For over 100 years, the Burton Street Tabernacle was a landmark Baptist church – until it fell into disrepair.
It wasn’t until many years later that a renovation breathed new life into the heritage-listed building, and turned it into today’s Eternity Playhouse, an iconic theatre and arts venue. We explore the building’s rich history and how a legendary Sydney man inspired its name.
The Tabernacle and its Baptist beginnings
As one of Sydney’s oldest areas, it is not surprising that many of the buildings in Darlinghurst are going to go on to have a second life beyond their original purpose. Just like the old Darlinghurst Gaol became the National Art School, the heritage-listed Burton Street Tabernacle has been reinvented into the Eternity Playhouse.
But what was the Tabernacle and what is the building’s significance?
Well, from 1887 to 1996 it was a place of worship for many locals – despite the area’s seedy and crime-filled reputation. Originally, it began as an off-shoot of the nearby Woolloomooloo Baptist Church, which was formed in 1872 with the Reverend Frederick Hibberd as its pastor.
Over time, the Church purchased land on the corner of Burton and Palmer Streets and a parishioner, architect John Stone, designed a new, purpose-built church to go onto the site. The imposing Burton Street Tabernacle was completed in 1887 and was the focus of local Baptist worship for over 100 years.
Originally, the Darlo congregation was a large one, but over the years numbers dwindled until the last service was held in May 1996.
Renovation, refurbishment… and a few secrets
In 2004, the much-dilapidated building was acquired by the City of Sydney – and after a great deal of community consultation, it was decided to transform the building into a theatre. Work began in 2008, and the building was reopened as a state-of-the-art venue known as the Eternity Playhouse in 2013.
During the building’s extensive $7.9 million refurbishments, an original, white-tiled baptismal font was uncovered – a spa bath with steps that would have been used for full-body immersion.
This curious piece of history remains today in the Playhouse, as does the soaring, decorative wood-panelled ceiling, which can be seen through the steel wire grid that’s suspended above the audience for supporting technicians and rig lighting during performances.
How did the name Eternity Playhouse come about?
Back when the building was the Burton Street Tabernacle, Reverend John Ridley reportedly told the congregation that he wished he could ‘shout eternity through the streets of Sydney’.
The sermon inspired Arthur Stace, a former WWI veteran and reformed alcoholic who’d converted to Christianity. He became known as Mr Eternity, when, following the sermon, he took to anonymously chalking the pavements around Sydney with the word ‘Eternity’ in distinctive flowing copperplate (despite being unable to write). Stace reportedly rose at 5am to chalk footpaths, railway station entrances and anywhere else he could think of. Workers would see the word but not the man, giving Stace a certain cult status. The times he was caught for ‘defacing’ the pavements, he’d quip that he had permission from a ‘higher source’!
It’s believed Stace chalked the word ‘Eternity’ half a million times on the streets of Sydney between the 1930s and the 1960s, and the Council decided it would be a fitting tribute to name the new venue the Eternity Playhouse after the area’s famous pavement scribe. Stace’s script is replicated throughout the theatre and outside in neon letters, forever marking it as a new and iconic cultural destination for locals and visitors alike.
New owners and a new lease on life
In 2009, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, which had a small 111-seat venue in Potts Point, was invited to become the future tenants of the new, 200-seat venue. A 2012 Light It Up campaign raised a whopping $200,000 in private donations, which were used to deck out the Playhouse with equipment and furnishings, and put towards commissioning and the re-launch.
The Company raised the curtain on its first production at the Eternity Playhouse in November 2013, which was Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It went on to pick up four nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that Darlinghurst Theatre Company has had to close its doors for the time being and suspend its 2020 season, but it promises to be back soon – bigger and better than ever.
Photo credit: Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst – Wikimedia