A 150-year-old church in Sydney’s historic quarter, The Rocks, is reincarnated by Woods Bagot with contemporary elements and furniture amidst restored sandstone walls and leadlights.
In most circles, the mention of reincarnation causes eyebrows to rise skywards. While unbelief may be the norm when it comes to the spiritual meaning of the word, in the realm of interior refurbishment we accept reincarnation as a given. In this instance, Woods Bagot has transformed one of Sydney’s most significant heritage sites into what aims to be the hospitality hub of The Rocks district.
Bar 100, the latest venture by property developers the Kazal family, occupies the Mariners’ Church building in George Street, which was completed in 1859. The original mission of this institution was to provide spiritual support and wholesome social, entertainment and recreational activities to the throngs of mariners who passed through Sydney’s burgeoning port. Drawing from the inherent contradictions in the site’s complex past, in what could be considered a Victorian example of architectural cross-programming, the client and the designers have wittily played with the notions of sacred and secular, with a design language that refers both to pious intents and to Sydney’s reputation as “Sin City.”
The main bar occupies the space that was the chapel in the original 1856 scheme by John Bibb. It is one of the most handsomely proportioned rooms in Sydney. The sandstone walls are punctuated by a series of arched niches, above which sits a band of lozenge-shaped clerestories. The designers have positioned the brass-clad bar to the east, facing the George Street entrance, allowing for a large-scale gathering space. A giant, black marble monolith forms the back of the bar, its mass providing a counterpoint to the voluminous space. In order to adhere to heritage constraints, bold tectonic insertions have been clearly separated from the extant fabric, and this approach is repeated in the 8 Brothers Brasserie located on the floor below. The overall materiality and design of the fixed elements and the furnishings respond to the architectural elegance of the space – it is well-mannered and restrained – as well as to the robust realities of a Friday or Saturday night in The Rocks.
To one side of the main bar is a smaller, more intimate lounge area called The Chapel. Built in 1927 to designs by Kent & Massie, this space, unlike the main bar, has a distinctly ecclesiastical feel. The designers have played on this reference with the use of plush vicarage-green carpet, and have simultaneously diffused this sensibility by turning the apse into a giant leather-clad banquette. The quirky nature of this interior treatment transports you to an irreconcilable place halfway between an Edwardian gentlemen’s club and a rural parsonage.
The third bar, 1909, is the climax of the experience. Ascending by lift, you enter what is a truly remarkable space. Designed by H. C. Kent as a chapel for the 1909 extension, you find yourself beneath a beautiful crisp-white barrel vault, pierced by lunette clerestories. The design of the bar echoes church configuration – with a twist. The bar acts as an altar and the shelving takes the form of a giant crucifix. Above the bar, like musicians in a seventeenth-century Roman church, the DJ is secreted behind a mirror panel through which he or she can pop out and surprise the amused audience below. There is little Protestant severity to the atmosphere up here; rather, we find a baroque palette of cardinal-red velvets, gold inset lamps and gloss-black detailing and, of course, this being Sydney, heaven is provided by a small terrace with views of the surrounding quay.
Woods Bagot has realized a successful and respectful reincarnation of what was an underused gem. While acknowledging the symbolic potency of the site it has not overwhelmed the vision for a new and exciting addition to Sydney’s suite of hospitality spaces.