In the latest census data available, Sydney has over 450,000 flats, units or apartments making up 28% of the domestic buildings. This is nearly double the state average. Another 54,000 are expected to be built in the next year alone. In certain areas there are more flats then there are houses, and in some suburbs there are now more flats than people as new buildings stand empty. They are so much a part of the city landscape that people hardly notice a new one. Of course, this was not always the case.
Curiously, the first apartment blocks in Sydney were built not so much as space savers but as time savers. The decline in the number of women working in domestic service from the 1890s onwards, made looking after large mansions in Sydney increasingly difficult and expensive. Modern flats or apartments could be kept easily and cheaply; they were self-contained homes in miniature.
The first purpose-built flat building in Sydney was The Albany, completed in Macquarie Street in 1905, combining medical and dental chambers on the first two floors and then five stories of residential apartments above. The buildings proximity to the Parliament, Macquarie Street doctors and the law courts meant that it attracted an elite range of residents including Sir Samuel Griffith, Chief Justice of the newly formed Supreme Court of Australia.
The Albany was soon joined by others along Macquarie Street and nearby city addresses, the sole survivor from this first phase being Wyoming completed in 1909. One of its selling points was hot water to all flats. In Potts Point Kingsclere (1912) boasted a lift, electricity to all apartments and an internal intercom known as the ‘telephonette’. Apartments were soon adopted for public and affordable housing (as we call it now) with the first public housing flats, Strickland Flats in Chippendale, completed by Sydney City Council in 1914.
The boom in apartment construction came through the 1920s and 1930s. Modern art-deco apartments rose over the heights of Darlinghurst and Kings Cross and apartments such as The Astor (1923) in Macquarie St became hot property, while at the same time public housing was built throughout Waterloo, Pyrmont, Alexandria and Erskineville. Heading west and south, flats followed the railway lines into the growing commuter suburbs.
In the 1920s a large number of these were built in the City of Sydney area and of those more than half were in Kings Cross or Potts Point, making up one quarter of all apartments built. The transformed not only the skyline of the suburb but the density of its population. A European style of living attracted arriving immigrants, who in turn opened cafes, restaurants and delis like they had at home, contributing to Kings Cross’s blossoming bohemian scene.
Between 1900 and 1940, flats went from 0% to 20% of Sydney’s building stock, appearing in just about every suburb. From the high rise monsters in Surry Hills and Waterloo, to small scale 1930s blocks in Roseville to art deco masterpieces in Potts Point, Bondi, Manly and Coogee to the new flat pack towers in Green Square and Homebush and the high rise suburbs popping up around the new metro and along the train lines. Over a century of development they have become part of the landscape and for many the only affordable option for living in the city.
Mark Dunn is the Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!