When I bought 45 Giles Street at auction not so many years ago, all of us – bidders and interested onlookers – stood out the front in a wide expanse of dirt with a scattered bit of couch that acted as a lawn. Before long, as I had done at my small ex-govvie house not far away in Winnecke Avenue, I began work on bringing in the plants and bushes of the Central Australian desert to form my garden. Today when I look at the beefwoods, mallees, acacias and eremophilas that now give it shape, I think of the importance that connection to the surrounding country holds. Of course, my connection is not grounded in the strong identity basis that Central Australian Aboriginal people have with the land. For me, it is more a recognition of the strength, beauty and endurance of the rugged country that encircles the township of Alice Springs.
To a large extent, it was the compelling nature of this country that drew me to Alice Springs in the first place – that and my interest in the palpable connection that Aboriginal people have to this land. The longer I spend here, the more my awareness grows of how much there is to know about this place and this land, and of the culture that Aboriginal people living here have evolved in response to their association with this country over tens of thousands of years. As each year passes I become more and more appreciative of how little I can and will know. But that is no barrier to my ability to feel a connection to this place, to my home at 45 Giles Street, to my neighbours up and down Giles Street, and to my many friends and acquaintances in the town, as well as the colleagues both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal that I have come to know in the various places I have worked here in Alice Springs.
Alice Springs is a richly layered place, and living in Giles Street and the town for the relatively short period of 17 or so years has exposed me to a number of those layers. Perhaps it is more apt to see it as a 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, of which I have been able to hold and explore a few scattered pieces – but those pieces in themselves have been full of colour and detail, and have thus helped give shape to one of many stories.
From the moment I first saw it, I was drawn to the little house at 45 Giles Street. I loved the one angled corner paved with local sandstone on its western end and the long line of windows that stretched across the front of the house. The roof rose as one slightly inclined plane from the back of the house to the front, creating eaves around the whole of the house.
As I walked along Giles Street or up Cavenagh Crescent I would always try to picture the configuration of the rooms that lay behind the curtained windows. I imagined that they hide a series of small bedrooms and a cosy little loungeroom with a kitchen off to the side. When, on occasion, I would see the old lady who lived in the house tinkering out in her rather spare garden I would say a cheery hello – but I was never met with a response – oh well, that was her prerogative.
At the time, not long after my arrival in Alice Springs, I lived down the end of Giles Street, where it curved around to become Raggatt Street. I would walk past 45 Giles Street every morning as I headed out towards the Telegraph Station. On that walk I always relished the sight of the beautiful white-grey trunks of the ghost gums silhouetted against orange rock and bluey green shrubs and bushes.
My original attraction to the house at 45 Giles Street eventually grew into a strong desire that I could one day make it my home, perched as it was at the edge of the town where the houses of Old Eastside gave way to the vast stretch of country that marched north for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. I could tell, though, that 45 Giles Street was well-entrenched as the home of the old lady I saw pottering in her scant garden – an orange tree that had seen better days, a row of skinny rainforest trees that ran up alongside the carport and a few other trees and shrubs scattered about the yard. It felt unworthy that I cherished such a desire.
Over time I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who coveted that little house. My friend Michelle let me know in no uncertain terms that she too had her eyes on it – and some years after I had bought it, she would still ask how ‘our’ little house was going. And she wasn’t the only one – I learnt that this iconic little house had caught the eye of quite a number of people to whom I would reveal my ever-deepening but still furtive desire to make that little house my home.
I think what drew all of us to 45 Giles Street was its unique character in a town where so often the ingenuity and creative flair of so many people has been exercised in trying to stamp individuality onto the plethora of 3-bedroom ex-government houses so plentifully dotted throughout the town.
When I finally stood surveying the house at 45 Giles Street that was to become my home, I acknowledged that although it had withstood the onslaught of time reasonably well, it did bear the scars. What had drawn me to it so much was its character, and when I began making my own mark on this place and worked to remove some of the creases and crinkles it currently bore, I felt a strong sense of the people who had lived here before me and who had obviously put much thought into its final shape. Everywhere bore the markings of their particular tastes – and of their efforts. In the yard, large irregular sandstone pavers were scattered in piles at the edges of the property – with others still in situ, sometimes jutting out to create a rough, uneven walking surface where once they had no doubt formed an even pathway.
