add, the neon glitter of Las Vegas, Nevada, but the understated historic charms of Las Vegas, New Mexico.

This is the place you’d holiday with Bill Collins (in matching salmon-coloured sports coats) rather than Richard Wilkins, where the only peacock feathers can be found on the peacocks they belong on, and finding a Busted Flush may require a trawl through the local thrift store for a John D. MacDonald novel.

The New Mexico version was the original, established in 1835 when this part of the world was the property of Mexico. It was an important link on the Santa Fe Trail and many of the Old West legends, including Wyatt Earp and Billy The Kid, peopled Las Vegas at various times. Doc Holliday ran a saloon there (and killed a man in a gunfight); another bar owner was Robert Ford, who murdered outlaw Jesse James. In its heyday, Las Vegas was not only one of the biggest cities in the region but reputedly one of the roughest, its reputation for lawlessness far exceeding Dodge City or Tombstone.

The city’s fortunes picked up further with the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in 1879. It was at this time the town split in two with Old Town based around the original 1835 city square while New Town was anchored by the railway station two kilometres to the east.

The glory days of Las Vegas lasted until the 1950s, when rail travel was supplanted by the automobile and the burgeoning interstate highway system. Santa Fe, that tourist-choked Disneyland of adobe, the town that launched a thousand homeware stores, became the drawcard for interstate visitors and Las Vegas went to sleep, a lucky occurrence for those who enjoy a destination with lashings of history. There are more than 900 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, from richly-ornamented commercial buildings through to the pristine residential streetscapes of Lincoln Park, Carnegie Park and the North New Town district.

One stand-out is the extraordinary Montezuma Hotel, otherwise known as the Castle, built in the Queen Anne style as a luxury spa resort by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad Company. Completed in 1886, it replaced the first hotel, which opened in 1882 and burnt down the same year, and a replacement building that suffered the same fate.

The first building in New Mexico to have electric lighting, it continued as a hotel until 1903, then underwent varying uses including a Jesuit seminary. In 1981, it was bought by American industrialist and philanthropist Armand Hammer as the site of a United World College, which continues to this day.

Las Vegas also stands out as a location for film-making. In the silent movie era, it was favoured by cowboy star Tom Mix (about 30 films he either starred in or directed utilise Las Vegas as a backdrop). More recent films include the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn (Patrick Swayze loved the area so much he bought an 800-hectare ranch nearby, where his ashes were reportedly scattered following his death in 2009), Convoy (1978), John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), All The Pretty Horses (2000), and Wild Hogs (2007). Actor Val Kilmer also has a 2,000 hectare ranch outside town.

There are two movies that will forever be closely associated with Las Vegas. The main street of Old Town was used in Easy Rider (1969), where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride behind a parade and are arrested, meeting Jack Nicholson in the town jail. And extensive use was made of Las Vegas in the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), especially the Plaza Hotel on the Old Town Square.

Built in 1882 in a High Victorian Italianate style, the Plaza Hotel is a stylish and comfortable base from which to explore the town. The adjacent Charles Ilfeld Mercantile Building, which opened in 1891 as the first department store in the southwest, was restored and added to the guestroom inventory in 2009.

Las Vegas is small-town America at its most striking. The locals are friendly and hospitable, there’s a good mix of antique shops, book stores and cafes, and the relaxed pace of life makes it an ideal rest stop on any road trip through America’s southwest. For architecture and movie fans, the attractions are even more compelling.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgTrWof9f8s

Words and photos © David Latta

 

The Floating World: Venice By Water


The Venice of the mind is an apparition of remarkable complexity. Darkly foreboding laneways forever shaded from the sun, canals silently traversed by sinuous gondoliers. It’s all that such illusions imply, long reflected in literature and film. The pomaded ascetic Aschenbach beguiled by Tadzio’s lustrous youth in Death In Venice, the murky compulsions of grief magnified by the harsh winter in Don’t Look Now.

The reality, as in many things, is far different. At the height of the summer season, Venice holds little mystery, just a still oppressive heat, the breathless crush of tourists and a city trying its best to function under the countless pressures that have tested its resolve for hundreds of years.

All of Venice is a museum, made more remarkable in that it’s a living city that has grown across 117 islands dotted on a lagoon on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. It was home to Casanova and Marco Polo (one was an explorer of bold and adventuresome ways, the other went to China) and beguiled Lord Byron, Ezra Pound and countless others.

Venice is impossible to forget and even harder to ignore. It’s a wondrous place, a curiosity that, for the romantic, builds into an obsession and defies any attempt to remove it. Visit once and you’ll be forever drawn back. You can’t ever hope to understand it; simply let its eccentricities lead you where it may.

