Away from the cameras surveilling Sydney, public stairs remain among the few places where people “can still be private in public”, says architect Jennifer Preston.
As poet A. A. Milne wrote: “Halfway up the stairs isn’t up, it isn’t down … It isn’t really anywhere, it’s somewhere else instead.”
And in the case of the Steps to Nowhere on Hickson Road, Barangaroo, they lead up and down, but will take you absolutely nowhere.
Over the centuries, Sydney’s stairs have been the drop off point for messages written in invisible ink by Russian spy Ivan Skripov, which prompted a global scandal, as well as a rendezvous point for lovers and dealers.
Before lifts and moving footways – and long before people thought of counting steps on a device – traversing Sydney was a workout.
For all their film noir appeal, though, history shows you’re more likely to break a leg tripping down Sydney’s public stairs than have one broken by a thug, says Dr Preston. As chair of the NSW Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects Heritage Committee she is one of the few people in the world to study the role of stairs in urban architecture. Although researchers have studied parks, neighbourhoods and footpaths, stairs have been neglected. Her interest resulted in a 90,000 word doctoral thesis, and numerous research papers.
Dr Preston’s interest in Sydney’s stairs was prompted by walks near her home in Glebe. “I am a pedestrian – I walk a lot,” she explained.
When she climbed the Chapman stairs, sandstone steps that curl up from Parramatta Road and Arundel Street with “beautiful sculpted sandstone pillars”, she wondered who Chapman was and why the stairs were named after him. It turns out Michael Chapman was an Irish merchant born in 1802 who migrated to Australia where he rose to become a member of council and NSW Parliament.
“Urban stairways are contested terrain, where the public and private domains meet, overlap, and sometimes conflict,” Dr Preston wrote in one paper. As a result, there are often arguments over who is responsible for policing and maintenance. Dr Preston found complaints in the Sydney City Council archive about stairs being covered with “expectoration, tobacco juice, etc”. Others complained that the stairs were the “resort of people who continually lounge” about them.
Public urban stairways like McElhone rising from Woolloomooloo were places of contrast: beauty and refinement contrasted with the condoms and syringes she had found there.
“It leads upwards towards brightness, promise and adventure,” she wrote of the McElhone stairway. “It descends into shadow, the hidden and unknown. It is enveloped in the delicious scents of flowers, gardens and nearby baking, but is also plagued by the rank smells of urine, dampness and vomit.”
Over the years some steps such as Carahar in the Rocks were demolished, but clues remain, such as parts of their brickwork. On Hickson Road, the Steps to Nowhere are still embedded in the sandstone, but inaccessible.
Dr Preston’s research shows very few surveillance cameras have been installed on Sydney’s stairs, suggesting they are safer than they may feel.
Here are some of her picks for the best stairs to rack up steps, be a tourist in your own city and learn about Sydney’s history after colonisation (and snap some Instagrammable photos).
McElhone stairs: Connecting Woolloomooloo with Potts Point, the “heart thumping stairs” were also the location of a real life spy drama that saw secret documents – with instructions written in invisible ink by Russian spy Ivan Skripov. They were exchanged in a canister hidden behind a balustrade on the stairs. He was caught, expelled from Australia and the spy scandal went global. Like many of Sydney’s stairs they were named after a local businessman.
Fleet Steps: Often wrongly thought to relate to the arrival of the First Fleet, these steep and long stairs at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair were built to celebrate the arrival of the “Great White Fleet” in 1908. The arrival of American peace time fleet – a huge armada – brought record numbers of Sydneysiders out for a day described by some newspapers as the “greatest ever” in Sydney’s history.
Man O’War Steps: With a name like this, they should be huge. Though there are only eight or nine, the steps near the Opera House are full of history and very likely the oldest steps in Sydney, dating back to soon after colonisation. They were built to provide Governor Macquarie and his family with direct access to a jetty.
Chard stairs: Quite short stairs but Sydney’s “most beautiful”, says Dr Preston. They were initiated by William Chard, a local who was concerned that the widening of William Street had caused a huge drop at its intersection with Forbes street. Mr Chard wrote to the council – and to move things along, he paid an architect to draw up the plans. The steps contain detailed “little gargoyley faces carved in the 1930s”, Dr Preston said.
Argyle stairs: Described by tourists as leg pumping, the Argyle stairs in The Rocks have a majestic entry through an arch and lead up to the Harbour Bridge walk. They also feature in the Justice and Police Museum’s forensic archive (1910 to 1964). Curator Nerida Campbell says stairs are often the scene of accidents that “don’t turn out to be accidents”.
Agar steps: A massive set of 108 steps that link Kent Street with Observatory Hill. Tall and narrow with views towards the water, they are Dr Preston’s favourite. They have been portrayed by a range of Australian artists and some of the Victorian terraces that front on to the stairs use the landings as extensions of their own homes.