When recently I sat at a desk in the NT Archives looking at paper after paper expertly but lovingly filed in a series of folders relating to the ‘Geoff and Moira Millgate Collection’, what struck me was the love and attention they had devoted to their home at 45 Giles Street, much as I too have done in the years that I have lived in it. Reading about the transactions between the Millgates and Constable John Peter Healy regarding the transfer of the property at Lot 810 Giles Street with its partially completed house made me feel as if the distance of 50 years had shrunk to such an extent that I was hovering somewhere closeby. I felt a great sense of privilege to be privy to the decisions made 50 years ago that would give form to the home that brings so much pleasure and sense of belonging to me today.
Whether it was Moira, or Geoff, or indeed both of them, who had kept so much minutiae of their daily life I don’t know, but the files and records they had kept of letters and notes to builders, quotes, discussions about small details of the house at 45 Giles brought their early days working on their recently purchased home so vividly to life. I could hear Moira’s firm insistence as I read Geoff’s notes to Mr Sitzler: ‘the matter of the kitchen sink has not finally been decided, as my wife thinks the present plan includes only a small sink, whereas she has an idea for a bigger one’ and again when Moira herself writes directly to Mr Sitzler: ‘ I hope I am not too late with a sketch of the kitchen cupboards … I particularly did not want to have any drawers … if you think 3 doors is unsuitable, perhaps four drawers would look better.’
Four doors it was – as my kitchen attests today. And Moira clearly won out regarding the sink, too. In yet another letter to Mr Sitzler, Geoff Milgate writes: ‘I found you have quoted for a “Starling” ’ – a quote they originally accepted – ‘However, my wife wanted + asked Dona to quote for a Kitchen Pride + Dona has installed a Kitchen Pride’.
And the details go on, in letter after letter. There was clearly no question of Mrs Milgate accepting R. A. Drogemuller’s earlier suggestion of a possible fireplace surround in ‘cream pressed brick’, opting for the more pleasing ‘stone, with natural timber shelf over to full width of west wall’. Apparently, though, there was ‘a holdup with this rockwork as Bill Traeger decided to have a holiday.’ The bathroom tiles – ‘I think the tile was No. 101, it was a silvery grey Italian tile’ – today still grace the walls to a ‘desirable height of 6-ft’. All this careful and precise attention to details has resulted in the very features that drew me so strongly to this house when I finally had the opportunity to look inside it.
R. A. Drogemuller, when quoting on completing the house in October 1961, had recommended in regard to the original rectangular porch built at the front entrance to the house: ‘to rebuild this in any other shape would require complete breaking out of the present concrete slab and lintel in the wall. If it is planned to add a full verandah later, we would recommend leaving this detail… as any form of concrete hood would have to be broken away’.
I love that curved concrete hood, hovering over the semi-circular concrete base of the porch, which the Millgates obviously had rebuilt to provide further aesthetic appeal to their house with its clean lines punctuated in one corner by a diagonal slash of rich orange and red sandstone.
The photos the Millgates had taken are further evidence of the labour and creative vision that went into giving their home form, and help convey the story of how it came into being. A large flat section behind the house was dug out by hand in order to lay all the beautiful rich red, orange and yellow ochre sandstone blocks used to create a paved area enclosed by a walled section that divided off the lawn that ran up to the Jacaranda that stands at the back gate – all undertaken under the watchful eye of their stout little dog.
Their photos provide an intimate glimpse into various corners of the Millgates’ life together. Moira, a telegraph officer during the second world war, became a keen amateur radio operator, and also dabbled in fiction for radio –and Geoff, a former policeman, was a keen participant in community events, taking part in the Henley on Todd as Bozo the Clown, as well as performing as a ventriloquist with his doll Jerry. The individualistic and idiosyncratic nature of the Millgates and the life they lived in Alice Springs typifies the way in which so many people have lived, and continue to live, in this town. Although the mode of expression may have changed today, Alice Springs has always been a place of strong community, made up of often highly individual characters and personalities. It has a vital creative heart, which today is expressed through the many talented people who have received local and national acclaim for novels, films, music, paintings, sculpture and the like.
On a more intimate level, the social life of Alice Springs today – and in no small measure Giles Street itself – thrives on a quirky mixture of costume parties, impromptu musical events, fireside soirees and ?? Connectedness is forged for people who so often seem to thrive on the challenges and adventures Central Australia throws up at them. Despite its location in the centre of Australia, it is a town that has always seemed to teeter on the edge of otherness, laying as it does over the cultural fabric of the original Australians whose relationship with this land has been laid down over many tens of thousands of years.
[Anne, somewhere towards the end here I want to say something about Geoff Millgate having taken part in the last police camel patrol and make comment about some juxtaposition to life today. is the powerful impact that the town of Alice Springs and its environs has exerted over its residents in the past and as it still does in the present.]