Sense and the City

Like a long-expired animal carcass, an abandoned four-storey mansion called Morella overlooks Chowder Bay, its insides gutted and bones shattered. In its non-sentient state, Morella feels no shame for the open wounds that it displays to the world. It beckons, like an advertisement for a museum exhibit. What treasures lie inside?

No window panes exist anymore. Instead, mosaics of glass crunch underfoot. The burnt-out kitchen area is a time capsule. Appliances are decades out of date. Part of the third floor folds at a 45 degree angle, almost like a staircase of its own. The rusted skeleton of a grand piano is strewn across the patio. Dirt and weeds invade the open-air basement. Graffiti camouflages the art deco bravado of Roman pillars. How much longer Morella will remain in this state is unclear, as the house recently sold for $6.6 million, bringing hope that the fallen giant might still reclaim its throne.

Urban ruins such as this are mysterious and intriguing. At least, to some (more on that later). I remember venturing into this abandoned mansion one morning with a friend, armed with a camera, to discover a man from Queensland similarly exploring the house. Apparently, a friend had told him about the place. Weeks later, during another visit, I was fined by police for trespassing. They complained that they had been called to the house the night before to deal with trespassers. Clearly, Morella had become a tourist attraction of sorts and a social hub for local youths.

In response to a Sydney Morning Herald article last year, Colin Rhodes, the (now resigned) Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) dean, praised the beauty of the SCA’s surroundings at Callan Park. However, he remarked that Callan Park “remains in a state of limbo and it is really hard to develop a world-class art school in a location that only seems to be deteriorating”. At first glance, this comment may appear unremarkable. Alongside the awe-inspiring architecture of the Kirkbride complex and Garry Owen House sits incongruously the brutalist architecture of air-raid shelters, the rustic architecture of the stables and coach house, with rusty tin roofs, and the scorched architecture of Broughton Hall, which suffered fire and vandalism in the 1980s (it is now boarded up).

Without history, abandoned places are curious oddities with only a present and a future, but not so curious as to invite critical examination. They appear a blank canvas for developers. They appear in need of human meaning and improvement to a naïve eye. This is why beer bottles and spray paint cans litter Morella and not the cameras and notebooks of historians, sociologists, journalists or council workers. Abandoned sites attract urban explorers, avid instagrammers, inquisitive passers-by and adrenaline junkies, but ignorance about their histories persist. I remember reading one piece on Morella in the Daily Telegraph, almost one year ago. The reddit thread on the house is sparse. Further information is hard to find. There is tension between interest and ignorance. It is probably the intrigue of not knowing what lies within that entices people. As a history buff, maybe I am different.

Callan Park sits today on 61 hectares of land, situated at Sydney’s heart. With the first permanent structure, Garry Owen House, built around 1840, the park has a rich history. However, beyond the local level, I believe the park has evaded the quantity of historical analysis it deserves. Some literature has been written on Garry Owen House and the Kirkbride buildings. Probably less has been written about Broughton Hall, despite its dilapidated state. Dedicated locals, represented by the Friends of Callan Park, have valiantly fought to preserve the park’s heritage. But with Professor Rhodes their efforts have fallen on deaf ears.

Without history, abandoned places are curious oddities with only a present and a future, but not so curious as to invite critical examination. They appear a blank canvas for developers. They appear in need of human meaning and improvement to a naïve eye.

Public ignorance about the histories of abandoned sites can be damaging. Conspiracy theories, regarding the use of the tunnels below the Kirkbride building and a supposed secret passageway leading to the Parramatta River, abound. Sensationalist media reports have long over-emphasised the brutality and austerity of Callan Park’s mental hospitals. One media report described Morella as “haunted”. My own mother warned me that a “crazy man” lived there, but the house has been uninhabited since I was five years old. As Grace Karskens remarks, in The Colony: A History of Early Sydney, “while there are kernels of truth in… foggy tales, places, like stories, need to be taken seriously, they need to be researched as well as visited and experienced; they need history.” Growing up in western Sydney as a child, she witnessed suburbanisation and commercial development consume empty, neglected farmhouses.

Like Karskens, we must write local histories that restore humanity to places. Social history is particularly useful. So is sensorial history, so often ignored in secondary sources. Recently, scholars, such as James Scott, have argued that urban planners reduce human experience to what is visible through maps and models. Instead of seeing blight and an imagined “crazy man”, we must hear the laughter and chatter of the Parer family children that inhabited Morella and of the esteemed dinner guests that frequently dined inside its walls. Instead of propagating fictionalised tales and seeing a blank canvas for redevelopment, we must smell the earthy purity of Callan Park’s lush gardens, where mental patients rehabilitated themselves. We must hear – or not hear – the muffled urban soundscape, overpowered by the squawking of birds. We must feel the blustery winds of Callan Park on our skin. This sensorial history will paint a more vivid, humane picture of patients’ everyday lives and justly depict the park as open and often tranquil. Callan Park Hospital for the Insane and Broughton Hall Psychiatric Clinic (later amalgamated as the Rozelle Hospital) were progressive institutions, not enclosed, secretive mental asylums. For more of that argument, you will have wait for my upcoming blog posts!

The “deteriorating” buildings Professor Rhodes described, relics of a bygone era, nonetheless hold tightly fascinating stories of perseverance, pain, recovery and sadness. (Read Jen Hawksley’s article ‘Histories from the Asylum: “The Unknown Patient”’ for one such story.) We must not invent wild tales with little evidence to support our case or slander their decrepit state. We must approach them gently and carefully. Only then will they reveal their pasts.