There was no missing these blocks of flats as you came out on the north side of the Harbour Bridge. Personally, I always thought they were a bit of an eyesore, though they undoubtedly would have been considered very contemporary living in the 1950s/60s.
When it opened in 1954, ‘Greenway’ was the largest flat complex in Australia.
Named after the colony’s first public architect, Francis Greenway, it comprised four buildings, housing 309 one and two bedroom flats. The two taller 11 storey-buildings, A and C blocks, have steel frames. The smaller B and D blocks are concrete framed. The thick brick walls helped to bear the load. Before 1957, building heights in Sydney were restricted to 150 feet. ‘Greenway’ was 130 feet high.
Materials and labour were in such short supply after World War Two that construction took six years. The few exterior design features and modest window size, despite the view across the harbour, helped to reduce cost. Flats were leased as each block was finished.
‘Greenway’ was designed in the modern Functionalist style, a European idiom widely adopted in Australia in the 1930s. This rejected unnecessary decoration while relating a building’s form to its function. However, the architect Percy J. Gordon of the firm Morrow and Gordon was almost certainly influenced as well by the huge housing ‘projects’ being built on the east side of Manhattan in the 1940s. ‘Greenway’ bears a striking resemblance to the post-war apartments in New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area.
Upon completion, the project was favourably compared to nearby Victorian-era terraces, then regarded as ‘slums’. The first tenants were delighted. When Mrs V.W.H Briggs moved into her flat in 1953 she declared ‘If I won the lottery seven times over I wouldn’t leave here. This will do me!’ (Sunday Herald, 1 March, 1953) Part of the appeal was the provision of modern appliances. Electric stoves were installed in favour of gas units, stainless steel sinks were standard and the old-style kitchen dresser gave way to built-in cupboards. ‘Greenway’ consumed so much electricity that the County Council had to install a special substation beneath the building to provide power to the many washers, dryers and lifts, as well as 2308 lights, 1666 power outlets and 309 electric stoves.
A sense of community was quick to develop. Residents came to regard others on their own floor as neighbours. However, getting to know everyone in such a large complex was difficult. For this reason, the shared laundry facilities in the basement of each block served as meeting places for women who were generally responsible for washing and cleaning.
The experiences of ‘Greenway’ residents have varied much over the five decades since its opening. At first, the Housing Commission let the flats primarily to families and couples – ‘working class’ people unable to get adequate housing in the inadequate private rental market. Tenants ‘won’ their place there in publicly announced ‘lotteries’. In the 1980s, tenants were being drawn from a wide range of groups – single parents, aged pensioners, the unemployed and the disabled. The result is an increasingly diverse body of residents. Similarly in 1954 Australia was still a predominantly Anglo-Celtic society and most of those who lived at ‘Greenway’ were English-speaking. In 2001 there were 23 language groups represented in the buildings.
Public attitudes towards ‘Greenway’ also vary. When the building was opened, Milsons Point still had a large working class population and the tenants of the flats were of similar social background to those in the surrounding streets. Today, the harbour suburb is gentrified and the presence of community housing in such a desirable area is sometimes seen as an anomaly. However, as ex-resident Penny McKeon said in 2004, ‘There’s no reason why being of modest economic means should mean you’re not entitled to live in a place that just happens to have harbour views’.
In 2004 the Greenway Tenants Group and North Sydney Council commemorated the 50th anniversary of their home with ceramics and photography workshops and the publication of two books on the history of the buildings. Then, resident and historian Geoffrey Barrett wrote from direct experience: ‘I’m sure that the people responsible for the construction of Greenway… would be delighted, if not amazed, to know that their efforts are still providing decent housing half a century on, and within their building is a proud, neighbourly community – a community that has survived. (Greenway the great survivor: Fifty Years in the Life of a Public Housing Estate, 2004)
Audio: Listen to Penny McKeon’s memories of growing up at ‘Greenway’ in the 1960s from an interview with historian Ian Hoskins in 2004. Merle Coppell Oral History Collection, OH303
- ‘Greenway’ Ennius Road Milsons Point, At Home In North Sydney, https://www.athomeinnorthsydney.com.au/greenway.html