The Genteel
January 28, 2021



There's a lot going on inside Sydney's QT Hotel - too much, some might say - but the two buildings which it straddles are strangers to neither change nor excess. And while the hotel's design oozes avant-garde attitude and charm, it owes its existence to an architectural legacy spanning almost a century.

Like most Sydneysiders, I've rarely taken notice of the towering "Gowings" sign draping itself above the city's State Theatre, an ebullient streak of neon left over from a previous age. The Gowings Building used to be the flagship of one of Australia's most successful retail enterprises, a one-stop men's department store selling everything from clothes to camping gear which only shut shop in 2006 - after more than 75 years of service - when its parent company went into receivership.

In some ways, not much has changed under the Gowings sign since then: apart from the QT's 200 guest rooms, restaurant and bar, as well as the addition of Sydney's first Topshop (one of several megastores to open in the city in recent times). However, some of the site's more lasting influences are buried further back in history.

"We had always seen it as an elegant shell that we had to restore. Layering the hotel within that was always at the forefront of our minds," says Nic Graham, the principal architect of the QT's public spaces. "The beautiful entry foyer is definitely iconic: there are limited examples in Sydney of this sort of building with this sort of detail."

We had always seen it as an elegant shell that we had to restore.

The architectural legacy Graham alludes to is often known as the Commercial Palazzo style, an imposing blend of steel and sandstone that strove to be as utilitarian as it was imposing. Designed by well-known architect Crawford H. Mackellar, the Gowings Building opened in 1929 and played host to a panoply of merchants including hatters, printers, bookbinders and shoemakers - the diverse nature of which inspired the QT's most intimate spaces.

"The history of the Gowings building is of bespoke craftsmanship," says Shelley Indyk, whose team of designers styled the QT's rooms, "and the design of the rooms has abundant bespoke detailing…it's more eclectic and modern with a strong bias towards patterning, textures and colour."

That's putting it lightly. Each room has been injected with a unique combination of pastel-hued walls and customised artworks which mirror the original style of the building. Some of the QT's rooms fall inside the Gowings Building; others draw inspiration from their location above the State Theatre and its more lively design pastiche - spanning Italian to art deco influences via the odd Gothic gargoyle.

Both buildings - one "camp," the other "pared-back…and masculine," according to Graham - are protected by Australia's Heritage Council and infusing them with a modern zest proved both challenging and invigorating. "One has to be innovative when dealing with history," Indyk says, "but of course certain heritage items had to be respected and maintained as they were." For example, a uniquely yellow terrazzo style of carpeting used in the State Theatre building had to be replaced - prompting the team to design its own carpet which spliced the original terrazzo with colours inspired by American abstract artist Mark Rothko.

"There were certain elements where it was disappointing we couldn't go the whole hog," says Graham, explaining how ongoing budget constraints meant sacrificing a monumental restoration of the Gowings Building's original shop-fronts inside the hotel. "A building like this constantly threw up challenges."


Ultimately, the QT's design has been an act of loving reinterpretation, one which almost mirrors the symbiotic bond between Gowings and the Theatre (both of which were not only completed in the same year, but even built by the same firm). It's a motif reflected in every aspect of the hotel, from the deliberately-exposed fixings and signature black steel to the detailed joins that highlight where old walls intersect with new. "The Heritage elements in either building were not an impediment," says Indyk. "Rather, they were part of the palette and either an inspiration or a starting point for further creative input."

"It created this great fabric onto which we could layer some contemporary elements," explains Graham. "Its pivotal location makes it very special."

What do travellers think of this decidedly unorthodox approach to hotel design? "Most people regard the rooms as unique, amazing, quirky and comfortable," says Indyk; guests find the hotel's bespoke undertones "uniquely interesting." Going against the grain is anathema when you're targeting the upper end of town - at around AU$400 a night, the QT's rooms command a premium over many of its competitors - but it's a strategy which seems to be paying off. In many ways, it's the appeal of the unusual that has reinvigorated the Gowings Building with crowds of luxury tourists and after-work locals alike.


"The positive feeling arises because there's such a rich layering of elements," Graham says. "Guests like this sense of discovery - that around every corner there's a different item to look at or experience." Much of the hard work that went into these minute touches remains invisible: few guests, for example, will know that it took Graham and his team more than 18 months of trawling through eBay and flea markets to collect the reclaimed furniture that permeates all corners of the building.

Or maybe it's something deeper. Despite the quirks and glam, the QT's antique touches and bespoke interiors have managed to tap into what business travellers and frequent flyers crave most of all - a home away from home. "That's provided a level of interest, homeliness, even warmth," Graham says. "People have found comfort in an inner-city hotel not being a vanilla solution." Like the city itself, the QT Hotel draws its essence from the sum of many diverse parts - putting it in good stead to take its own place in history.



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