The image above shows an area which most Sydneysiders are familiar with, yet the building it showcases is one which many may not recognise or indeed have heard of. The building which it became, the Capitol Theatre, may well be more familiar.
In 1829, the valley below Brickfield Hill was set aside for cattle and corn markets. Soon enough, the area became known as ‘Haymarket’. The area attracted farmers, who paused their bullock carts and rested before making the trek up Brickfield Hill to the produce markets and by the 1860s it became clear that a fruit and vegetable market in the immediate area would be of benefit. Belmore Markets was built in 1869 on the site of the old cattle market and soon enough the Chinese were also moving into the area, creating businesses including hotels which catered to the Chinese Market Gardeners who sold their produce to the Belmore Markets. Paddy’s Market was soon constructed adjacent to the Belmore Markets and around these buildings grew up not only China Town, but also public houses and places for entertainment. Indeed, on Saturday nights people flocked to Haymarket for cheap shopping, sideshows and street theatre. In 1892 a grand new Belmore Markets building, designed by George McRae, was constructed. The building featured terracotta tiling with designs of fruit and plants – even the Choko vine! The market was badly sited though, with limited access to transport for the produce and it would not be long before new markets were built closer to Darling Harbour itself. The grand building was demolished, but then reconstructed as a taller building, but with the same design (including the terracotta tiles).
Between 1916 and 1927 the building was leased as a Hoppodrome to the Wirth Brothers Circus. In 1927, after the circus departed John Eberson was commissioned to create a new interior for the building in the then popular atmospheric style. From the late 1920s, the building became the Capitol Picture Theatre, operating right through until the end of the 1960s. By this time of course the building was run down and somewhat isolated. The Chinese had moved closer to Darling Harbour and many of the local stores surrounding the building, including Anthony Horderns, had closed. This wasn’t the end for the Belmore Markets/Capitol Theatre building though. After many years of disuse and decline, the building was set to be demolished, but a 1981 Heritage Council Conservation order prevented the demolition of what was actually Australia’s last atmospheric theatre! City Council decided to restore the Capitol Theatre, including its visible interior. The theatre reopened in 1995.