It was 1 January 1901 when the British Parliament passed legislation permitting the six Australian colonies to form the Commonwealth of Australia.
This historic moment was the Federation of Australia. We dig into the past to find out what Potts Point was like during this defining period in our nation’s history and where you can still find local examples of Federation-era buildings today.
What were Potts Point and Kings Cross like during Federation?
The Federation period, from the 1890s to the First World War, was one of optimism and hope for the bright future of our newly formed nation.
It was also when Kings Cross received its name. The literal cross formed by the junction of Victoria Street, William Street, Darlinghurst Road and Upper William Street (later to become Kings Cross Road) had been named Queens Cross in 1897 in honour of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. Eight years later, in 1905, the City Council renamed it Kings Cross to recognise the new monarch and avoid confusion with Queens Place (now Queens Square) near Hyde Park.
By the 1890s, Potts Point was already one of Sydney’s most desirable and stylish suburbs and was known for its large homes set amid reasonably spacious grounds. Meanwhile, Kings Cross, Darlinghurst and Woolloomooloo were home to a growing number of boarding houses. In the harsh economic times of the 1890s, many larger terraces and townhouses were converted into boarding houses that provided accommodation for newly arrived migrants, single people, and skilled city workers. Their proximity to the city and their large number of rooms that could be let as bedrooms made them ideal for the task, and they provided a much-needed income stream for their owners, many of whom were struggling with the cost of keeping such large homes. In 1905, there were 55 boarding houses in the Kings Cross area. A decade later, in 1915, the number of boarding houses or residential chambers in Darlinghurst Road, Bayswater Road, Victoria Street and Kellett Street had risen to 165.
These boarding houses were a significant provider of employment for women. In 1911, men working in Sydney boarding and lodging houses were outnumbered by women six to one. Most of the lodging houses (58 per cent) were run by women, and many more employed women as cleaners and cooks.
It was during the Federation period that Kings Cross began to develop its reputation as a destination for nighttime entertainment. The Kings Cross Theatre opened on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Victoria Street in 1916, and cafes and restaurants soon sprang up nearby to feed and water the theatregoers. Today, Kings Cross Station occupies the site where the theatre once stood.
Are there any Federation buildings still standing in Potts Point?
While Potts Point is synonymous with Art Deco architecture, it’s a treasure trove of architectural gems from many eras of the twentieth century, including the Federation style.
- One of Potts Point’s earliest remaining examples of Federation architecture, Killountan at 8 Challis Avenue, dates back to 1892. It was designed by John Bede Barlow, an eminent architect of the time, for his cousin John Lane Mullins, a solicitor, treasurer for the Catholic Church and patron of the emerging arts and crafts movement. Killountan’s unadorned red brick Queen Anne-style façade was a rejection of the ‘vulgarity’ of the Victorian architecture of the day. The home was divided into six flats in the 1920s and rechristened Belgravia. It underwent an extensive restoration in the 1980s before spending three decades as Simpsons of Potts Point, a 14-room boutique hotel. It last traded hands in late 2020 and is now a private home once again.
- Heatherdene, at 4 Rockwall Crescent, was built in 1903 as a ‘gentleman’s residence’ for William McElhone, who went on to become Lord Mayor of Sydney in 1922. Today, the two-and-a-half-storey brick home is heritage listed, with the original front staircase, front entrance and side entrance all retaining their Federation period features.
- The Darlinghurst Fire Station, designed by Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon in 1910 in the Federation Free Style, is still in operation on the corner of Darlinghurst Road and Victoria Street. It was hailed at the time it was built as ‘one of the finest fire stations’ and an ‘ornament to the district.’ Made of brick with stone ornamentation and slate and copper roofs, the heritage-listed building is considered a prime example of Vernon’s skill as a Federation architect.
- Potts Point’s first tall block of flats is an important example of Federation architecture in our area. Kingsclere at 1 Greenknowe Avenue, completed in 1912, was aimed at the discerning tenant. Designed by architects Halligan and Wilton and detailed with brick, sandstone and timber, its apartments were generous. A write-up in a 1912 issue of Building magazine says each flat included ‘six rooms, kitchen, pantry, two bathrooms, lavatories, linen, cooks’ and housemaids’ cupboards. There are two balconies and an escape stair to each flat.’ The building was technologically up-to-the-minute, with automatic passenger lifts, intercoms to each apartment and electric light and power.
- 14 St Neot Avenue. This home is a masterpiece. The only house on the street, it has retained its stunning early 1900s Federation façade while the interior and rear of the home have been transformed by one of the best renovations I’ve ever seen. Features include a staircase inspired by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, an indoor swimming pool, a wine cellar and a rooftop terrace with city views.
If you’re thinking of buying or selling in Potts Point, Kings Cross, or Sydney’s east, get in touch with my team today.
Photo credit: Wikipedia