On this day: Queen Victoria Building’s first block laid

By Shannon Verhagen | April 1, 2016

It was a modest outdoor market that became one of Sydney’s grandest buildings, and then the Queen Victoria Building almost became a park.

ON 4 APRIL 1820, the foundation stone of the original Sydney marketplace building – which would be demolished over 70 years later to make way for the Queen Victoria Building – was laid.

It has been almost 200 years since construction started on the site of the Queen Victoria Building – a city block bounded by Market, Druitt, George and York streets in Sydney. The site was set aside as a designated marketplace in 1810 by Governor Macquarie, where Sydneysiders could visit the market and enjoy their pick of the colony’s turkeys, pigs, vegetables and maize, among other goods.

Ten years later, construction of a cross-shaped building featuring offices to administer the market began, and was dubbed ‘Greenway’s Market House,’ after its designer Francis Greenway – Australia’s first government architect.

QVB

The George Street Markets in 1871, on the site that is now the QBV. (Credit: City of Sydney Archives)

But it wasn’t long before it was converted into Police offices and a Magistrates Court in 1828 – forming the Central Police Court.

More than 50 years later in 1887, George McRae was appointed city architect, and plans for a new George Street Market started to take shape – the Queen Victoria Building as we know it was about to be born.

Designing the Queen Victoria Building

Four designs for the building’s facades were submitted to the market’s committee – Queen Anne, Renaissance, Gothic and Romanesque – with members deciding upon the latter. 

It was agreed that it would need to accommodate a residential hotel and a concert hall for 500 people, with warehouses, shops and markets occupying the basement, and in 1893, its foundation stone was laid.

On 21 July, 1898 Sydney celebrated the culmination of five years of construction, when Mayor Alderman Mathew Harris officially opened the ‘Queen Victoria Markets Building’.

QVB

The Queen Victoria Market Building in the final stages of its most major phase of construction in 1898. (Credit: City of Sydney Archives)

The building accommodated 58 shops, a residential hotel, a number of showrooms and offices, a tearoom and gallery across four floors served by hydraulic lifts.

At this point the city was in severe recession and the Queen Victoria Markets Building was extravagant – with grand marble staircases, intricate copper-work, hand-carved Romanesque designs and stained glass windows.

Many argued the £261,102 (the equivalent to almost $40 million today) would have been better spent elsewhere to improve the standard of living, such as a sewerage system – and the bubonic plague hit the city two years later.

But the monument to the monarch also served as a symbol of perseverance and spirit, as described on the opening day in The Sydney Morning Herald, “The opening of the new City Markets today is an event of high civic importance, as it will be one of civic rejoicing.

“Through a time of severe depression this pile of buildings has gone on to completion in a spirit of confidence in the revival and progress of city and colony.”

Two decades later, it was renamed the Queen Victoria Building, and is now affectionately known as the QVB.

The fight to save the historic QBV

Originally tenanted by a variety of tradespeople, coffee shops, showrooms and warehouses, the occupancy of the building shifted over the decades – the concert hall became the city library, the number of offices snowballed, clairvoyants and palmists became tenants and the Sydney City Council moved in.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Sydney’s cityscape saw vast changes, when developers and owners of building sites began to seek the concrete, steel and glass skyscrapers of American cities.

“A lot of the buildings were demolished – a lot of the beautiful buildings were demolished in Sydney to make way for these new, modern buildings,” says Jennifer Farrer, a Queen Victoria Building tour guide. “And Sydney-siders were very excited to see these tall buildings going up”. 

But as more and more buildings were demolished and replaced, many had a change of heart.

“By the end of the 1960s into the 1970s, people started to worry that all the old buildings were being lost and there was no memory of what old Sydney looked like,” says Jennifer.

Alderman Jensen’s 1959 proposal to demolish the QVB to make way for parkland and a civic square caused public outcry, and the Friends of the Queen Victoria Building group worked to make sure the iconic building remained.

The Queen Victoria Building gets the all clear

In 1971, Sydney’s Lord Mayor Emmet McDermott committed the council to restoring the building to its former glory – but with that came the issue of funding.

Over the next decade the council received more than 50 submissions from tenders and the public, but many – like libraries, museums and art galleries – were not economically viable, the restoration would need significant funding, so the submissions needed a commercial edge.

The breakthrough in the QVB’s restoration process came when Mr Yap Lim Sen visited Sydney in 1980 while working for Malaysian finance company Ipoh Ltd, and saw submissions were being taken.

The company then submitted a restoration plan to transform it into a shopping centre, and in 1983, the council granted the company a 99-year lease, and two years of restoration work later, the QVB was reopened to the public.

“It’s a wonderful example of re-use of a building,” says Jennifer. “Re-use has become the way to go with older buildings now, as much as possible to reuse elements of the older building and I think this has been done very successfully.”

It has been a tumultuous journey, but today – after a $48 million refurbishment in 2008 and 2009 – the QVB stands tall and imposing on the streets of Sydney in all its 19th century glory, as both a lively shopping centre, and an Australian icon.

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