Monday 20 June 2011

The Grace Hotel; More than a Hotel, a Piece of History...

Prior to Albert Edward and Joseph Neal Grace, of the Grace Bros. retail empire, purchasing the land on the corner of York, Clarence and King Streets in 1926, the site of the Grace Building held Sydney’s first Opera House from the early years of the 20th century.

When construction of the Grace Building commenced in 1928 as the company’s ‘showpiece’, it came to symbolise the peak of the 1920s retail boom. Grace Bros. had become the biggest retailing organisation in Australia and also achieved the largest per capita retail sales in the world.

When purchasing the land, Albert and Joseph believed that with the construction of the Harbour Bridge, York and Clarence Streets would become the major thoroughfares of the new city of Sydney. Original company letterhead even describes the location as “on the Harbour Bridge Highway”!

Design of the Grace Building was based on Chicago’s Tribune Building and is today a heritage listed Art Deco building that also appears on the list of key 20th Century buildings kept by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Alderman E.S. Marks, officially opened the Grace Building on 3 July 1930. Although it was intended to be a beacon of prosperity and commercial architectural development moving forward, it became clear that the Grace Bros. miscalculated their positioning of the Grace Building. York and Clarence Streets did not become the bustling city hubs the brothers had hoped and with the Great Depression, the Grace Building never developed into the crowning glory it was intended to be. As the company expanded into the suburbs to survive, the Grace Building became a financial liability with official company history describing it as “a dream turned sour” and “the white elephant”.

During World War Two, the Federal Government requisitioned the building for use as the headquarters of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur. An air raid shelter was installed in the building’s basement as a safety precaution and many believe a series of tunnels that ran beneath York Street to Circular Quay were connected to the basement during the war.

The US Small Ships department was also stationed at the Grace Building during the war and to this day reunite annually to commemorate their work.

At the conclusion of the war the Commonwealth acquired the Grace Building which was strongly contested by Grace Bros. After many years and two writs in the High Court of London, the Grace Bros. were awarded compensation of 1.3 million pounds which enabled the organisation to further expand their retail department stores into Sydney’s suburbs.

In 1995 the Grace Building was purchased by Malaysian developers, the Low Yat Group, who promptly began with architectural and operational planning to transform the building into The Grace Hotel and the Grace Plaza. The redevelopment retained much of the building’s key Art Deco features including the high internal ceilings, pressed metal exterior ceilings, original lifts and stairwells, wide hallways, marble flooring and decorative iron work.

In August 1997, the Grace Hotel Sydney was officially opened by the Honourable Bob Carr, Premier of New South Wales. The hotel continues in operation and remains an historic icon as one of the most prominent examples of pre-war architecture against Sydney’s modern city skyline.

About Tea & Tales – Heritage Tour:
Tea & Tales runs every month at the Grace Hotel the Grace Hotel in Bar 77 on the Mezzanine Level. The event includes a scrumptious afternoon tea and stories by noted architectural heritage specialist and President of the 20th Century Heritage Society of NSW, Roy Lumby. Prices start from $15 for children, $35 for adults and $30 for seniors. Spaces are limited so reservations are recommended and can be made by calling 02 9272 6636 or email:
Please visit for Tea & Tales schedule

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