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reading the past in the Grace Building

Roy Lumby, Chairman of the Twentieth Century Heritage Society of NSW for the Teaching Heritage Website

Building opened October 1930. Architects D T Morrow & Gordon. See also attached notes, which were prepared by the Society for the Grace Hotel.

York Street facade

  • The building has a colourful terracotta cladding. Terracotta manufacture was a recent development in the local building industry. Terracotta was selected at this time to clad the exterior of buildings: it was colourful; it was relatively inexpensive; the manufacture of building elements from moulds meant that individual pieces could be mass produced; the inclusion of glazed surface gave it the capacity to be "self cleaning" dirt would be washed off by rain. This was feasible at a time when there was less atmospheric pollution.
  • Terracotta cladding indicates the existence of craftsmen skilled at sculpting and making intricate work in the initial manufacture of building components. Such craftsmen no longer exist.
  • "Gothic" appearance of the building: At the official opening of the building on 3 July 1930 Albert Grace, one of the Grace brothers is reported to have said, " It is not what we get out of it that counts, but what we give out of it. The building will help the youngsters, it will put more heart into them and inspire them to make Australia a better country." Evidently it was the beauty of the building that was to inspire youth, and in fact its very large facades, long but not high in proportion to their length, were quite skilfully designed to avoid monotony. Soaring Gothic-inspired vertical piers balanced the lengths of the facades, and window bays of differing widths contained by narrow sections at each corner provided subtle and balanced rhythms.
  • Modulation of the facade by means of piers and grouping of windows bays of three and four separated by wider piers. This is one way that the architects of the period endeavoured to reduce the monotony of large repetitive facades. The piers also emphasise the height of the building and suggest a steel structural frame concealed behind the cladding.
  • The original windows have been replaced as a result of the recent conversion of the building to a hotel. They are fixed, indicating air conditioning.
  • The location of the building reflects an anticipated shift on the part of the two Grace Brothers that some types of activity taking place in the city would shift their physical location after the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the North Shore railway line.
  • Continuous awnings above footpaths were only found attached to buildings that contained retailing. The Grace Building originally contained two levels selling furniture. The awnings protected window shoppers and the large display windows from the sun and rain. Entrances were emphasised in some way, such as in the arched section raised above the main awning.
  • External materials -almost all tall city buildings of the 1920s and 1930s were clad a similar fashion, with a hard, polished stone base that extended over one or two of the lowest levels (in this case trachyte) and the major part of the building clad in a contrasting material, in this case terracotta.


Roof level

  • The tower that rises above the roof of the building is evidence of the height restrictions that were then in force in the City of Sydney. Habitable floors could rise to a height of only 150 feet or 45.72m above ground level, but non-habitable towers could extend further into the sky for another 50 feet, or 15.24 metres). This reflects concerns dating back to the first and second decades about fire fighting and the appearance of the city from a distance.
  • Architects exploited the additional height by designing distinctive towers such as this that made the building appear taller and "advertised" the owner of the building on the skyline.
  • Often the towers contained equipment such as water tanks or lift machinery. Here it contained the water tank for the building's sprinkler system.
  • The tower is "Gothic", like the rest of the building exterior. The Gothic style was appropriated for the design of tall buildings in America after the architect Cass Gilbert won a competition for the design of the Woolworth Building in New York, which was completed in 1908. The style did not reach Australia until the second half of the 1920s and only lasted for a few years, but shows how Australians looked abroad, increasingly to America, for inspiration during the twentieth century. It formed a transition between the conservative architecture used for tall buildings in the 1920s and the Art Deco style. It reflects a concern for the convincing and proper architectural expression of tall buildings. What makes the tower Gothic are the narrow windows that are pointed at the top, the shape of the decoration in the panels above them, and the flying buttresses.
  • The flat-roofed portion of the building visible at left is a later addition associated with the conversion of the building into a hotel. What makes this evident as a recent addition is the relationship of the spaces inside with the outside, visible in the wide glazed openings and the terraced area decorated with potted plants, the flat panels that cover the exterior of the addition, the simple steel canopy above the tall openings, and the simple modulation of the openings themselves. It also shows that there are now fewer craftsmen available in the construction of buildings materials are designed for speedy and quick manufacture and installation by relatively unskilled labour. This in turn shows how the costs of labour have risen since the Grace Building was completed in 1930. The skilled craftsmen who moulded the terracotta cladding, for instance, would now be far too expensive to employ.
  • The major piers between the bays of windows extend above the parapet to give the building more height - a reflection of the influence of American skyscraper design. The bright colour emphasises the way that they stop and makes the act of stopping apparent from a distance.

Marble lined stair and landing

  • Expensive finishes such as marble were used in the important public spaces on the ground floor level of large interwar office buildings, to impress visitors and impart prestige to a building's tenants.
  • The light fittings are all later introductions. The original light fittings were designed to harmonise with the Gothic character of the building and were suspended from the ceiling. The large suspended light fitting is more "Art Deco" in character, whilst the small lights in the underside of the beam are of a type that was not available in 1930.
  • The decoration of the ceiling and the sides of the beams carries the Gothic character of the exterior into the building and so relates inside and outside to each other.

Tile lined stair

  • Above ground floor level stairs in large interwar city buildings were generally less lavish in finish, as is evident here in the use of ceramic tiles on the walls indicates that this is a secondary stair.
  • Ceramic tiles were popular during the interwar period for a number of reasons: they were relatively inexpensive; they were durable; they were colourful, with a gleaming surface that reflected some light; they could be used with decorative accents.
  • Carpet seldom if ever appeared in tall city buildings at this period. In the later 1930s it only appeared in executive spaces such as the boardroom or the managing director's office, but not in public corridors. So, the carpet on the floor in this image has been installed recently.
  • The ceiling in the top right is a recent intrusion. This can be seen in the way that it has simply been stopped off against the stair in the 1930s it would have been stopped against a beam. The ceiling is lower than the original ceiling to allow for the accommodation of introduced services such as air conditioning and fire sprinklers, one of which is visible next to the rectangular light fitting. The light fitting itself is of a type that was not available until the late 1930s.


This is recent construction. It is made evident by a number of things seen in the photograph, which include the following

  1. the recessed downlights in the ceiling - these only came into popularity in the post war era;
  2. the simple, if not crude, recessed panels in the ceiling, which is itself suspended from the underside of the floor slab over- suspended ceiling systems only became available in the second half of the 1930s;
  3. a shadowline at the junction of the wall and ceiling also shows that the ceiling is a later modification - the ceiling and beam sides visible at the top of Photograph 3 show how it would have been done;
  4. the fluted piers and pilasters with the large "Art Deco" capitals, complete with lighting underneath, and panelled timber bases are disjointed and not well proportioned-one would expect that elements such of these would have been better proportioned and related visually to the floor and ceiling in a building of the 1920s and 1930s.
  • A study of the history of the building tells us that this space was originally an open retail area, then became a post office in the post war years. Therefore, the introduction of a corridor and objects associated with the hotel foyer immediately indicate that this is largely recent building fabric.

Reproduced with permission of The Twentieth Century Heritage Society of NSW.


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