By the centennial of Sydney’s European settlement, the young city had evolved from an ungated gaol to a vibrant port city. Local commerce and trade were thriving in the British Empire’s most remote land that had been born as a penal colony. When the city’s first hospital relocated in 1816 from a block in the Rocks to a new home in Macquarie Street, the next seventy years saw the site become a quarry and then a slum of 10 houses (from 1854-1886). Shortly after this the land on which it had stood was purchased by a local lawyer named George Evans. It’s bricks and sandstones, houses over a century of local history in its walls, known today as the Harbour Rocks Hotel. If only those stones could talk!
It was the year 1887 and Sydney had all but left behind its origins as a penal settlement, instead thriving as an independent city with local trade and commerce flourishing. With the continuing influx of settlers from around the world and the increase in trade, Evans commissioned the building of his four-storey structure that could be divided into four equal sections in order to make leasing out the building to multiple tenants easier. Even today, the work of the tradesmen can be seen firsthand with the markings in the sandstone a record of their work and craftsmanship.
Known as the Evans Stores, the stores profited from their ideal location in the centre of the city’s original township and just a stone’s throw from the entry port to the city for new arrivals from overseas. Tales of love and romance in the new city, of betrayal and heartbreak and of hope and optimism for a new life in the new world can almost be felt as you walk the corridors today.
As Sydney expanded in the decades following and new importing, exporting and manufacture precincts emerged around the city, the popularity of the Evans Stores declined and by the mid twentieth century, the main building had sadly fallen into a state of disrepair. In 1973 a local art collective known as the John Ogburn Studio Club proposed that they be allowed to take up residence in the first floor of the building, by this time all but deserted. Renamed the Harrington Street Gallery, it became the home of many local artists, a haven in which they could develop and promote their talents to the city around them.
The ambitious plan to revive Sydney’s oldest precinct began in the 1960s. In 1989 the original boutique hotel transformation was christened Tara Hotel. The Harbour Rocks Hotel name change came later. As part of the redesign, many of the original architectural features were covered over, hiding the historic structure from view. Now, as the result of an extensive refurbishment, the original structure can once again be enjoyed, with the interiors pared back to reveal the original brickwork, sandstone and beams. The building is enhanced with all its significant features in a new and contemporary design. The characters that walked the big open spaces and the significance of the surrounding area can be seen with every turn.
Bustling with shops, museums, art galleries and pubs, the surrounding area has remained a popular choice for visitors to Sydney seeking to immerse themselves in the early history of the city. Despite being a tourism destination visited by an estimated 13 million people annually, The Rocks retains the air of an intimate village, due in part to the architectural gems like the Harbour Rocks Hotel that still remain today.