Queen Victoria Building

Location: George Street, Sydney
Designed by City Architect George McRae in 1898, this spacious and ornate building of Romanesque design was created as a produce market and functioned as such for two decades. After surviving numerous threats of demolition and various uses including that of the City Library, it was refurbished at a cost of $75 million and reopened in its present form in 1986.

The building was constructed around a steel girder frame with brick vaulting between the beams. 75 columns made of Bowral trachyte support rows of the arches. The grand staircase is made of Bowral basalt, the decorative exterior is of Pyrmont sandstone. The roof features a 20-metre diameter copper dome which is surrounded by twenty smaller copper cupolas.

The use of columns, arches, and a prodigal amount of detail such as was used by McRae in the chosen design are typical of late 19th century Romanesque, an eclectic architectural style. Stained-glass windows, including a cartwheel window depicting the arms of the City of Sydney, allow light into the central area, and the roof itself incorporates arched skylights running lengthways north and south from the central dome. The colonnades, arches, balustrades and cupolas are of typically intricate Victorian style.

Prior to the erection of the Queen Victoria Building, the site was occupied by a Police Station (1810) designed by Francis Greenway which was converted into the Sydney Post Office and Magistrate's Court in 1846. The site was purchased at a cost of £124,000 in 1882 by the City Council for the construction of the market building.

Having been rescued from demolition on three occasions, Queen Victoria Building is today one of the inner city's most prestigious shopping aracdes. Though known for its Byzantine influenced statues and works from 19th century master craftsmen, stonemasons, plasters and stained glass artist, there is far more to the QVB than shopping in a grand classical setting.

There is a Victoria Cross Memorial dedicated to 96 Australians who had been awarded the Victoria Cross. The wooden honour board lists the names of Australians awarded the Victoria Cross. It includes a painting by G. W. Thomas (on loan by permission of Queen Elizabeth II) of Queen Victoria presenting the first Victoria Crosses in London`s Hyde Park on 26th June 1857. Watch out also for the classical paintings at the top most level of the building.

The Royal Automata Clock within the heart of QVB draws people every hour to its side. It chimes on the hour between 9am to 9pm daily and it is worth watching the clock. Following the Westminister chime you can expect to see a moving pageant from the pages of history. Images include King John signing the Magna Carta, King Henry VIII with his wives, Sir Francis Drake being knighted by Queen Elizabeth I and the execution of King Charles I.

Over the years, various rooms in the building have housed a number of exquisite and rarely seen artefacts - one a full jade Chinese bridal carriage - the only one found outside of China and another, a life-sized statue of Queen Elizabeth. The statue was removed in 2010, the Jade Bridal Carriage was gifted to the Chinese Garden of Friendship in 2006. Dating from 1585, it was created by more than 100 artists from Guangdong Province in southern China from more than 300 tonnes of raw jade. For many years there was a display of Queen Elizabeth II's crown jewels, replicas of course, on the top most gallery level. They now form part of the Museum of Australian Democracy's collection in Canberra, ACT.

Perhaps the most exciting and mysterious of the displays in the Queen Victoria Building is a sealed letter written by Queen Elizabeth II. The letter is to be read in 2085 by the future Lord Mayor of Sydney. But no-one knows what the letter says and it is buried somewhere in the off-limits dome at the top of QVB. The dome itself is restricted to the public but is opened on occasions for 'hidden tour' groups.

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QVB Foucault Pendulum

In 1995, a team from Physics at the University of Sydney built a Foucault Pendulum in the ABC in Sydney. In December 1996 they did the same thing in the QVB. The original Pendulum, which was large and bulky, was replaced by what is probably the world's first electronic Pendulum into the QVB over Christmas 1997. Its creators say that, because the Works of Science as well as Works of Art deserve a Public Showing - and because sitting at the edge of a Foucault Pendulum, and watching the Earth turn under it is an experience that touches your soul.

Created originally by Dr Karl Foucault, Foucault Pendulums Works of Art which are Statues of Men-On-Horseback. If both front legs of the horse are off the ground, it means that the rider died in battle. If one leg is up, it means that the rider eventually died of war time wounds, though not in a battle. And if both front legs are down, it supposedly means that the rider died peacefully, of natural causes. One reason for creating the Foucault pendulum was to prove that the Earth rotates. It is actually quite difficult to prove that the Earth rotates. In fact, Leon Foucault stumbled across this proof only by accident - and only as recently as 1848. the inertia of a swinging ball is the perfect tool for proving that the Earth rotates.

