One of the jewels in Sydney art deco crown: Birtley Towers in Elizabeth Bay, built in 1934 by Emil Sodersten

Sydney’s art deco hub | Stations of the Cross | heritage hip

Brainy and cheeky. Witty and inventive. Always smoking hot.

Remembrance of things (almost) past … from razor gangs to Art Deco lines just as sharp

Packing boxes ready for a Blue Mountains relocation, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of not having done my Kings Cross history homework to a high enough standard. I wanted one last round, and a ‘hood hangover to take away.

The Cross and its siblings – Darlinghurst, Potts Point, Elizabeth Bay – have been on mute for several years. Lockdown, lockout, the shuttering of myriad small businesses, and the death of live music have dented its mojo.

El Alamein Fountain, a Kings Cross landmark. Photo: Susan Skelly

There have been small mercies: the Saturday produce market in Fitzroy Gardens by El Alamein Fountain (bacon and egg roll mandatory); a groovy revitalisation of Llankelly Lane; the curvaceous Omnia residential a stone’s throw from the tarted-up neon Coke sign; the fact that no one has torn down the old Minerva/Metro; and that The Roosevelt mixologists still set their cocktails on fire.

But now, some revision. First, into the alleyways of Darlinghurst, aka, “Razorhurst”, where “the underworld preys on prosperity, decency and virtue”, with a Dark Stories tour of the Razor Gang hangouts of the 1920s and ’30s. This era was ruled by sly-grog queen Kate Leigh, her rival, madam Tilly Devine, Norman “The Gunman” Bruhn, and Snowy Cutmore, known in racing circles for giving cocaine to horses.

It was a world of shootings, slashings, punch-ups, prostitution, speakeasies and sly grog, and fruit stalls that were fronts for all manner of goods that weren’t fruit.

Exploring Sydney’s gangster underbelly. Photo: Dark Stories

David Dark established the Dark Stories offerings four years ago. With a background in history and community theatre it was the perfect fit.

“People like to explore the darker idea of life, with safety,” says Dark, who, when Covid isn’t interfering, has two tours in Sydney, two in the Hunter Valley and one in Brisbane. “The razor gang wars, which grew out of the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 that forbade the carrying of guns, were not unlike the Chicago gang wars, but with razors.”

Darlinghurst’s more civilised 21st Century streetscape. Photo: Dark Stories

The best things about this tour are the tiny, terraced backstreets and laneways in the shadows of 21st century high-rise. Among the restored terraces of Palmer Street is what was once the abode of the madam Nellie “Legs” Cameron. Known as “The Kiss of Death Girl” because most of her husbands and boyfriends were murdered, she notched up 73 criminal convictions. Ambient in the gloaming are pretty Berwick Lane and Little Palmer Street and flourishing community gardens. There’s Charlotte Lane, where gangster Bruhn was shot dead outside Mac’s sly-grog shop.

Bronze plaques set into the pavement of Darlinghurst Road became part of the streetscape in 2004. Walk the strip and immerse yourself in the stories of the characters who lived and worked there: crime bosses, poets, artists, drag queens, activists, and the odd witch.

From  geometric glamor to polished Bakelite

Having resided for many years in the landmark Birtley Towers, completed in 1934 by Emil Sodersten, I figure I should know a lot more about the area’s Art Deco underpinnings. Renaissance Tours are good for special interest walkabouts, so I join Art Deco enthusiast Claudia Chan Shaw, who leads her group a merry dance through a world of squeaky grilled lifts, cornices restored in gentle eau de nil and apricot, chevron graphics, amber glass, and tactile curves.

The recently refreshed eau de nil and apricot detailing of the Cahors foyer. Photo: Susan Skelly

We admire foyers (Cahors, Marlborough Hall), storied facades ( Birtley Towers, Twenty Macleay Street, Wychbury, The Hartley, The Oxley, and Adereham Hall, which locals call Gotham City). We pass a slumbering hotel (the Piccadilly) and lament the passing of the Soho Bar. We pass a slumbering theatre awaiting its next incarnation (The Minerva, which opened in May 1939 with a production of Robert Sherwood’s Idiot’s Delight before becoming the Metro cinema a decade or so later, shocking with Hair in 1969 and in recent times the HQ of Mad Max moviemaker, George Miller).

Metro Theatre, Potts Point, awaiting a $50m facelift. Photo: © Claudia Chan Shaw

We browse an antiques emporium and a vintage fashion boutique full of period temptations.

But one of most gob-smacking art deco pitstops is the home of Sydney specialist dentist, Dr Peter Sheridan, AM, whose collection of art deco radios – mostly Bakelite and Catalin – is a tribute to the largely unsung industrial designers of the era – and to his wife Jan Hatch who has managed to style up an apartment with 320 radios without running screaming from the building. (“As I have said on many occasions,” says Sheridan in DecoRadio: The Most Beautiful Radios Ever Made, one of several books he has written on the period, “Jan can make an obsession look like a noble quest.”)

Art Deco Bakelite radios collected by Dr Peter Sheridan AM and Jan Hatch. Photo: © Peter Sheridan.

Renaissance Tours also celebrates pop artist Martin Sharp with a day trip that winds up at the Yellow House in Macleay Street. While I will remember the destination best for pastry queen Lorraine Godsmark’s date tart and strawberry mascarpone cake when it was Yellow Bistro, it’s where Sharp established an artists’ collective in 1969.

The Yellow House, home to Sydney’s most acclaimed artists. Photo: Susan Skelly

It influenced a generation of artists, performers and filmmakers. Peer into the foyer to glimpse Fantomas, an original Sharp painting on brickwork discovered upstairs under layers of plaster upstairs and moved – brick by brick – downstairs.

At The Roosevelt in Orwell Street, a nightspot named after a Kings Cross bar owned by crime boss Abe Saffron, I order the cocktail I’ve been ordering for almost a decade. The Rum Blazer. Zacapa rum, cinnamon, star anise, a twist of orange peel, and a bartender with a nitro trolley working the flame with the dexterity of a magician. One sniff and you’re in orbit. Going out in a blaze of glory.

The Roosevelt, home of the Rum Blazer. Photo: © Claudia Chan Shaw

The next Art Deco Potts Point tour is scheduled for Saturday, September 25: for details, visit Dark Stories,



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