Invariably, that will be to the canals of Venice and it’s where most tourists get their introduction to the city’s unique way of life. The vaporetti or water buses are the preferred mode of transport, as traditional a way of life as the yellow cabs of New York, the red double-decker buses of London or the jeepneys of Manila.

Through most of the day and night, they work the water, travelling where most visitors need to go. A single fare is around €6 but the best value is in multi-use passes that allow unlimited trips from 12 hours (€16) through to seven days (€50).

The Grand Canal, that extends four kilometres from outside the Santa Lucia railway station in the north-west to near St Mark’s Square, passes stoically elegant palazzos and stolid fondaco or merchants’ warehouse-residences. Along the way, there will be every evocation of Venetian architecture, from Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance through to Baroque and Neoclassical.

Mid-way along the Grand Canal is the Rialto Bridge, built in the early 1590s and designed by Antonio da Ponte; his nephew, Antonio Contino, who worked with da Ponte on construction of the Rialto, designed the famed Bridge of Sighs.

On the shore fronting St Mark’s Square, it’s possible to watch one of the more disturbing sights of Venice when enormous cruise ships work their way up the Giudecca Canal to their moorings at San Basilio Pier or the Marittima Basin. Venice is one of the busiest cruise destinations in the region, with upwards of 500 departures annually. These massive beasts dwarf the human scale of Venice, scattering vaporetti, private water taxis and gondolas and presenting an image of a disaster just waiting to happen.

The area around the Piazza San Marco or St Mark’s Square is tourist trap central but it’s something to which every visitor should acquiesce. While a gondola ride may seem cheesy, it’s a required experience; in value-for-money terms, however, it rates with the Caffe Florian, where a coffee will set you back the price of a small Japanese car. But it’s worthwhile just for the photo opportunities and the knowledge that you’ve experienced the Venice of legend.

The other must-dos include a bellini cocktail at the Hotel Cipriani on Giudecca, the lozenge-shaped island across from the Piazza, and a relaxed wander through the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, where heiress Peggy Guggenheim amassed such a startlingly extensive collection of early 20th century art.

Add to that, a day or three getting lost within the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, where tiny churches and historic palaces co-exist with Venetians going about their everyday life, and the city will have exerted a magical, adamantine charm. And you’ll be communing with the ghosts of Casanova, Titian, Truman Capote, Hemingway and thousands of others who have fallen in love with Venice.

Words and photos © David Latta

Sydney’s Forgotten Glory – The Garden Palace Burns!


NOTE: This is Part II of the Garden Palace article.

When the Sydney International Exhibition closed in April 1880, thoughts turned to how best to utilise such a magnificent building. The newspapers of the period weighed in with a range of fanciful possibilities including turning the basement area, under the towering statue of Queen Victoria, into the world’s largest aquarium.

Public sentiment seemed to lean towards a museum. It was announced, not too long after the Exhibition, that the Garden Palace would house the South Kensington Museum of New South Wales. Whether this was an official arrangement with the London museum founded in 1852 and drawing upon exhibits purchased from the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace (and which was renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum in the 1980s) or merely a nod towards the Mother Country, is not known as the plan never reached fulfillment.

However, another museum did occupy some of the space with the Technological and Sanitary Museum taking up space around the ground floor area of the west nave. In the end, political practicality took over. The machinery of colonial government required enormous space and the vast interior of the Garden Palace was perfect for such uses.

The Mines Department, the Harbours and Rivers Department and the Trial Survey Branch were just a few of the many government departments and instrumentalities that set up supplementary offices, storerooms or archives within the Garden Palace.

The Sydney International Exhibition eventually faded into memory and the Garden Palace became an accepted part of the Sydney skyline. Nobody gave much thought to how long the locals would be able to enjoy such a beautiful building. The answer, regrettably, was not that long.

On the morning of 22 September 1882, night watchman F. Kirchen of the Insurance Brigade made his rounds as usual and found nothing of consequence. He met up with the police patrol that regularly visited the building at 5.30am and then walked to the Domain entrance to greet the day watchman, J. McKnight. They chatted for a few minutes as dawn started to seep across the harbour.

Turning their attention to the Garden Palace, they were horrified to notice smoke curling from under the dome. Kirchen and McKnight rushed to the building. It was already too late. They entered the building and saw, through the choking dark smoke, enormous tongues of flame rushing up from the basement area, engulfing the statue of Queen Victoria, and being propelled with increasing speed along the dry wooden beams and supports towards the massive dome.

