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tenants of the Grace Building

Lumby, R. Chairman of the Twentieth Century Heritage Society, from Some Notes on the Grace Building

As with every office building constructed between the two world wars, special care was taken with the design of the public spaces associated with entering and moving through the building. A large foyer close to the York Street entrance assisted the visitor with large bronze directory boards inlaid with blue enamel on either side of the space. Beyond was the vestibule or lift lobby. Both the vestibule and foyer extended upwards through two levels and were lined with richly toned and veined marble on walls and floors. Their ceilings were designed as a fan vault, one of the characteristics of original medieval Gothic interiors, and were finished in tones of cream and dark pink. Large chandeliers provided drama and, of course, the essential illumination. Lift doors were enhanced by marble architraves.

The building was quite possibly unique when it was completed because of the basement carpark beneath street level – evidently few, if any office buildings in Sydney in 1930 offered such a convenient facility. It accommodated up to 150 cars, and at one stage service station facilities were installed for the greater convenience of tenants and visitors.

It was intended that the building serve as "the showpiece of the company. It was never planned as a department store. Instead it was an imaginative concept for the 'trading post'. York Street was the traditional heart of the softgoods trade where buyers scampered through to the great warehouse that dominated the street. The Grace Building was to offer facilities for buyers and sellers to meet and discuss samples." Indeed, it was generally thought that on the completion of the Harbour Bridge and the city railway that York Street would become one of the principal retail thoroughfares of the city, rivalling the supremacy of George and Pitt streets and pushing out the wholesalers in the area. The ground and first floors of the Grace Building were, however, fitted out as retail areas where home furnishings were sold. Expansive glazed shop windows invited the gaze of passersby and doors on each street invited them to enter. A glazed laylight located at the bottom of the light well provided natural illumination from above. Grace Bros was just one of a number of department stores selling furniture to the middle class around 1930, and the furniture department in the Grace Building offered an element of fantasy with period styles of furniture arranged around columns decorated with modern geometric patterns and a colourful Art Deco fountain. The other levels were to provide office space for rent to importers and others involved in the softgoods trade. The requirements of tenants were anticipated as much as was possible – "The disposition of the windows, doors, light and power points and sprinklers will make the subdividing of these floors easy for the occupants who will be able to have single offices or suites of offices fully equipped with all these conveniences or requirements." The lining of stair, corridor and lift lobby walls on these levels was executed in cream, brown and olive green tiles, whilst the corridor floors were covered in terrazo. Office partitions were made of french polished Queensland maple with large areas of obscured glazing.

The Grace Building received some favourable comments from the press. For instance, the prestigious journal The Home described it in the following terms:

The Grace Building ... is perhaps the most modern contribution to the architecture of Sydney. With its twelve storeys rising above York, King and Clarence Streets, this imposing structure dominates the centre of a most important business district. A special feature of this building is the splendid natural lighting throughout the offices. This has been very carefully planned and is of utmost value to business men. Eight modern high-speed lifts have been installed for the greater convenience of tenants. A parking garage of 22,000 square feet is established in the basement. The business man or his employee can park his car and take the lift directly to his office. Every modern need of up-to-date business firms has been provided for in this fine block, with its imposing architecture and central situation.

The first tenant, the Electrical Association of NSW, moved into its offices in July 1930. However, the opening of the Harbour Bridge and Wynyard and Town Hall stations did not eventuate in the anticipated sales in the retail section, whilst, the opening of the building coincided with the onset of depression. By 1933 it was becoming apparent that the building was a liability and mortgages were taken out over it. From about 1936 it was controlled by a management trust. At the end of 1939 only six floors were tenanted, and space on three floors was let rent-free. However, estate agents Richardson and Wrench corresponded with the Commonwealth Surveyor General offering to negotiate a sale of the Grace Building, after publicity concerning the lack of office accommodation for Commonwealth instrumentalities appeared in March 1941. Although nothing came of this, the building was requisitioned in 1942 under the National Security Regulations because of allied military personnel being stationed in Sydney. It became the American military headquarters in Sydney and between 1942 and 1945 other occupants included the Royal Navy. There is a large body of anecdotal evidence that suggests that General Douglas MacArthur had his office in the basement of the building. The war resulted in other changes as well, for in 1942 the shopfront windows were replaced with hardboard screens and an air-raid shelter was constructed in the basement.

At the end of the war the Commonwealth Government acquired the Grace Building. This was gazetted on 8 November 1945 and Grace Bros was advised four days later. The firm voiced its objections in the press, and in January 1946 issued a writ from the High Court in an endeavour to have the acquisition invalidated. However, the High Court ruled in favour of the Commonwealth the following April. Government departments moved into the building – a post office, the Repatriation Commission, the War Service Homes Commission, Film Censorship Board and the Department of Labour and Industry. It was also suggested that Grace Bros could apply for a tenancy in the building, but apparently this did not take place. Final settlement for compensation was not paid out until 1957.

The postwar period was one in which many alterations were carried out on the interior of the building. Many original components, such as the northern stairs, shop and restaurant fittings on the ground and first floors, and a number of corridors and toilets in the upper levels were either destroyed or obscured by the works. The service station in the basement -the Grace Building Super Service Station – was removed in 1948, the same year that a telephone exchange was installed. The post office on the ground floor was opened in December 1950 and was refiled some thirty years later, in the early 1980s. However, the most important changes to the building took place in the 1990s when it was converted to a hotel.

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