John Burdon opens his folder to a sepia photograph of a horse and cart standing on an open wooden platform. Two men wearing late 18th Century attire stand beside the horse, as the platform slowly lowers to the basement market.
A History Tour of the QVB
I’ve joined a history tour of the Queen Victoria Building and already I’ve learnt something new. The hydraulic lift was one of four goods lifts in an earlier incarnation of the Queen Victoria Building.
From its modest beginnings as a street market in the early 1800s, the building had several lives with more than one call for it to be demolished.
The Greenway Markets
Francis Greenway, the convict who became the colony’s first architect, designed the Greenway Markets on the current site in 1820. These buildings became the Central Police Station and Police Court
In the 1870s the smell and noise from the markets prompted calls for the building to be demolished. Instead, they moved to Haymarket and steps were taken to replace them with a grand building that would complement the new Town Hall.
A Romanesque Design
Burdon explains that the chosen Romanesque design by George McRae created much needed work during the depression years of the late 19th century. A thought pops into my head. “Was this the first economic stimulus package?”
Construction of the Queen Victoria Markets Building, which fills an entire narrow city block, took five years. The word ‘Markets’ was later dropped from the name.
Few Original Features Remain
Standing on the second floor beneath the main dome we look up along the length of the building. Burton points to the original steel metal girders which support the glass roof and the pressed metal panels lining the base of the roof.
Besides these structures, few original features remain.
Beneath our feet, the only remaining original tessellated tiles in the building show signs of damage. At one time, concrete covered the floor beneath us and during restoration, jackhammers removing the concrete damaged the tiles.
The Main Dome
Pointing to the main dome above us, Burton says that George McRae included a dome in his design to pay “homage to a building of the past”. The QVB dome is reminiscent of the one in the Garden Palace which was built for the Sydney International Exhibition and destroyed by fire in 1882.
During WWll soldiers would climb the spiral staircase to the outer dome. From there they watched for fires on the coastline which would signal that the city was being invaded.
Plans are afoot to take tours up these same stairs to the outer dome.
Did you know?
Burton reveals other shocking facts. The dome wasn’t always visible from below. A ceiling once sealed it off to house an air-conditioning unit. The central openings that allow shoppers to look down to the floors below were filled in to provide more office space. For 69 years, the ground floor arcade remained closed off.
A photograph of a black and white chequered floor illustrates how art deco features introduced in the 1930s replaced many of the original decorative mouldings.
I’m beginning to realise that there’s much more to the QVB than meets the eye.
Renewed Threats of Demolition
Renewed calls in the 1950s to tear down the building and replace it with a car park and plaza came to nought. A reason given is that the new premises for the Sydney City Council which leased offices in the QVB hadn’t been finished and the Council stayed put.
In the mid to late 1960s, the movement to restore and retain buildings with historic significance gained strength. With the help of Jack Mundy and Union Green Bans, community attitudes were changing.
Boarded up and Gates Locked
The Heritage Act of 1977 saved the QVB but a lack of funds and plans for restoration meant that it stood unloved for years boarded up and the interior decaying.
In February of 1978, the blast from the Hilton Hotel bombing shattered the stained glass in the central George Street window. Fortunately, the cladding prevented any injuries.
A Major Restoration
Major restoration work between 1984 and 1986 cost $86 million. The city got its car park under York Street and a walkway connecting Town Hall Station to the Westfield Shopping Centre. “It’s the busiest street in Sydney” says Burton.
During the restoration a search around the world looked for a suitable statue of Queen Victoria. A statue of the Queen, found languishing in a field in Ireland, now stands on the corner of George and Druitt Streets.
The Royal Clock
The Royal Clock, installed in 1986, draws people up to Level Two. Modeled on Balmoral Castle with the clock representing Big Ben, it chimes daily on the hour between 9am and 9pm. Visitors gather to watch a rotating diorama. The six royal scenes include the execution of Charles 1 and the knighting of Francis Drake.
The Great Australian Clock
Claiming to be the world’s largest hanging animated turret clock, the Great Australian Clock hangs in the northern part of the QVB. The clock depicts scenes of Indigenous and European history. It hasn’t worked since 2009.
Surprisingly, it was only in March 2010 that the NSW Heritage Board finally added the Queen Victoria Building to the heritage register.
People of the Queen Victoria Building
No story about the QVB is complete without mentioning some of the people associated with the building.
Early tenants included the Singer Sewing Machine company and Lindeman’s Wines. Burton mentions how the rich wine aroma would pervade the building. The longest serving tenant, The City Library only vacated the building in the mid-1980s.
Mei Quong Tart
The Chinese businessman Mei Quong Tart, known for his Scottish accent and Tea Rooms, owned the Quong Tart Elite Hall on the first floor of the Queen Victoria Building. He also owned the less formal tea rooms on the ground floor.
The tearooms provided the first female public toilets in the city and became a meeting place for women of Sydney’s suffragette movement.
Quong Tart was viciously attacked in his office in the QVMB and died eleven months later at his home in Ashfield. Some people have seen his ghost standing in the corridors of the QVB.
Next Time You Visit the QVB
Next time you walk through the Queen Victoria Building, take your time. Admire her beauty and ponder her history. She shouldn’t be taken for granted.
If you enjoyed reading about the Queen Victoria Building you can find out more about the tour here.
Another interesting building to discover is the Old GPO (now the Fullerton Hotel). You’ll find my post on their free tour here .