They had enough time to reach a telephone and alert the Fire Brigade before they fled the scorching heat. After a moment’s hesitation, there was barely time to rescue a pet dog, trapped and barking in panic.

By the time they’d reached a safe distance, the Garden Palace was a roaring ball of flame. As the Sydney Morning Herald later commented, “To describe the progress of the fire is to analyse the events of a few minutes”.

Fire brigades started to arrive from all parts of the city, as did horrified local residents. They could do nothing but watch in stunned disbelief. A few minutes after 6am, the windows of houses fronting Macquarie Street started to crack.

Strong winds fanned the fire which burst in a multitude of colours – dark ruby, green, yellow and blue, tinged by the chemicals and paint treating the wood and the contents of the building –  higher skyward. When the dome collapsed, the rush of expelled supercharged heat sent ash, debris and burning cinders as far afield as Darling Point. The roof of a house in Potts Point was set alight while furnace-twisted sheets of corrugated iron rained down on the grounds of Elizabeth Bay House.

The Illustrated Sydney News reported: “A dull roaring sound, and a crackling like the discharge of fire-arms. An immense flame leapt into the sky, volumes of black smoke rolled up, and with a crash like a peal of thunder the mighty dome fell in”.

By 9am, the spectacle was over. The Garden Palace, which for three years, was the first sight of the city skyline seen by ships entering Sydney Heads, was no more. All that remained were a few tottering fragments of the entrance towers, the charred brick foundations and a smouldering pile of rubble that took days to extinguish.

Just about everything within the building was destroyed including hundreds of paintings gathered for the Art Society of New South Wales’ annual exhibition, all documents relating to the 1881 census as well as other important census records going back decades, and land and water calculations that required vast sections of the colony to be re-surveyed.

Attempts to find a cause of the fire proved fruitless. One suggestion was that thieves set the fire while attempting to break into a Mines Department safe. Another was that one of the Macquarie Street landowners had been desperate enough to regain his harbour views that he had resorted to arson.

The sad truth is that fires were a regular occurrence in Victorian times and the haste with which the Garden Palace was constructed, with the Government taking control of the Exhibition’s organisation just eight months before the projected opening, necessitating the use of wood rather than brick and stone, played its part.

It was just one of those things and it robbed Sydney of the most beautiful building that had ever graced its shores.

Today, there’s very little to remind visitors that it ever existed. The Garden Palace Gates, erected in 1889 opposite the State Library (what is now the Mitchell Library), were later relocated to their present site fronting Macquarie Street. The Pioneers’ Memorial Garden was built in 1938 on the spot where Queen Victoria’s statue stood. A small brass plaque commemorates the Garden Palace.

One lasting tribute, although even that is generally known only by trivia buffs, is that the Technological and Sanitary Museum survived the fire despite losing all its exhibits, found safer lodgings and was later renamed the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Later still, it became the Powerhouse Museum and can now be found in Ultimo adjoining Darling Harbour.

Words © David Latta

Photos © State Records NSW

 

Sydney’s Forgotten Glory – The Garden Palace


NOTE: This is Part I of the Garden Palace article.

The Garden Palace, the most magnificent building Sydney has ever seen, is virtually unknown these days, the province of history buffs and architecture junkies. It doesn’t help that it existed for just three years; in September 2012, it will be the 130th anniversary of its spectacular destruction.

There are a few reminders of its existence if the curious have the time to search the Royal Botanic Gardens but none befits its outstanding splendour and the way it dominated the skyline of the colonial city.

It was a grand Victorian-era confection, an ambitious vision that was hampered by haste, and it was this rush to complete it in time to house the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 that led directly to its untimely demise. Yet, when it opened in September 1879, it excited the awe of the people of New South Wales and the envy of the other colonies. It was a big, bold statement of self-importance especially befitting the colony’s hopes and dreams.

Ever since the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at London’s glittery Crystal Palace, there was a race to mount ever bigger, ever better testaments to technological achievement. New South Wales had sent contributions to the Great Exhibition as well as to subsequent events in 1862 and 1873; to Paris in 1855, 1867 and 1878; and to the biggest of them all, the 1876 Great International Exhibition of America in Philadelphia, that brought together 60,000 exhibitors from 37 countries. All were forerunners of the World’s Fairs and Expos of the 20th century.

The Agricultural Society of New South Wales, founded in 1822, had mounted the much more modest Intercolonial Exhibition in 1870, the centenary of the discovery of Australia, at exhibition buildings located within Prince Alfred Park. As the years wore on, there was agreement that the time was right for New South Wales, as the oldest of the Australian colonies, to make a declaration of its industrial maturity and to be the first in the Southern Hemisphere to do so.

