THE NAKED CITY: BEHIND THE STEEL DOOR – City Hub Sydney
It was early September 1939 and a large and angry crowd had gathered outside the German Consulate in the Cliveden Building at 4 Bridge Street in the heart of Sydney. A large swastika flag had been flown outside the Consulate’s office for years, dominating the top of Bridge Street as an ominous and menacing presence. Only the building’s large steel doors kept the crowd from storming the former Nazi stronghold.
Today, few of the residents and trade office holders who reside in Cliveden would be aware of its dark past. In 2023 it is a very upscale location with many of the older apartments being renovated and valued as prime CBD properties. The large ornate steel door, now a listed building, remains – but has key card access.
Formerly known as the Birts Building and De la Salle House, the solid twelve-storey concrete structure was completed in 1914 and originally housed a number of business offices. After the 1985 renovation, many of the offices were converted into residential buildings and the current building is a mix of both. In its early days, 4 Bridge Street was the Red Cross headquarters in Sydney and for many years later was home to Icon Films and the Bolivian Consulate. Today, a one-bedroom apartment will cost you about $800 a week, but it wasn’t always like that.
In the 1990s, the same apartment, albeit a bit shabby, could be rented for about $250 a week. The building housed a somewhat eccentric mix of foreign students, bohemian types, and short-term renters, housed in a series of low-budget vacation rentals. I speak firsthand as I lived there for eight years, from 1996 to 2004, and moved three times to different apartments within the building.
There was never a dull moment, whether it was the rooftop swimming pool bursting its bottom and flooding the immediate tenants below, or a series of robberies that took place when security was incredibly lax. When the corporation decided to install an expensive Persian rug in the foyer, it was only a few months before a couple of enterprising thieves walked in, simply rolled it up and took off with the loot.
When the new Sydney Stock Exchange was being built down the road, there were a series of brazen burglaries during the day that could only have been carried out with some sort of industrial device. A hole was punched in the door of an apartment through which one could have stuck one’s head. Suspicion was cast on construction workers at the stock exchange, perhaps unjustly, but nothing could ever be proven.
During my years at Cliveden the building housed at least two brothels that I knew of. The first, known as “Tokyo Steam”, was located just below the second apartment I stayed in. I would regularly get a knock on the door from a middle-aged gentleman who got off on the wrong floor and cautiously ask “are the girls working today?”.
In the early 2000s, a bunch of big, burly Korean gangsters set up a more disturbing operation in an apartment on the same floor. The girls were all Korean and may well have been smuggled into the country. The two thugs running the business were downright rude and I often heard screams and screams from the premises. Most of the clientele came from businessmen during the day, but late nights and often heavily intoxicated players were not uncommon.
I was once woken up by the sound of an obviously frightened customer being dragged out of the apartment by Korean enforcers, to be either drowned in the rooftop pool or thrown down the stairs. Maybe his credit card had gone bad, but a week later the Knock Shop was gone, along with the creepy kimchi crims that ran it.
That’s how exciting life was in Cliveden a few decades ago. There might well be “escorts” working in the building today, but cameras and full security have long been installed, and the impressive steel door that once protected a bunch of Nazis is there to keep the rabble out.