Completed in 1923 The Astor represented an entirely new concept in Australian residential living; private ownership of individual apartments. Located at 123 Macquarie Street the building was thirteen storeys high, Sydney’s first ‘skyscraper’. The 52 ultra-modern flats provided expansive views of the harbour.
Premier of New south Wales Sir George Fuller opened the reinforced concrete building on October 28 1923. The Sunday Times reported on the occasion, noting, ‘If Sydney people really want to appreciate the beauty of their city, they should obtain permission to view it from the roof garden of The Astor, in Macquarie Street…..Mr John O’Brien, who formerly owned the land, explained the scheme which enabled fortunate people to buy delightful flats outright.
In what became known as Company Title, residents purchased shares from the company established by Mr O’Brien; Astor Ltd. The number of shares reflected the value of each flat. For the first time, flat dwellers were free to sub-let or sell their property. However as the Sunday Times pointed out, this could lead to problems;
This experiment has been tried in other cities, and has been found to possess advantages and disadvantages – the latter being mainly of the social kind. In up-town apartments in New York there is constant fear of the intrusion of down-town people who have quickly grown rich; and the ‘exclusive’ apartment-holder has often been dismayed to find the rooms adjoining his own sold to some voluble and noisy gentleman who but recently was selling his wares from a street stand in the Bowery. (Sunday Times July 30 1922)
To keep out such ‘undesirables’ at The Astor, a board of directors was elected from the shareholders. They reviewed prospective purchasers and could ‘black-ball’ those who did not pass muster. 😎
Not surprisingly the building was popular with Macquarie Street medical specialists. Visiting graziers used the flats as pied ὰ terres.
As a resident of the Blue Mountains, I was amused to read the following in a Melbourne journal;
The fact that the flat roof is on a level with Killara, the North Sydney suburb which boasts of a most salubrious altitude, makes it the most desirable dwelling place in Sydney, for it provides a town home which obviates the necessity of jaunts to the Blue Mountains in search of ozone that city folk so frequently need. (Table Talk November 8 1923)
There were no garages at The Astor, but this was hardly an inconvenience. Residents simply summoned their chauffeurs from nearby parking stations…..or called a cab.
A charge of ₤2 per week was paid by each owner to cover running costs associated with amenities such as the passenger lift (complete with attendant) and a service lift. The latter provided the option of dinner delivery to each flat’s kitchen from the basement restaurant. There was also an internal telephone system, a garbage chute and a postal chute. Oh yes, and maid service.
Another feature of the flats was the state-of-the-art windows. John O’Brien had insisted on them being as large as possible. They were fitted with reversible steel frames and when fully opened the rooms became, in effect, open balconies; a great saving of space according to O’Brien. Cleaners could work from inside, reversing the windows as required. But ‘pushing the envelope’ comes with risk, and the novel mechanism of the windows led to tragedy.
Mrs Moriarty was visiting from Queensland to see an eye specialist in Macquarie Street. Rather than take baby Daniel in, she passed him to Mrs Weston, who walked up and down in the front of The Astor to soothe him. Mrs Weston suffered a fractured skull and severe lacerations of her face and leg.
At the inquest into the infant’s death cleaner Robert Allardyce gave evidence. He had been working at the Astor for four and a half years.
Allardyce related how he had been cleaning the windows in the flat of Sir Hugh and Lady Denison on the 6th floor. He had just finished his job and was about to close the window when the right hand pivot gave way. He made a hurried grasp at the window as he saw it sway outwards, but it pulled away from him, dragging the left hand pivot away too. He was powerless to avert the falling of the window.
Disturbingly, it was not the first failure associated with the steel framing;
Eighteen months before, he said, a window’s right hand pivot had given way in a manner similar to that disastrous break last month. And eighteen months before that again he said a window on the ninth floor had broken away from a pivot, but the window did not fall because it had been grabbed and held until assistance arrived. (Truth, July 22, 1928).
The coroner made a ruling of accidental death, although he ordered an inquiry into the safely of the windows. It hardly seems a satisfactory outcome.
Just as The Astor opened in 1923, construction began on the Sydney Harbour bridge. The photo below is from the 10th floor apartment of Frederick James and George Anderson. It was taken in 1938, after the completion of the bridge.
THE ASTOR’S ‘MRS BRIDGE’
Residents had the privilege of watching the bridge slowly span the harbour, but for Lawrence and Margaret Ennis, it was a truly unique experience. Mr Ennis was Dorman Long’s chief supervisor of work on the project. Every Sunday the couple would leave their Astor apartment to spend time at the Milson’s Point workshops. Lawrence would explain what was to happen during the coming week, so that Margaret, known affectionately as Mrs ‘Bridge’ Ennis, could follow and record each step through her plate glass windows.
The Astor has another connection with the bridge. We all know about Francis de Groot, who rode up and cut the opening day ribbon with a sword before Premier Jack Lang could use his ceremonial scissors. De Groot was a manufacturer of fine furniture, and supplied pieces to the wealthy residents of the flats. His firm is also thought to have been responsible for the rich panelling in the building’s foyer.
THE GARDEN IN THE SKIES
The rooftop garden at The Astor provided the perfect entertaining space for residents and their guests. At one point there was even a dance floor. In a 1929 feature on aerial gardens in the Sunday Times it scored top points;
But overshadowing all the shrubbery that sways and dances in the breeze in these rarified heights is the delightful garden on top of Sydney’s tallest peak – The Astor. Twelve or fourteen floors above the Macquarie Street palms and the Botanic Gardens grows a privet hedge and clouds of glowing flowers; pink, blue, yellow and white!
An artificial lake with water lilies sparkles in the centre of the roof. It slumbers in the shadow of an archway with romantic columns that make a particularly appropriate Temple of the Winds. (The Sunday Times, August 4, 1929)
Back in 1923 Premier Fuller had urged people to visit the high-rise garden, quipping that it was. ‘The closest to heaven many will get‘. One person who did just that was Mr Morton Clarke, a chemist from suburban Lakemba. In later years he took his daughter Nancy to see the view, a treat after they had lunched together in the basement restaurant. That roof garden remained in the young girl’s memory.
At twenty, Nancy gained a Batchelor of Arts degree from Sydney University, and subsequently became a teacher in Newcastle. Sadly, she suffered from depression. On leave at her parents home in 1941, life became too much. She left home one morning at 11.00am headed for the city. From the train station she went straight to The Astor, still the tallest apartment block in Sydney. She took the fire stairs to the rooftop garden, unseen by anyone. A police officer who heard a strange noise found the twenty two year old’s body in a laneway, 175 feet below.
I did wonder whether I should include this, but it is part of the The Astor’s history.
123 Macquarie Street remains a highly sought after address, although I suspect there are not so many of the landed gentry in residence. Some of the flats have been amalgamated to form much larger properties. Barry Humphries cheekily installed illegal stairs to connect with the flat he had purchased on the floor above. 😎 Well, at least they were stylish.
Over the years The Astor has been home to many well known personalities, including Jean Garling, Sir Tristan Antico, adman Harold Mitchell, John Laws, Mark Bouris and Cate Blanchett.