Dictionary of Sydney

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Capitol Theatre building

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Capitol Theatre building

[media]Sydney's Capitol Theatre is one of only two picture palaces which remain of more than 20 built in the centre of the city during the 1920s and 1930s. The Capitol is located in the Haymarket district, bounded by Pitt, Hay and Campbell streets. This city block had a variety of uses throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: it was the location of the informal Paddy's Market for much of the nineteenth century, and home to the New Belmore Markets from 1893, the Wirth Bros Hippodrome from 1916 and, finally, the Capitol Theatre from 1928.

To market

Produce markets operated in the area from the late 1820s, including the hay and corn markets from the early 1830s. During the nineteenth century, the site of the Capitol Theatre, then an empty block opposite the original Belmore Markets, was home to the informal, 'carnivalesque' Paddy's Market. The city council officially established produce markets on Campbell Street in 1869 on a block to the east of the Capitol Theatre. These markets were opened by Sir Somerset Lowry-Corry, the Earl of Belmore, the Governor of New South Wales from 1868 to 1872, and were named in his honour.

The Belmore Markets were rebuilt on the present site of the Capitol Theatre between 1892 and 1893. Although officially named after the mayor, Sir William Manning, they were generally referred to as the New Belmore Markets while the original markets were known as the Old Belmore Markets. The New Belmore Markets building was designed by the council architect, George McRae, who also prepared the design for the grander Queen Victoria Markets, next to the Town Hall.

Following the outbreak of the bubonic plague in Sydney in the early 1900s, the city council was granted authority to resume land under the Sydney Corporation Amendment Act, 1905. Under this act, a site for Paddy's Markets in Thomas St was selected by the council to replace the Belmore Markets. The new markets site was closer to the coastal shipping wharves at Darling Harbour and the associated railway goods line and yards. This left the Belmore Markets building vacant.

In 1913, the council accepted tenders for the conversion of the Belmore Markets building, which had been subdivided into two allotments, into a venue for the Wirth Bros Circus on the western portion and a three-storey office block adjoining it to the east, known as the Manning Building.

The circus comes to town

Works to construct the Wirth Bros Hippodrome involved the careful dismantling of the original McRae building, brick by brick, and the incorporation of the original finishes and details into a new building on the site. It retained decorative elements of the old building, most notably the use of face brick, decorative terracotta bas relief and columns and arches. The visual effect of the new building was that the ground floor with its distinctive arches had been elevated to the second storey. The works on the former Belmore Markets building were completed by 1916 to a design by the Sydney city council architect RH Broderick and the assistant architect, JH Merriman, and were carried out by contractors Messrs Maston & Yates. The Wirth Bros Hippodrome was officially opened in the same year, and functioned for about 10 years as a circus venue, complete with seal pool and elephant enclosures.

By 1926 the fortunes of the circus were declining, and a decision was made to convert the former Wirth Bros Hippodrome into a picture palace.

The Capitol Theatre is born

Works to the building were carried out between 1926 and 1928, to a design by the renowned New Zealand-born architect and theatre designer Henry Eli White, who also designed the State Theatre.

The new picture palace, named the Capitol Theatre, was Australia's first 'atmospheric theatre'. The architect John Eberson was the leading proponent of atmospheric theatre design in America, and he was responsible for preparing plans for the Capitol interiors. Atmospheric theatres were intended for silent movies accompanied by live sound, and they sought to create the illusion of an Italian open-air garden. To this end, the Capitol interiors were highly decorative and brightly coloured, adorned with tapestries, bas-relief sculptures and statues. Lights playing on the ceiling, which was painted a deep Mediterranean blue, were intended to simulate an amphitheatre under the night sky.

A few flamboyant years after its official opening in 1928, the Capitol Theatre was temporarily closed in 1932, as attendances fell during the Depression. A year later the Capitol was re-opened by Greater Union, but offered a more restrained entertainment style than previously. By 1945, the theatre was becoming dilapidated. It was closed for repairs, during which many of the decorative interior finishes were stripped.

The building was threatened with demolition in the 1960s and 1970s. The most serious threat was the proposal to demolish it for the proposed eastern suburbs railway in the 1960s. In 1971, the lease held by Greater Union expired, and it was no longer used as a cinema. Throughout the 1970s, the Capitol was used for live entertainment, primarily as a concert venue. The historic value of the building was recognised in 1979, when the New South Wales Heritage Council placed an interim conservation order on it.

It was not until the 1990s that works were carried out to restore the Capitol to its original glory, as a lyric theatre. In order to convert the former cinema to a modern live theatre, a larger stage was needed, with additional space for the backstage and a fly tower, which extended over Hay Street.

Controversially, the completed theatre had a new, functional foyer, and the ornate proscenium above the stage was 'squared' so that patrons could see performances better. Conservation works were carried out on the interiors, to reinstate the atmospheric theatre finishes dating from 1928. The Capitol Theatre was officially re-opened in 1996 as a lyric theatre.


Michael Christie, The Sydney Markets 1788–1988, Ultimo NSW, c1988

Lisa Murray, The Capitol Theatre Restoration, Council of the City of Sydney, Sydney, 2003