The Society decided on a date in September 1879 to hold a Sydney International Exhibition. Invitations to attend and exhibit were sent out to governments around the world. The response was almost immediate and plans were hastily arranged to extend the exhibition halls of Prince Alfred Park.

The torrent of interest, however, became a deluge that turned into a flood of Noah-like proportions. By late 1878, the Society realised that the Sydney International Exhibition was destined to be bigger than anybody could have imagined. They, and the environs of the Park, just weren’t up to the challenge.

An approach was made to the New South Wales Government to take over the event. Sensing the humiliation to the colony should the Exhibition be cancelled, Henry Parkes, then Colonial Secretary, agreed. In December 1878, nine months before the scheduled opening, it became official.

The rush was on. James Barnet, who had held the post of Colonial Architect since 1865 and whose greatest works would include the Sydney GPO and the Customs House as well as public buildings throughout New South Wales, turned to designing a building big enough and grand enough for the Exhibition. A suitable location would also have to be found.

Formal instructions authorising Barnet were issued on Tuesday 17 December. On the Friday, he submitted a design, which he estimated would cost £50,000 (the eventual cost would blow out to just under £200,000). A prime spot running alongside Macquarie Street and adjoining the Botanic Gardens and the Doman was earmarked. On a high ridge, it was intended that the exhibition building would dominate the city’s skyline and be seen for miles in any direction.

The first controversy of the Garden Palace’s existence erupted even before the first stone had been laid. That the building was going to be big was beyond question; to hold the anticipated exhibitors, floor space was to equal 8.5 acres (3.4 hecatres) and the entire exhibition grounds would spread across 35 acres (14 hectares).

Barnet’s building was, befitting a temple of technological achievement, shaped very much like a church. It had a nave 800 feet (244 metres) long with intersecting transepts 500 feet (152 metres) in length with concluding four storey-high entrance towers. It would be topped by a giant dome 100 feet (30 metres) in diameter (only slightly smaller than St Paul’s Cathedral in London), topped by a lantern for the flow of natural light and an ornamental finial. From the ground to the tip of the finial, the Garden Palace would reach a height of 210 feet (64 metres).

There was a public outcry, fuelled by the newspapers of the period, about such an enormous building dominating a public area. Not the least concerned were the wealthy homeowners along Macquarie Street who were outraged that their expansive harbour views would be endangered.

The site of the Garden Palace was marked out on 2 January 1879, two days before Barnet’s plans were formally approved. By 13 January, construction commenced. By May, more than 3,000 workers were feverishly attempting to meet the looming deadline. The use of carbon-arc floodlights, marking the first use of electric light in the colony, allowed night shifts to accelerate progress.

The factors that hastened the demise of the Garden Palace were beginning to become apparent even at this early stage. With such a pressing deadline, there was no time to use more permanent (and fire-retardant) materials; aside from the brick used in the foundations and the entrance towers, the majority of this vastly enormous building was wood and corrugated iron.

(In comparison, the World Heritage-listed Melbourne Exhibition Building – constructed for the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880 – was composed primarily of brick and bluestone.)

Thus, the Garden Palace, that most magnificent of constructions in the harbourside city, became impermanence exemplified.

Luckily, everything ran to plan. On Wednesday 17 September 1879, the Sydney International Exhibition had its official opening with some 20,000 people attending. The stormy weather of previous days cleared to bright sunshine; a public holiday had been declared and all shops and businesses were closed.

In total, there were 2,160 foreign exhibitors as well as representation from all Australian colonies. Some 14,000 exhibits crowded the Garden Palace alone; visitors were particularly fascinated by new-fangled inventions. The first elevator ever seen in Australia, with a luxurious interior of paneled ash, carpets and seats, was an instant hit. Another marvel was a machine operated by a 13-year-old girl which washed filthy clothes borrowed from the engineers’ shed to a sparkling white.

The Exhibition was a roaring success. By the time it officially closed, on 20 April 1880, more than one million people had passed through the gates (in a country with a population barely exceeding 2.2 million).

New South Wales had done itself proud. As one newspaper commented, the Sydney International Exhibition had “exalted the colony is the estimation of all civilized countries”.

Once the final visitor had left, the brightly coloured ribbon and bunting removed and the last exhibit crated up and shipped away, there remained another problem. Just what to do with the Garden Palace?

But that, along with the tragic story of the Garden Palace’s final hours, will have to wait for another day.

Words © David Latta

Photos © State Records NSW