Dwarfed by high-rises and skyscrapers on all sides is the Culwulla Chambers – Sydney’s first ‘skyscraper’. I draw it to your attention as otherwise you would surely miss it.

I am not going enter into a discussion as to what constitutes a skyscraper as its definition has varied over the years and remains ill defined. Suffice to say for this review it’s a tall building (excluding towers, spires and such like) – tall being relative to the time it was built. Today the world’s tallest building is the 828 metres tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

The Culwulla Chambers, designed in a federation free style by Spain, Cosh and Minnett, is approximately 50 metres (12 storeys with an additional one added in a 1983 refurbishment) tall and was built in 1912 at the then record cost, for a building in Sydney, of £100,000. To be fair, for that price the owners did get revolutionary high speed lifts, and a ducted vacuum system, in addition to a 50 metres tall building.

Even in its day there was argument as to whether it was a skyscraper or not, being of masonry construction rather than having a metal frame. It technically probably wasn’t a skyscraper but rather a tall building, even if the tallest in the city (and in Australia) at the time.

The construction of Culwulla Chambers resulted in significant controversy. The building was variously described as a brickstack, an eyesore, and a harbinger of disease. Worse than that, it caused dark shadows in the street and people were concerned that Sydney would develop a ‘New York style’ skyline. This latter concern was, of course, before it became fashionable in Australia to hold up and mimic all things American.

Perhaps more seriously the building was seen as a potential fire hazard, as fire ladders could not reach the upper levels of the building.

Such was the public outcry that a subsequent amendment was made to building regulations (Height of Buildings Act 1912) prohibiting the erection of buildings taller than 150ft (46 metres). Amazingly, this regulation remained in force for some 50 years until the AMP Building (separate review) was constructed at Circular Quay in 1961.

Now you know!

Address: 97 Castlereagh Street, Sydney
Directions: Corner of King Street and Castlereagh Street

For my next Sydney – City – BRIDGE STREET TO MARTIN PLACE review click HERE.
For other Sydney reviews click HERE.

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