William Street is one of our area’s main thoroughfares, connecting Kings Cross with the Sydney CBD.
It’s a road many of us walk or drive daily.
Join me on a short walk down this iconic boulevarde and discover more about its fascinating history…
William Street was named after King William IV, who was on the British throne from 1830 until his death in 1837. The road was planned in the 1830s by NSW Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell. When it was built, it traversed farmland in the valley between Sydney’s centre and the growing number of fashionable villas in Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay.
One of these farms was “George Farm”, granted to John Palmer (who gives his name to one of William Street’s cross streets). Palmer had been purser on the First Fleet’s Sirius.
William Street is clearly visible, with all its current cross streets – Yurong, Riley, Crown, Palmer, Bourke, Forbes, Dowling, Brougham and Victoria – on an 1844 map of the Riley Estate.
William Street, as we know it today, divides Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst. It begins where Park Street ends on the corner of College Street and runs East. It ends after the Kings Cross Tunnel at the intersection of Barcom Avenue, Waratah Street, Bayswater Road and New South Head Road in Rushcutters Bay.
Grand plans for a beautiful boulevard
Originally, William Street was lined with terraces, shops and other buildings from the early days of the colony and the Victorian era.
From the late 1800s until the 1960s, trams ran down the centre of William Street.
By the early 20th century, the population of the eastern suburbs was booming, and the amount of traffic using William Street had grown exponentially. William Street wasn’t coping. So, in 1908, the Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City recommended that William Street be widened into a more expansive boulevard.
The Sydney City Council began acquiring the land adjacent to William Street. As a result of this work, Forbes Street was blocked off, and the Chard Stairs were built, along with most of the buildings on the South side of the road.
Later on, between the First and Second World Wars, William Street’s prime position meant it became a centre for car sales, with Yorks Motors in William House and City Ford just off William Street. We’re currently selling two amazing two-bedroom apartments in the old City Ford building, now Riley Apartments: apartments 703 and 707.
An artistic, poetic street
While it may have been the site of a perennial traffic snarl over its almost 200-year history, William Street has also attracted its fair share of artists.
Poet Henry Lawson lived on William Street in the 1880s in a boarding house. He immortalised the many faces of William Street in a poem of the same name:
‘Tis William Street the highway —
Whichever way it be —
To business and the theatres,
Or empty luxury.
‘Tis William Street (the East-end) —
The world-wise and exempt —
That sells Potts Point its purgatives
With something of contempt.
A few decades on, Kenneth Slessor wrote his own poem celebrating the messy chaos of city life, inspired by 1930s William Street. Its famous refrain is repeated throughout: “You find this ugly, I find it lovely”.
The red globe of light, the liquor green,
the pulsing arrows and the running fire
spilt on the stones, go deeper than a stream;
You find this ugly, I find it lovely
The landmarks of William Street
From Hyde Park to the Coca-Cola sign at the top of the hill, William Street is synonymous with the approach to Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
Its Southern side remains relatively unchanged since it was widened, with several charming walk-up 1920s buildings – some of which, like “Grenville”, retain apartments upstairs.
It’s also home to major landmarks like the Australian Museum and the mysterious gothic building next door, which is actually the oldest National school in Sydney, now used as offices for the Museum. Cook & Phillip Park Pool has its address on William Street and each August, William Street is closed for half a day as the starting point of the famous City to Surf run.
Here are some of William Street’s other notable landmarks.
Number 52-58: ACI House, an Art Deco gem
Completed in 1941 and now heritage listed for its curved Art Deco interwar functionalist style, ACI House shows off the skills of its namesake, Australian Consolidated Industries. The company manufactured the glass bricks used extensively in its facade.
Number 80: Terrace Tower Group Building
With its distinctive stepped design, the Terrace Tower was completed in 1987.
Number 90: The Boulevarde Hotel
Built in 1972, the Boulevarde hosted a who’s who of famous guests in its early years. It also boasted a pool on the 24th floor and a nightclub right at the top.
Number 99: The Strand Hotel
Celebrating its 100th birthday this year and still offering boutique pub accommodation, The Strand also has an amazing rooftop bar. Other pubs along William Street include Hyde Park House, O’Malley’s, and the Kings Cross Hotel, as well as nightclubs, such as Club77.
Number 132: the last remaining terrace
132 William Street, next to the vacant lot resumed for the Eastern Distributor, is the last remaining terrace on William Street, and a tangible reminder of the street’s Victorian past. According to a file held by the Museum of History NSW, it was built around 1874-1875, for Arthur William Little, on part of the 1840s subdivision of the Riley Estate. It is the remnant of a once larger terrace comprising four two-storey brick and stone commercial premises.
Numbers 134 & 140: Brutalism from the 60s and 70s
Sitting side-by-side at 134 and 140 William Street are two prime examples of Sydney Brutalism. Olivetti House at 134 was designed by Summit Enterprises and built-in 1970. It’s known for its distinctive exposed aggregate concrete. The former Bank of NSW Offices at 140 were built in 1967 using precast concrete and designed by Stephenson and Turner.
Number 171-175: Chards Building
Right next to the Chard Stairs, Chards Building was designed by Pitt and Morrow in 1924. It operated as an illegal casino in the 1930s before becoming the home of the ABC from the 1940s until they moved to Ultimo in the 1990s.
Photo credits: Wikipedia