ON THE TILES
A HISTORIC ART DECO PUB WITH A SLEAZY PAST IS THE LATEST SYDNEY INSTITUTION TO BE RESCUED FROM OBLIVION AND REVIVED – MUCH LIKE THE CITY’S LIVE MUSIC SCENE, WHICH THE LANSDOWNE FOSTERED FOR SO LONG AND WILL AGAIN.
You probably haven’t heard of Sidney Warden. But if you live in NSW, you have almost certainly walked past one of his buildings – and even drunk in a few – as this architect designed almost 400 of the pubs in the state. His art deco hotels were so striking for the 1930s that they made it into the pages of prestigious architectural magazines. This wasn’t an accident: Warden was part of a concerted campaign by the state’s biggest beer brewer – Tooth & Co – to fight efforts by the Temperance movement to shut down their pubs by making them “fancier”.
So it is fitting that one of Warden’s most iconic pubs, the Lansdowne, is now being restored to help save Sydney’s nightlife and live music scene dented by noise restrictions, the gentrification of inner-city suburbs and the controversial lockout laws. The once-grand Chippendale establishment, just as famous for its criminal antics in the 1980s as it was for its live music in the 1990s, is being saved by pair of blokes better known for introducing good burgers to Sydney.
Jake Smyth and Kenny Graham turned a former masonic hall in Newtown into Sydney’s most famous burger joint when they opened Mary’s in 2013. The Lansdowne revival project is the fourth for the duo.
“What we are most excited about is the fact that we have this opportunity to really bring back an element of Sydney that has just been thrown to the side,” Smyth tells WISH. “It is a moment in time,” adds Graham. “It is not just Jake and Kenny of Mary’s taking over a pub in Glebe, it is much bigger than that. It has come at a time when people are over being told what to do.”
The pair were approached by their landlords at The Unicorn Hotel in Paddington (their third venue) in December last year about whether they were interested in running the Lansdowne if the property group bought it. The pub had been boarded up since it closed in 2015, with plans to turn it into a music school having never eventuated. Smyth and Graham jumped at the chance. By January, the renovations were in full swing: the place had been gutted and restored to its former art deco glory, with two floors dedicated to live music.
One suspects that Warden would be chuffed to know his work was being restored to its former glory and the Lansdowne was having another chance at life. “It’s really pleasing to see,” says Charles Pickett, who curated an exhibition of Warden’s architectural work at the Powerhouse Museum in Pyrmont. “In most countries, pubs are just shopfronts. Australia took over the English licensing laws, which basically meant you had to have accommodation as well as a bar. So pubs ended up being substantial buildings. But the ones built in the 1920s and 1930s are totally different to what they had in England, so people don’t realise just how unique Australian art deco pubs are.”
The Lansdowne, on the corner of busy Broadway and City Rd, is a particularly prominent example. “As Sydney boys, we had driven past it for years and always thought it was a beautiful building,” says Graham, who is originally from Scotland. “The pub makes a statement,” says Smyth. “There are turrets on the roof. There are these tiles underneath the awning that have been painted black. I don’t know how long ago it happened, I didn’t even notice it when I drank there in the mid-2000s. But when you peel it back, there are these beautiful cream and green tiles that were installed in the 1930s. We are restoring all of that and it’s going to be amazing. The one thing we have always believed in, from a design perspective, is that you have to let a building and a room tell its own story.”
And the Lansdowne certainly has a story to tell. Built in the 1920s by Tooth & Co and designed by Warden, who also did the nearby Old Clare (which has also been restored and turned into a boutique hotel and restaurant precinct), the pub made a statement. “At the time, Sydney was a low-rise city so these sort of hotels really stood out, which was the whole idea,” Pickett says. “The breweries were under siege from the Temperance movement, which wanted to close a lot of the oldfashioned Victorian hotels down [as they did in most states]. So Tooth & Co decided to spend huge amounts of money rebuilding their hotels and that just happened to be most of the hotels in NSW.”
They hired a number of architects to make this happen and Warden was among them. He ended up designing 392 hotels for Tooth & Co, from the Henson in Marrickville in the inner west, to the Light Brigade on Oxford Street in the inner east. Warden did most from scratch while others were renovated and remodelled. It became his career. “They were very much buildings of their time. Tooth & Co wanted to look really contemporary and really smart,” Pickett tells WISH. “The old Victorian hotels they replaced were small, pokey places; these hotels were quite different. They used this sort of architecture – the Streamline architecture that was popular in the 1930s – because they were trying to give them a fancier image that they did not have.”
This fancy image could only do so much to counter the notorious six o’clock swill, in which punters would
drink as fast as possible to beat the 6pm closing time (thanks again to the Temperance movement). The Lansdowne was also reportedly a place for the illegal alcohol trade in the 1940s and was described as a “rather sleazy pub” by a witness at a royal commission into drug trafficking in the early 1980s, thanks to its criminal patronage. But by the end of the 1990s, it hit its stride as a music venue with dozens of local bands such as You Am I and The Living End playing in its rooms on their way to hitting the big time. “It always has been such a great underground institution: every form of music has gone through there,” says booking agent Matt Rule, who with his brother, Dan, ran the nearby Annandale Hotel (another nursery for Australian bands) for years. They were forced to close the Annandale after lengthy battles with councils and local residents over noise and trading hours.
Rule says mid-size spaces like the Annandale and the Lansdowne where bands can play to 200-250 people are vitally important to the local music scene and the development of new talent. And it is what Sydney has been missing. Smyth agrees, saying pubs end up being the “litmus test” of whether bands can take the next step. “You finished playing at the front bar of the local pub with all your mates and you need to prove to that potential manager or potential label that you can make money, because that it what it comes down to – can this band make money?” he says. “Having 250 people pay $10 a head isn’t a huge commitment for the punter, but it is a huge moment for that band.”
It did not take long for the Rule brothers to come on board and agree to book bands for the restored Lansdowne, which is due to open after the Queen’s birthday weekend. The pub will have two levels for music and a number of different rooms for acts of various sizes. The old staircase and other art deco features have been retained and an open kitchen installed downstairs will serve the famous Mary’s burgers as well as Smyth and Graham’s distinct take on pizza. “It originated in Detroit – a square style of pizza, it is super cheesy. It will be the cornerstone of the menu,” says Smyth.
Local authorities have also realised the importance of the restored iconic pub, not only to live music but to nightlife in a city affected by the lockout laws (the Lansdowne is outside the affected zone and will stay open until 3am except on Sundays). “It feels like a real turning point for live music in Sydney,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore says. “I’m really looking forward to working with them whenever we can.” And the council has already come through with the goods, with Graham and Smyth saying they have “been blown away” with support. How times have changed. “For the first time ever we had a person from the council contact us and see what they can do to help,” says Smyth.
Rule thinks the newly opened Lansdowne is truly the start of a new period for Sydney. “For so long the difficulties of doing live music – anything creative, really – in this city has been well documented due to the restrictions placed on all venues,” he tells WISH. “The Lansdowne is bucking that trend. There really is a revival on its way.”
“It always has been such a great underground institution: every form of music has gone through there.”
Sidney Warden, right, who designed 392 grand art deco pubs for Tooth & Co.; below, the Lansdowne in 1926