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 thriving in the British Empire’s most remote land that had been born as a penal colony. When the city’s first hospital relocated from a block in The Rocks to a new home in Macquarie Street, the land on which it had stood was purchased by a notorious local lawyer named George Evans who oversaw the construction of a magnificent building that still stands today. It’s bricks and sandstones laid by convicts, it is a building that 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 site, instead thriving as an independent city with local trade and commerce flourishing. With the continuing influx of migrants from the mother country, the need for buildings that could house shopfronts grew and so Evans designed the front façade of his new three storey structure should be divided into four equal sections in order to make leasing out the building to multiple tenants easier. Even today, the trying work of the men can be seen firsthand, markings in the sandstone a record of their work and hardship.
A group of just a dozen convict carpenters and another 16 hired men set about building the impressive structure, flanked by three sandstone cottages on either side. Originally housing a wool store, the decades that followed saw a host of characters take up residence in the building, from those banished from their homeland to the new colony for their crimes to those now the first descendants of the original settlers. 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 shopping 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.
As part of an ambitious plan to revive Sydney’s oldest precinct in 1989, the building was transformed into a boutique hotel, christened The Harbour Rocks Hotel. However, 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. Returned to her original glory, the history of the building, the characters that walked her corridors 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 them 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.