We’ve all seen the Chard Stairs on William Street – that double sandstone staircase linking the road with Forbes Street above.
But have you ever paused to consider why it’s there or the rich history behind it?
The Chard Stairs have their origins in the development of Sydney itself. As far back as 1830, William Street had become the main arterial road connecting Sydney’s centre with the Eastern Suburbs. The problem was that it was ill-equipped to be one. Hard to imagine today, but at the time, surveyor Thomas Mitchell, said William street’s steepness made it ‘unsuitable for heavy-laden vehicles’, most likely horses and carts.
By the early 20th century, the amount of traffic using William Street had grown exponentially, and it was clear that the road wasn’t coping. In 1908, the Royal Commission for the Improvement of the City, recommended that William Street be widened.
Eight years later, Sydney City Council then began acquiring the land adjacent to William Street. Not only did this cause enormous disruption to the lives and livelihoods of the locals, but it also came up against a major engineering challenge – Darlinghurst is situated on a series of ridges above William Street. So, when the road was widened, the gradient of Forbes Street, which connected directly with William Street, became too steep for vehicles. The only solution was to block it off.
Enter Mr Chard…
As you can imagine, a blocked street was a major inconvenience to the residents of Forbes Street and beyond. The council had pledged to provide pedestrian access between Forbes Street and William Street but by 1924, nothing had been done. So one local resident – wool merchant William Chard – decided to take matters into his own hands.
Chard owned land next to the stairs, at 171-175 William Street, and had built a three-storey building on it after the street was widened (this building was later owned by the ABC and still stands intact today).
So in 1924, Mr Chard commissioned architects Pitt and Morrow to design a staircase and the council accepted their concept. The final plans for the stairs were drawn up by Assistant City Architect James Henry Merriman (who co-designed the Capitol Theatre) and construction began at the end of the year. The stone stairs have two sides, which meet at the top on Forbes Street, while the William Street side has relatively simple decorative features like a central archway and a few modernist gargoyles.
A chequered history
The stairs were completed in 1925, and it wasn’t long before William Chard was complaining about his creation. In May 1925, he wrote to the Town Clerk claiming that people were using the stairway at night to ‘commit nuisance’ (in other words, using it as a public convenience – something that locals will know continued for many decades), and that many people were hanging about the staircase, drinking beer and ‘making the place uncanny for Ratepayers… and civilised residents’.
This led to the installation of electric lights. However, it didn’t necessarily lead to the gentrification of the staircase. Anyone with a memory of our area stretching back as far as the 1980s will no doubt remember that the Chard Stairs became notorious as a centre for Sydney’s unlicensed prostitution industry.
It wasn’t until 1986 that William Chard was recognised in the naming of the stairs.
The Chard stairs today
Today, the Chard Stairs are probably as respectable as they have ever been, and people are free to admire their stunning stone architecture. In fact, architect, Dr Jennifer Preston, described them as Sydney’s “most beautiful” stairs in a recent article.
Thanks to Mr Chard, we’re also now able to walk straight up from William Street to Forbes Street past the Harry Seidler designed Horizon Building, SCEGGS Darlinghurst, and on to the National Art School and Taylors Square without having to take a very long journey around.
If you’re interested in buying or selling in Darlinghurst, Potts Point and Elizabeth Bay contact my team today.