Queen Victoria Statue

Outside the entrance of the building facing Sydney Town Hall, is a tall and gloomy statue of Queen Victoria. The statue shows the queen on the morning of her coronation on the 28th June 1838. Close by is the Royal Wishing Well where the queen's dog Islay is portrayed in a begging fashion. Having previously held pride of place in front of the Irish Parliament until its removal in 1947, this statue was found forgotten and neglected in the small Irish village of Daingean in 1983 after the Sydney City Council instigated a worldwide search for a statue of Queen Victoria to be placed alongside the building named in her honour. This is one of two statues of Queen Victoria in central Sydney (the other is in Queens Square).

The statue in front of the Irish Parliament, Dublin

Ismay the Terrier Statue

Just as Trim the Cat dwells in the shadow of Matthew Flinders' statue outside the State Library of NSW, so does the terrier Islay with Queen Victoria, outside the Queen Victoria building. The real life Islay only lived to be five after dying from a fight with a cat. A piece of stone from Blarney Castle, Ireland, is built into the wishing well on which the sculpture of Islay can be found. Pause at the edge of Islay's wishing well for a few moments and he starts to speak (with the voice of radio personality John Laws). His abrupt "hello" has startled decades' worth of unwary tourists and infrequent city visitors who lean up against the fountain.

The wishing well sits at the edge of a circular sandstone structure which was constructed to hide the large air vent necessary for the carpark below the Queen Victoria Building. An ornamental grille disguises the vent as a Victorian folly. Islay was Victoria's favourite dog and his signature trick was to sit up on his hind legs and beg for treats. The Sydney Islay sits in this pose and requests we cast a coin into the wishing well for the deaf and blind children. A moment passes. "Thankyou", says Islay, then follows it with a few mechanical woofs.

External Statues

The building features two statue groups by sculptor William P. Macintosh, which were commissioned in 1897 during its construction. Located on the west facade of the building's central arches at the York Street frontage, one west features a male flanked by two draped females. Made from Sicilian marble, the statues stand approximately 4.5 m high. The east group features a lightly draped female figure flanked by two, semi-nude males (below). Made from Sicilian marble, the statues stand approximately 4.5 m high.

The QVB Dome

Every November over one weekend, more than 60 of sydney's most important, inspiring and intriguing buildings and spaces are opened to the public for inspection on guided tours operated by Sydney Living Museums. The weekend is known as Sydney Open and the Queen Victoria Building is often featured as a place to explore on this special weekend. When this occurs, visitors can get the chance to climb the century-old spiral staircase up into the spectacular inner sanctum of QVB's central stained-glass dome.

The domes were built by Ritchie Brothers, a steel and metal company that also built trains, trams and farm equipment. The central dome is the building's dominant feature which consists of an interior glass dome and a copper-sheathed exterior, topped by a domed cupola. Smaller domes of various sizes are on the rooftop, including ones on each upper corner of the rectangular building.

History of the Building

When Governor Macquarie arrived in New South Wales in 1810, he found the colony's main landing place disturbed by the produce, livestock and poultry of the daily waterfront market at Kings Wharf. He ordered the market moved to a more commodious situation, a paddock two kilometers inland and bounded on the east by George Street, on the west by newly-named York Street, and on the south by the colony's first cemetery. For the convenience of those bringing grain and other merchandise in boats from the Hawkesbury to the new market place, Macquarie turned the northern boundary of the new market site into Market Street, extending west from the site down to Cockle Bay (now Darling Harbour).

Macquarie's ultimate intentions, to develop a splendid civic square by adding a town hall, a cathedral and a government hotel to the marketplace, represented the first of many grand schemes for the site which eventually became home to the Queen Victoria Building. Macquarie's scheme was rejected by the British Government as too grandiose for a place of punishment. So the site remained a humble marketplace until the 1830's when increasing demand from a growing population saw the erection of four substantial stone halls selling produce, poultry and meat around a paved square. The first Council of Sydney Town took over the site in 1842. Between 1859 and 1869 the Council improved and extended the stalls, building an office with a decorative tower at the Market Street entrance and roofing over the entire square.

