Nibbling on the last bits of my granola bar, I find myself giggling at the varieties of penis-shaped fridge magnets in our kitchen. This wall of phallic mockery is an endowment of the many housemates we have had in the LGBTQIA+ autonomous house since 2001. The one tattooed with a snake embellished condom is my favourite, I decide.
But who dwelled in this 150-year-old house before all the queer, cat-loving, burnt-out university students? I am intrigued by the sporadic conversations I have with my housemates about the old haunting presence of a little girl’s spirit walking around our Newtown abode and other such stories of the history of the house. While I chicken out about the apparition, I dwell on investigating the history of the house concretely.
To start, my housemate directs me to the small cubicle next to our house on Newtown’s Camden Street, which used to be a wood furniture store named J Ratner & Co. Founded by Joseph Ratner, who was born in Russia (some sources say Belarus) before moving to England and then Australia in 1904. After living in Annandale for a few years, he established J Ratner & Co. at 28-30 Camden Street and lived with his family in the adjacent townhouse.
The manufacturing unit stands as a one-storey protrusion in front of the waste disposal areas of a block of housing. Having missed it previously, I spent a good 15 minutes near the cubicle after work trying to open the doors without any luck. Now listed as a NSW heritage site for its significance as one of the earliest small scale woodcraft-making sites in the face of a gentrifying Inner West, the site seems dreary at first. With some graffiti inscribed on its ochre walls and tightly sealed wooden doors, the remnants inside remain a mystery.
Even though 30-32 Camden Street are currently sharehouses, 30 Camden Street has not been renovated in a long time. The house has an idiosyncratic early mid 1900s atomic set-up with a kitchen arc, Victorian porcelain bathtub, old brass knobs and pastel-coloured wooden window frames. What used to be the Ratner family’s factory until 1950 soon housed university students. Tracing the history of students living here is difficult due to the temporality of housemates’ occupancy, but the several copies of Bareback Dicks, mismatched teacups, old heaters and quilt covers in the storage area are testimony to their lived experiences in the house.
Joseph Ratner’s legacy was passed on to his sons Saul and Harry Ratner, who ran the business with the same fervour as their father. Saul married Rose Klein in 1926, the daughter of the company woodcarver Maurice Klein. Klein and Ratner used their combined master craftsmanship and genius planning to construct the ANZ Bank Newtown, St Thomas’s Church in Lewisham, and the Egyptian Room of Royal Scottish Arch Temple in College St.
Joseph Ratner died in December 1960 in Chatswood. He was “one of the oldest members of Sydney’s Jewish community and one of the founders of the Western Suburbs Synagogue”, according to a 1961 edition of The Australian Jewish Times. Ratner’s obituary describes him as: “A man of intense liberal principles, he was albeit a devoted Jew.” Unfortunately, it is hard to find further information about his principles and political leanings.
After Joseph’s death, the firm still saw a lot of commendable work by Saul, who helped design houses including 55 Arcadia Street Glebe. Their works played a part in the gentrification of areas like Glebe, which slowly transformed to become a lucrative real estate market. By working with intricate and expensive materials like mahogany, Queensland maple, and cedar, the firm’s work has gained recognition in the art world.
It’s thought provoking how things transform from one state to another, yet so much remains hidden from us. The scraping, chiselling, carving and polishing work on a sawdust-laden floor remains a figment of my imagination. I find myself living in the overlapping history of an autonomous queer sharehouse from the early 2000s and a closed 20th century factory. Maybe the doors of 28 Camden Street will open one day for my curiosity, but I am equally okay with fantasizing alone about what the insides of the structure look like now. Visualising the history of your present is knowledge in itself, and the secrecy is bliss.