My tour group climbs the steep, narrow stairs to the upper floor of a classic two up, two down terrace in The Rocks.
A brass bed stands in the front room, with a wicker bassinet beside it. More than 170 years ago, the first tenants – a government printer and his wife – moved into this home and later welcomed a child. At that time, a mere 26 pounds was enough to secure the newly built property for a year – with rents in the area now reaching the $2000 per week mark, this really feels like a time-warp!
In the 150 years that followed, more than 100 families called this terrace and the three neighbouring properties home. It’s a remarkable time capsule that offers a cross-section of Sydney life from the 1840s to the 1980s. I spot a laundry copper at one terrace, and an aging Hoover washing machine in another. Each home tells the story of one or two of its former occupants.
In the 150 years that followed, more than 100 families called this terrace and the three neighboring properties home.
Susannah Place turns the standard museum experience on its head; in each house, visitors are able to sit on the couches or around kitchen tables, although leaning against doorframes or touching walls is a definite no-no. This is a conservation work in progress.
As each new tenant made the terraces their own, new layers of paint, wallpaper and floor coverings were laid over old. Sydney Living Museums, who care for the properties, aim to maintain the houses as they found them, rather than restoring them to a particular era, which would involve peeling back layers of history and losing so many stories along the way. Interventions are only made where necessary.
The story of how Susannah Place was saved is a remarkable one. Three of the houses were vacated by their final tenants in the 1960s and 70s. Yet one family, having seen the clearances and redevelopments taking place in the Rocks, stayed on, making repairs and keeping a watchful eye on the empty houses next door, until the terraces’ futures were guaranteed. The last tenant moved out in 1989, and the homes re-opened as a museum in 1993.
Compared to the homes we live in today, Susannah Place seems small and lacking in luxuries – a kid in my tour could barely believe that none of the houses had a television!
It’s a far cry from what we’re used to now, but from the twine and liquorice for sale in the corner shop to the washhouses behind each of the terraces, it’s easy to find yourself immersed in a Sydney of yesteryear.
Visit Susannah Place as part of the intrepid City Archaeology Trail.
The kind folk at Sydney Living Museums have put together a Sydney Museums Pass that saves you over %50 of entry at four museums. Find out more at the Sydney Museums Pass Trail.
Meet Kat Crossley; law graduate, writer, florist, and museum and gallery lover. We call her Gallerina, and she’s one of our Roving Reporters. She’ll be giving us her insights every month in M&Gazine as she flounces around the state from museum to gallery, so stay tuned. You can find her on Twitter at @kat_crossley or exploring an exhibition near you.