Less than twenty years later, the markets were being described as miserable, a disgrace and some Councillors were agitating that they be demolished to make way for a square or public gardens. Public debate about whether the site was best suited for a park or a commercial development which the city could rent culminated in October 1892, when the Council gave the go-ahead to George Macrae, the City architect, to develop a new George Street Market with a basement, three stories, and a long galleried arcade.

Cage lift used in construction

Excavations began in March 1893, four months before Council chose Macrae's Romanesque design with its abundant domes and soaring cupola from amongst his other less stylish design options. In August, the Council borrowed £300,000 to finance the construction of the George Street New Market. In September, construction tenders were called and on 15 December, the foundation stone was laid. By 1897, it was obvious to all Sydneysiders that the rising structure of 4.5 million bricks, 3,000 tonnes of iron and steel, mountains of sandstone and granite, was far too impressive to be called a mere market, and the Council declared that the building would honour the colony's distant monarch. On the afternoon of Thursday 21 July, 1898, Sydney's Mayor Matthew Harris opened the Queen Victoria Market Building with the words "It may be truly said that we have here built for the future as well as the present". This civic euphoria lasted less than twenty years. Within the Queen Victoria Market Building's high tech walls, a growing assortment of tailors and taxidermists, flower sellers and fortune tellers, spectacle makers and corset fitters, milliners and bootmakers, herbalists and wine merchants, teachers of dancing, singing, elocution, painting, sculpting, drawing and dressmaking plied their trade along the tiled boulevards and galleries. But the growing band of tenants complained that their rents were too high, and the Council in turn complained that the building wasn't completely full and the rents didn't cover Council's investment.

In 1916, the Council decided reconstruction was the only way to improve the financial situation. The reconstruction rationalised many of the building's splendid Victorian features: the ground floor Avenue's intricate floor tiles were covered in concrete; some ground floor shops were extended across the entire width, others were divided, and marble, glass and copper finishes replaced many of the Victorian stone, cedar, iron and plaster surfaces. The centre void was filled with a lift, the fifteen metre high Concert Hall was sliced in two to create the City Library, and the natural light to the upper galleries was reduced as rentable space was widened to create more shops. In 1918 the Victorian awning, known to some as the grand old lady's petticoat, was removed.

But the remodeling failed to improve the commercial viability of the building. Over the next ten years, successive Council reports detailed financial losses of up to £211,000. In 1927, the chief government engineer and planner of the Harbour Bridge recommended that the State government acquire and demolish QVB to widen York Street as the major approach to the Bridge. Newspaper headlines of the day supported the idea that the City's White Elephant should go. Fortunately, the Council couldn't come to a suitable financial arrangement with the State government. QVB stayed in Council's hands, causing increasing consternation as the cumulative losses mounted to £500,000 pounds by 1933.

In 1935, just when it began to seem that QVB might make the ideal site for a city carpark, Council decided it should instead become the new home of its growing Electricity Department. Once the decision was made, it took just £125,000 to completely transform the interior of QVB from a Victorian arcade to a post-Depression office building. QVB's remaining voids were filled in to create office spaces, some large, some small, but all decidedly dull by comparison with what they had replaced. The inner glass of the central dome was removed to make way for an air-conditioning plant. The great glass roof which had once bathed the arcades in natural light was covered with galvanized iron. Art deco features covered what remained of the existing Victorian interior.

The Electricity Department, which by this time had become Sydney County Council, used QVB as the centrepiece of advertising campaigns to Be Modern - Think Electricity. By 1950 Sydney County Council's customer base had grown to 300,000 people, its revenues were setting records, and it began to consider that new building might be more prestigious than the shabby conversion at QVB. While the SCC deliberated through the ensuing years, the city Council once again began discussing the possible demolition of QVB: in the 56 - 58 period a number of hotel groups expressed interest, and then in 1959 the Lord Mayor proposed that the site be razed to create a civic square and an underground car park. His suggestion that the city conduct an international design competition to plan the square was supported by leading architects and town planners and praised in the media of the day. The Council began setting aside a portion of QVB rental to pay for its demolition once the SCC lease expired in 1961. To the Council's dismay, the SCC chose to renew its QVB lease rather than leave in 1961. The civic square scheme was put on hold while a building boom engulfed Sydney. In the three years to 1964, the amount of floor space added to the city was double the additions of the previous three years. In the next three years the amount of floor space doubled again. In 1965 the city voted in a new Lord Mayor, whose vision for the QVB site relied on a multi-storey development rather than a civic square.

