Grand public buildings to be opened to the public for the first timeThe two heritage-listed buildings that will be turned into a luxury hotel. Photo: Supplied

Grand public buildings to be opened to the public for the first time

They are two of the finest heritage-listed public buildings in Sydney – yet the public has always been barred from entering.

But that’s set to change, with the formal lodging today of a development application for a $300 million transformation of the stately sandstone Lands and Education buildings near Circular Quay into a luxury hotel.

When complete the buildings will boast grand public foyers, gardens, laneways, restaurants, cafes, shops and a rooftop that any visitor will be able to access.

An artist's impression of the completed hotel, featuring three-storey addition to the building at the right. An artist’s impression of the completed hotel, featuring three-storey addition to the old Education building at the right.

“It was an anomaly that they’ve been public buildings since they were first built, but they were closed to everyone except people working inside,” said Ian Lomas, of Make Architects, who has migrated to Sydney from London to fashion the adaptation.

“They have a global quality, beauty and resonance that all people should be free to appreciate and enjoy; they’re about the layers of history since Sydney began. These are buildings that people should have the opportunity to engage with, rather than be politely turned away at the entrance!”

The majestic Victorian-era Lands Department Building on Bridge Street, overlooking Circular Quay, was considered one of the great buildings of the empire, and was constructed from 1876. The Education building next door, over the old horse-and-carriageway Gresham Street, was built in 1915.

One of the buildings with the artist's extension on top.The Education building with the artist’s impression of the rooftop extension. Image: Supplied

After fierce controversy over whether the buildings would be sold off, the NSW Government held a worldwide tender and awarded a 103-year lease to the Singapore-based Pontiac Land Group for the buildings, for a fee of $35 million. They now plan the adaptive re-use of the two ‘sandstones’, a three-storey addition on the top of the Education building and an underground link.

Kwee Liong Keng, director of the Pontiac Land Group, which has a number of luxury hotels in Singapore including The Ritz-Carlton and Regent, said the result would be a world-leading hotel.

“Sydney is a great city and every great world city should feature a grand hotel,” he said.

The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020, when both buildings would be open. “It’s great for Sydney that these highly significant colonial buildings on such an important site should be reactivated,” said Greg Incoll, director of Sandstone Development, a subsidiary of Pontiac that will be managing the hotel’s construction.

Artist's impression of the two sandstone hotel buildings. Artist’s impression of the two sandstone hotel buildings.

“I see this as the next generation opportunity to do something fantastic, like the QVB, with a building in the public ownership. Buildings like this are very expensive for a government to maintain and run but this way it remains in public ownership, and will be accessible to the public, and making a valuable contribution to Sydney’s tourism industry, without taxpayers having to pay anything.”

The lodgement of the DA was greeted by NSW Minister for Finance, Service and Property Dominic Perrottet as an exciting start to the project. As a young man he remembered, like many Sydneysiders, walking past the building, and longing to go inside.

“I always wondered what went on in this building,” he said. “It’s important now to have public services closer to the community, and to preserve the great history of these buildings and open them up to the public to enjoy.”

The Lands building was designed by NSW Colonial Architect James Barnet, in the Italian Renaissance style, with pillars, and domes, towers and, later, a clock tower on the roof. It will be converted into 61 hotel rooms with shops and restaurants, and a direct public lift to the rooftop.

The Education building will have 192 rooms, with a central courtyard, brasseries and lobby.

Mr Lomas, the lead architect who’s been working on the Wynyard Station precinct, after overseeing the restoration of London’s iconic Harrods building, said the grandeur and beauty of the buildings, with their great staircases, marble-lined arcades, statues and domes would remain intact.

“It’s about setting up a dialogue with the city, with history and with the public,” he said. “They’re a wonderful asset for Sydney and deserve to be preserved as one of the great hotels of the world.”

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