Flats or apartments, especially those in high-rise buildings, are a 20th century phenomenon. Now some of these apartment buildings are reaching 60 or 70 years old and people are beginning to ask about their history. As part of his series on researching domestic buildings, Heritage Office historian, Bruce Baskerville, takes a look at flats.
The earliest apartment buildings in Sydney were modelled on those of New York and Paris and dated from the early 1900s. Kingsclere in Potts Point, built in 1912, is perhaps the oldest surviving apartment building in NSW. The earliest apartments were the homes of wealthy Sydneysiders who were attracted by the glamorous modern lifestyle associated with apartments in Europe and America.
It was during the interwar period (1919-1939) that flat building became widespread. As more people began to commute to work in the city, a demand was created for affordable housing located near the CBD and transport lines. At first flats were concentrated around the eastern CBD in Sydney and the Potts Point ridge.
Mrs Harleys’s flat “Chesterton” at Double Bay, courtesy of the Sam Hood Collection, State Library of NSW.
By the late 1920s flats were spreading into Woollahra with the subdivision of the grounds of many old mansions. They also sprang up along the Pacific Highway on the north shore, and around seaside areas such as Manly and Bondi. During the 1950s flat building spread across much of the metropolitan area, especially near railway stations, and to larger regional cities such as Newcastle and Wollongong.
Early flats were often made by subdividing large houses into units, while purposes-built flats took the form of the ubiquitous three-storey walk-up, as well as multi-storey functionalist, art deco, and internationalist high-rise.
Flat building has been mainly a private activity, with some notable exceptions. The earliest public flats were built in Millers Point about 1900, and by 1927 Sydney City Council had built four blocks of flats. In 1938 the Erskineville Housing Scheme was completed as a slum clearance project. This program continued in the post-war period with massive tower blocks in Redfern and Waterloo. As the height of public flat buildings has decreased in recent years, that of private apartment buildings has increased.
There was much local resident opposition towards the spread of the new high-rise buildings. In the 1930s ratepayers in Rose Bay and Edgecliff, for example, tried to have flats prohibited in their wards, while Ku-Ring-Gai Council used a zoning scheme to restrict flats to land adjoining busy highways. All of this activity created many records that can help the researcher to date a flat and subsequent changes to it.
Researching the history of a flat or apartment building is, in many ways, similar to researching a house history. The first step is to walk through the flat, perhaps making a rough sketch plan, and noting the various materials used in its construction and the different styles of decoration. Do they appear to be original, or is there evidence of changes, such as replaced doors or removed walls? Are decorations such as ceiling roses absent in the flat but present in hallways and adjacent flats?
The same process should be repeated for the building as a whole, investigating questions such as whether the lifts are located in an odd place or appear to be an integral part of the design; whether a basement may contain remnants of a shared laundry; or whether a lobby area has been redecorated. It also helps to know if the building has a name, the possible origins of the name, and whether the name has changed over time.
Rate books and records held by local council libraries and archives can give a good indication of when an apartment building was constructed. Look for sudden changes in the rateable value of the property and the description of the structure on the land. These records can be well supported by using the Sands Directory, which lists residents by street address up to 1932/33. Consulting several years of a directory can show the earlier occupants, and sometimes the uses of a site. Sands may also list the apartment building’s name, and each resident of the flats contained in the building.
After 1933 telephone books can be useful if the building is listed by its name. If so, there will generally be an entry for the building caretaker. Unfortunately, it is rare to find all of the residents listed. Buildings without names cannot be searched in this way.
Land title documentation for apartments is rather different to that for an individual house. Apartment buildings were generally owned by a company, with the shareholders generally being the owners of the flats. A new Companies Act in 1936 created ‘proprietary limited’ companies and these quickly became the standard form of apartment building ownership. Company names often reflected the name of the building, although not always. Shares were allocated to owners on the basis of the value or size of the flat or some other formula.
In 1991 the regulation of companies was transferred to the Commonwealth, including all pre-1991 company records. Changes in the shareholdings of ‘company title’ apartment buildings can be traced through the Home Unit Company registration papers at the Australian Securities & Investments Commission in Sydney, contact www.asc.gov.au. It is important to remember that this will involve tracing the history of the company rather than of the building or an individual flat as such, and that fees are charged for searches. Company names can be located through land title records provided that you know the street address of the building.
In 1961 the first Strata Titles Act was introduced. This allowed each flat owner to have exclusive ownership of a flat or apartment (known as a ‘lot’) and a share in the common areas of the building managed by a body corporate. The body corporate is not a company. Company title apartment buildings can, and often have been, converted to strata title. This conversion creates a plan known as a strata plan, which indicates the common property and the location of the lots.
Strata plans are also created when a new building is developed as a strata building. Each lot (including the ‘common property’ lot) is treated as though it is a parcel of land, and can be separately traced through the land title system. This makes it easier to trace changing ownership of individual flats than for a company title building. The strata plan number is the key to obtaining copies of strata plans from the Land Titles Office.
These are just a few of the sources that may be useful in researching the history of a flat or apartment building. Very little historical research has been undertaken to date on flats and apartments but, as more research is carried out, further sources of information may be revealed.