Circular Quay Station turns 65

Sydney Cove’s long history extends back to Gadigal Aboriginal land known originally as Warrane, Warrang and Wee-rong. The British colonists were attracted to this spot because of its fresh water source and good anchorage. This led to it becoming a hub for maritime activity, commerce, and travel with the establishment of the colony.

Prepared by Gretta Logue, Heritage Specialist, SEQR

John Bradfield’s 1924 PhD (University of Sydney)

Semi-Circular Quay, later shortened to ‘Circular Quay’, was constructed in phases. In the 1830s, development of the quay was focused on providing for commercial shipping to berth alongside wharves and warehouses that once dominated the area. From the 1890s, the quay emerged as a significant interchange hub with both commuter ferries and trams terminating at the quay. A railway station at the quay was a natural progression in the area’s development and fulfilled a longstanding desire to bring the railways from Central into the city.

Planning for the Station began with the City of Sydney Royal Commission in 1909. The Station was incorporated in the new electric underground railway system (the city circle ‘loop’) proposed by John Bradfield. By the 1930s, Bradfield had delivered all of the city circle loop except the station when construction was interrupted by the Great Depression and the arrival of WWII.

The station’s architectural design was nearing completion in the 1930s. Notable local architects Budden & Mackey – who designed Railway House (York Street) and Transport House (Macquarie Street) – designed the building in the Inter-War Functionalist style. It included a colonnade along the water’s edge, the use of natural materials for external surfaces, and views of the water from the street at ground level. The final detailed design selected in the 1950s was a simplified version of the original adopting elements of the more simple functionalist styles popular in Europe and America at the time.

Functionalist style
The functionalist style is represented in the station by the horizontal banding and window arrangements to give a streamlined effect. The exterior features polished granite on external surfaces – the granite mined and transported from Canowindra NSW. Decorative art deco details include ornamental grilles and bronze aquatic animal motifs sculpted above stairways and doorways. Large bronze grilles depict sea horses and jumping fish providing a connection between the building and Sydney Harbour.

A major feature of the project was the considerable viaduct constructed of riveted steel girders at around 26 metres in length. This technique was the standard construction between 1910 to the 1960s, although spans of over 26 metres were rare. Most of these girders were fabricated in the 1930s and stored at Chullora Railway Workshops until the start of construction. In the 1940s, the girders were temporarily loaned for the war effort and put to work at the Hawkesbury River but returned to Circular Quay when construction works restarted.

Work started in 1946 with drilling for the viaduct piers. A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 July 1946 illustrates the intensity of work underway:

“So far, more than 3,000 lineal feet of cylinders have been completed, nearly 200 men working five shifts a day to accelerate this preliminary work.”

Friday 20 January 1956 marked the official opening of Circular Quay Station by the State Premier, John Joseph Cahill. The first regular train service began two days later on 22 January. With the opening of the City Circle loop, train operations became much more efficient without the need for shunting and reversing. The train employed for the opening ceremony was the new ‘F39’ prototype, a single deck train where the guard operated the doors remotely, replacing the need for passengers to open and close the train doors manually.

The debate as to whether Circular Quay Station was an eyesore or a symbol of a modern city and transport system existed from the very beginning. The controversy continued when the Cahill Expressway opened on top of the viaduct in 1958, and still continues to this day.

Today, Circular Quay Railway Station is heritage listed for its major urban architectural, engineering and historical qualities. Read more about its significance here. You can also view the gallery below to see the history of Circular Quay captured in photos.

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