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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Sydney: Early Suburbs

Sydney has been an overwhelmingly suburbanized city for a century or more. Here we look at four bits of that sprawl: the eastern coast, Castlecrag, Hunters Hill, and Appian Way, in Burford.

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Everybody knows Bondi, or Beach Beach. One theory is that the name derives from an Aboriginal word denoting waves on rocks. Odd theory, since Bondi (pronounced bond-eye) is wonderfully sandy.

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Bondi is all of four miles from the Circular Quay, though you'd never know it driving, when getting there takes least 20 minutes.

Crash history course: a private owner began allowing public access in 1855. The beach became so popular that the government took it over and made it officially a public beach in 1882. The far end is better for swimming than this end; the whole beach is protected by underwater shark nets in summer.

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A very mellow neighborhood has grown up around the beach.

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Swimmers, as distinct from surfers, may prefer the Bondi Icebergs pools above the south end of the beach. They were built after the Bondi Icebergs winter-swimming club was organized in 1929.

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The coast immediately to the south is rugged.

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Equally so to the north. The view here is just beyond the hook at the end of the beach. The cliffs extend about four miles to the opening into Sydney Harbor.

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Here's that hook; the view is to the south, with Bondi Beach off to the right.

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The view here (back to the south) shows how houses extend nearly to the cliff edge. Sleepwalkers are advised to buy elsewhere.

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Some of the houses are palatial. This one is at the end of Weonga Road, one of many stubs dead-ending at the cliff.

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We've moved a couple of miles and come to Bayview Hill. The view here is west past Point Piper and toward the city center, which feels a lot farther away than three miles, its actual distance.

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Here, from the same spot, is one of the older suburban homes built to take advantage of the view (4 Bayview Hill Road).

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We'll venture farther afield now, beginning with Castlecrag. It's only a little over three miles north of the harbor bridge but feels much farther away.

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This is one of about 14 surviving homes designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin. They had arrived in Australia in 1912 after winning the competition to design a national capital at Canberra. That story ended unhappily, with the two of them quitting Canberra in 1919 and moving to Sydney. There they established the Greater Sydney Development Association and acquired a hilly peninsula measuring about one square mile and extending into a northern arm of the harbor. Here the Griffins hoped to put into practice the design philosophy that had emerged in the years they spent working with Frank Lloyd Wright.

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Photos show that the land when acquired by the Griffins was sandy and almost devoid of vegetation, but of course that was almost a century ago, and there's been a lot of irrigation since then. There's also been a lot of building, and the site is far more urbanized than the Griffins would have wanted. All told, they built only 35 homes--all with flat roofs and walls of interlocking sandstone or concrete blocks. Why so few? Fromonot and Thompson write that it was too far from Sydney in those days before the bridge and tunnel; the Depression was the last straw.

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It's hard to say from a street view how comfortable or un- the Griffin houses were, but there's no mistaking the medieval aura. The street names are in keeping: this house is on The Citadel; other streets included The Rampart, The Parapet, The Bastion, The Bulwark, and The Redoubt. Makes you wonder where Tolkien was.

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Wouldn't a portcullis be more appropriate?

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The Griffins intended to leave much of the land wild. Some bits like this have turned out that way, especially on the steep northern slope of the peninsula.

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Doesn't this sign make you look for unenumerated ways of being naughty?

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The parkland on the south side (Sailor's Bay) is much narrower.

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Bits of wild land have been donated by private owners, in this case to the Castle Haven Reserve on the south slope.

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That's it: the entire width of the reserve. You have to remember that Castlecrag has over 3,000 residents, which presumably means something like a thousand houses.

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There are a very few interior reserves: here's one, the Linden Way Reserve.

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Hardly more than a single lot, and a heavily manicured one.

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The site has a lot of exposed bedrock, where perhaps explains where the Griffin got their castellate proclivities. Many of the exposures seem to be of homesites from which a Griffin house has been replaced with something more congenial to Architectural Digest subscribers. At least it has a flat roof.

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Tut, tut! This one would have driven the Griffins nuts.

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Better: the walls suggest that a Griffin house used to be here.

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New, new.

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Another jump: we've come over to the tip of the Hunters Hill peninsula, about a 20-minute ride from the Circular Quay wharf.

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Hunters Hill was developed by the Joubert brothers, who arrived from France in the 1830s and bought 120 acres from Mary Reiby, an ex-convict who made good. They also bought a steam yacht and began offering a ferry service. Then they imported stonemasons from Lombardy, and (warning: cliche ahead) the rest is history.

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One of their simpler productions.

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Another.

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Here's something more elaborate: it carries a name, of course: St. Claire.

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Another. What's bets the fence came from France?

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Our last stop, Appian Way, which sounds awfully Roman but is actually the creation of George Hoskins, who between 1903 and 1911 built 36 homes on a tract of about 20 acres six miles west of the city center. (Only six miles? Yes, but if you can get there in less than half an hour you must be running after midnight and with your lights off.) In the middle of the tract he put in what the vulgar would call a playground: it offered tennis, bowls, and croquet. A century later, the bowls and croquet are gone but tennis survives. So does the open space.

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The homes were leased, not sold, so Hoskins retained control of the development. As though they were estates, all the homes got names in Italian, of course: this one was Casa Nuova. Fair enough: how could it be anything else?

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Here's Brescia, an hour and a half east of Milan. The homes look surprisingly different from one another. Credit the designer and builder, William Richards.

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Here's St. Ellero, in a style called Federation Arts and Crafts. Don't you expect vines to curl over the pseudo-pergola?

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Here's Alba Longa, with its own turret and a sun-filled room beneath.

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Aventine, where the trim carpenter was asked to show what he could do.

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Casa Tassi, with plenty of room to pace on the veranda. How else to work off the stress of paying the mortgage?


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