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How Sydney’s Hoteliers Are Saving the City’s History

By Sophie Friedman

09.11.19

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The Little Albion hotel occupies a Federalist-style convent from 1903.

Photo by Cressida Kennedy and Connie Alessi Yellowtrace

The Little Albion hotel occupies a Federalist-style convent from 1903.

Rather than constructing new glass boxes, hoteliers in Sydney are converting heritage buildings into boutique stays, helping to preserve a piece of the city’s character.

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Sydney is no stranger to impressive modern architecture, from the magnificent Opera House to Frank Gehry’s avant-garde Dr. Chau Chak Wing facility at the University of Technology. All too often, however, these new projects mean bland glass-and-steel towers that replace the city’s heritage buildings. 

Recognizing that Sydney’s rich architectural history was quickly disappearing, several hoteliers set out to save various traditional structures from demolition, converting them into boutique properties with interesting backstories and charm in spades. The result? Hotels that evoke the character of Sydney, rather than banal accommodations that could be anywhere in the world.

One of the city’s earliest conversions was the Harbour Rocks Hotel, a late 19th-century building made from bricks and stones laid by convicts. After serving as the Evans Stores for several decades and then the Harrington Street Gallery, it was turned into a hotel in 1989, although many of its best architectural features were covered up during the redesign. Thankfully, a major refurbishment in 2012 pared back the interiors to reveal the original brickwork, sandstone, and beams, allowing guests to appreciate the building’s storied history. 

Over the past few years, these types of conversions have become increasingly popular, with more and more boutique hotels opening in historic buildings. Below, a roundup of Sydney’s best born-again stays, from a former convent in Surry Hills to an erstwhile wool warehouse on the harbor. 

Ovolo 1888 Darling Harbor

Colorful murals complement original brick walls in the stylish guestrooms at Ovolo 1888.
Located in an old wool warehouse in Darling Harbour, Ovolo 1888, which opened in 2013, features 90 rooms that showcase the building’s original brick alongside pegboards and bold murals by local artist Jasper Knight. Desks, benches, and dressers are all made from reclaimed wood from the warehouse. In the lobby, guests find a industrial-chic hangout, complete with exposed beams, brick, and pipes, and minimalist couches next to gray chairs. The hotel also offers mini bars, happy hours, breakfast, and self-service laundry—all for free. 

The Old Clare Hotel

The Old Clare Hotel inhabits a long-gone pub, though you’d never guess it from the bathrooms.
The workers who frequented the Old Clare pub on the corner of Broadway and Kensington Street in the 1940s would scarcely recognize Chippendale now, so thriving is the central Sydney neighborhood. Part of the buzz is thanks to the Old Clare Hotel, which occupies the former pub plus the old Carlton & United Breweries admin building next door. Since late 2015, tourists and Sydneysiders alike have flocked here for contemporary Aussie fare at Automata, cocktails at the rooftop pool and bar, and beers in the spiffed-up pub. The 62 guest rooms are every urbanite’s dream—beautifully minimalist lofts with exposed brick, staggering 20-foot ceilings, and tall windows that flood the space with light. Where the Old Clare’s poker machines once stood is now reception, although an old phone booth remains. Step inside to experience artist Corrine Felgate’s installation Ode Blower, in which you can listen to poems about the building through a phone from the 1930s.

Ovolo Woolloomooloo

Ovolo Woolloomooloo transformed a cavernous wool warehouse into a stylish stay.
Opened in December 2015, the 100-room Ovolo Woolloomooloo occupies a 1910 wool warehouse right on the harbor, between Potts Point and the Royal Botanic Gardens. The building’s bones haven’t changed—the beams are exposed and the ceilings soar, with industrial ceiling fans continually spinning—but the cavernous space is now divided into intimate nooks for eating, working, and sleeping, all decorated with soft furnishings in pastels and plaids. While the property is a century old, guest rooms are supremely modern, with iPads, Alexa, AppleTV, and Netflix, plus the eternally trendy exposed metal- and ductwork. To further entertain guests, Ovolo offers a free happy hour every night, a pool table and vintage video games in the lounge, and a badminton set out front. The hotel even boasts its own Spotify channel, Radio Ovolo, which includes 100 feel-good 1980s and ’90s jams. As an added bonus for guests who’ve been out trekking, there’s a self-service laundry room to use at no cost.

Mrs. Banks Boutique Hotel

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Easy on the wallet and the eyes is the 30-room Mrs. Banks, which opened in a 1914 bank building in Paddington in late 2017. The bedrooms and bathrooms in what served as the manager’s residence in the 1940s now make up three guest rooms, while the bank lobby, with its gilded ceiling and original windows, functions as the hotel lobby and breakfast room. Rooms here are quiet and lovely, with gray walls, tufted velvet or black-and-white striped headboards, and spacious bathrooms stocked with Molton Brown products.

Paramount House Hotel

The former Paramount Picture Studios is now a chic hotel that’s popular with locals and visitors alike.
On a prime corner in Surry Hills, Paramount Picture Studios’ 1940s headquarters and film storage warehouse opened as the Paramount House Hotel in April 2018. While most hoteliers start with accommodations and then add amenities, Paramount owners Mark Dundon, Russell Beard, and Ping Jin Ng opened Paramount Coffee Project long before they thought of building a hotel above the shop. Today, guests still linger over flat whites in the café, but upstairs, 29 rooms tick all the millennial must-haves: kilim rugs on the floors, dreamy Cutliver linens and Seljak Brand merino blankets on the beds, Aesop products in the bathrooms, and lots and lots of plants. Topping the old brick building is a chevron-patterned copper screen, which serves as a privacy shade for guest room terraces and a fence for the roof, where the Paramount Recreation Club offers a full roster of free fitness classes to hotel guests. On either side of the hotel are the Golden Age Cinema and Bar (which shows films six days a week in Paramount Pictures’ original screening room) and Poly (a wine bar with small plates and a 160-bottle-strong list). 

Little Albion

In July 2018, a Federalist-style convent from 1903 reopened as the 35-room Little Albion with a Wes Anderson–meets-palazzo vibe. Located on a quiet backstreet in leafy Surry Hills, the hotel consists of a red-brick church and a rear white-brick-and-glass building, the two linked by a little courtyard lined in topiary and warmed by string lights. Each of the guest rooms is a bit different, with either pastel pink, fern green, or Moorish tiles in the bathrooms. One room features a velvet window seat and another a jewel-toned armchair, but all have handsome herringbone parquet floors, brass mirrors with lovely art deco lines, and American walnut headboards shaped like waves to echo Sydney’s surfing beaches. Several even have views of the convent’s original stained glass windows. Rooms here can be booked through Airbnb, and indeed, with its honor bar, reading nooks, and banister-ringed stairwell hung with old portraits, Little Albion feels much more like a (very large, very well-appointed) home than a hotel.

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