This time it was politics, rather than the County Council, which saved the QVB. In 1967, the Liberal state government sacked the Labor dominated City Council and instated a Committee of Commissioners which was not authorized to make policy decisions. And in the same year, the NSW National Trust recommended that QVB be preserved as a visual asset' to the city. Other voices began speaking in favour of QVB's historical value - young Sydney architects, concerned citizens, the Civic Reform Association. Two years later the National Trust upped its classification of QVB, and within another two years the Royal Australian Institute of Architects joined the debate with a recommendation that QVB be preserved.

On 31 May, 1971, Sydney's new Lord Mayor Emmet McDermott, leader of the Civic Reform Group, announced that QVB would be preserved and restored to its original state. Unfortunately the announcement was made well before there were any practical plans to finance the project or make the building commercially viable. By 1976, QVB was no closer to restoration, despite an information gathering campaign which had sought archival material to guide the eventual work. Meanwhile, QVB's National Trust classification had been upped again, to the highest possible status: essential to the nation's heritage. In 1977, the Council, in a stroke of creative genius, called for public submissions of feasibility studies for QVB. Fifty five proposals were whittled down to ten, and five of these ten were each offered a $5,000 fee to produce detailed plans for public exhibition and comment.

The five included proposals by architectural firms Stephenson & Turner, Khan Finch and Partners, and Peddle Thorp Walker, and the building firm Kell & Rigby. The National Trust favoured Stephenson and Turners proposal for a restored retail complex over the other options of a 400 room hotel, a 250 apartment complex, and a multi-purpose commercial and entertainment centre. In November 1978 the Council invited the five proponents to submit a $200,000 deposit and preliminary restoration/management contracts proving that the revived QVB would be financially viable. Three months later, the Council rejected all five proposals on commercial grounds. It seemed, after all, that the eighty year old QVB would never be self supporting, and in the words of the Town Clerk it would need a wealthy visionary to preserve the building through a sound commercial base.

In 1980, Council again sought public submissions for restoration feasibilities - this time in a world wide campaign whic h drew twenty enquires but only three formal tenders. One, from a London company, proposed an entertainment and restaurant centre. The second, from a Filipino company, proposed a hotel and retail complex, and the third, from a Singapore company, suggested a hotel and conference rooms. Although none matched Council's stringent restoration requirements, and all relied on partial demolition and extensive alteration, Council offered all three groups another two months for revised lease proposals. One week before the final deadline, at a time when a public pressure group called the Friends of QVB were signaling that none of the current proposals were acceptable, the much needed wealthy visionary entered the QVB drama. A Malaysian businessman on his way to international airport after a fleeting business trip noticed the Council signs advertising the restoration project on the facade of QVB.

Yap Lim Sen called his Australian associate James Barrett from the airport. In a series of hurried phone calls the two managed to obtain the Council documentation, reassure themselves that they were interested, and prepare a suitably convincing submission to Council with just hours to spare. Ipoh Gardens relationship with QVB had begun. By June 1980, the $200 million public company listed on the Kuala Lumpur and Singapore stock exchanges had put together a restoration scheme which would result in the dramatic shopping centre which is QVB today. Although it took another three years of protracted negotiations about conservation philosophy, restoration details, and economic arrangements, Council finally granted a 99 year lease to Ipoh Gardens in August 1983. There began the painstaking process of stripping, sifting, scraping, excavating, digging, and demolition which removed the years of remodeling and neglect and laid bare the true remaining features of QVB. What could be retained was restored, what could be restored was done so lovingly, and what could not be found was recreated with modern technologies.

The gargantuan $75 million task was completed in December 1986, when QVB opened as Sydney's most elegant shopping environment, almost too beautiful to be called a shopping centre. Today, 200 retailers trade in a palace of style which has triumphed over 100 years of uncertainty to become Australia's most successful retail location.

Queen Victoria Building staircase

Top Level

George Street Entrance

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  • The 40cm high cage lift at the southern end of the Queen Victoria Building. It is one of if not the oldest lift in Australia (1898).

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