Discovering the Small Historic Hotels of Sydney

Times Design Critic

With its cast-iron lacework balconies, classical moldings and gracefully arched front door, and sporting a bright yellow coat of paint, the Jackson looked very much like the other terraced houses lining the historic end of Victoria Street in the Potts Point section of this city.

And that is the way I liked it.

Some persons prefer the known quality and reliability of the Hiltons, Hyatts, Sheratons and other such international hotel chains.

I tend to search out accommodations that somehow reflect the settings, life styles, pride and sense of history of the places I visit. They almost always are more flavorful and considerably less expensive, as was the Jackson.


Classified by the Australian National Trust as an architectural landmark, the Victorian-styled Jackson, containing 17 rooms, describes itself as a small hotel.

It offers individually decorated rooms, and in the morning a continental breakfast graciously served in a glass-roofed, plant-adorned conservatory in a rear garden along with newspapers, pleasant conversation and sightseeing advice. The Jackson to me was more like a welcoming Northern California bed-and-breakfast inn.

California Stint

It was therefore not surprising to learn that the owners, Barbara and Peter Farris, who had carefully restored the three-story, circa-1880s structure, had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they worked in real estate.

“We developed there an appreciation for older houses with character, and in particular in the wine country, how they had been successfully converted for tourists,” Peter said. “And that is what we decided to do when we returned here a few years ago.”

Because the ornate ironwork railings reminded the Farrises of houses they had seen in the French Quarter of New Orleans, they named their building after Jackson Square there.

Picking up on the theme, select rooms with French doors leading to private verandas were decorated in light, bright colors, lace curtains and white wicker furniture described as a New Orleans style.

The Farrises chose the Jackson not only for its architecture but for its location. The landmark is just a mile or so from downtown, easily reached by an efficient interurban subway, a pleasant bus ride or an engaging walk.

I preferred walking. One day it was around Woolloomooloo Bay, past the Art Galley of New South Wales and through the Royal Botanic Gardens to Circular Quay, Sydney Cove and the Sydney Opera House.

Another day through King’s Cross, down Williams Street, past the Australian Museum, through Hyde Park to the commercial center of the city and town hall. The walk could take 30 minutes or a day, depending on your inclinations.

Also a diverting 30 minute or so walk from the Jackson but in the other direction from downtown, is Paddington, a trendy neighborhood of, among other things, friendly pubs, restaurants, art galleries and fashionable shops not unlike a rambling, more relaxed Melrose Avenue or Greenwich Village.

The Jackson offers a view of Sydney Harbor from the upper floor, a park down the street, a variety of restaurants and tourist shops in the mildly tawdry King’s Cross area up the street, and other architecturally significant houses scattered throughout the neighborhood.

These include the colonial-styled Elizabeth Bay House on Onslow Avenue, and Tusculum, a Regency Villa, at 3 Manning St. (Both are open to the public; the times, telephone numbers and other details are listed in most guides to Sydney, including a free one available at the airport.)

I found the Jackson, after the long flight from Los Angeles, a marvelous place to catch my breath and slowly get to know Sydney.

Also making it attractive was the cost, which is from $65 to $110 Australian a night (about $52 to $90 U.S.). That generally is about half of what a first-class hotel costs downtown, without breakfast. Reservations can be made by writing to the Jackson, 94 Victoria St., Potts Point, Sydney, Australia 2011.

The success of the Jackson prompted the Farrises to restore another architectural gem in Potts Point, this one a three-story house at 8 Challis Ave., which also had been classified by the National Trust. It was designed and built in 1892 in the rare Arts and Crafts style, marked by exquisite woodworking and stained-glass windows.

Its restoration completed just this year, Simpsons--named after the architect involved in the project--offers the same amenities as the Jackson, including breakfast in a conservatory.

I found the rooms a little larger and the bathrooms more luxurious; one has a spa. Accordingly, it was a little more pricey, from $140 to $160 Australian a night ($110 to $130 U.S.).

Reservations can be made through the Jackson or by writing to Simpsons, 8 Challis Ave., Potts Point, Sydney, Australia 2011.

Later I was directed by architect friends who knew of my penchant for landmarks to The Russell, about a block away.

Built in 1887 in a modified French chateau style complete with a conical tower, the Russell is a delightful collection of dated rooms, suites and an apartment on the edge of Sydney’s once notorious but now gentrified historic Rocks district.

With a Japanese bookshop on the ground floor and a tearoom in the rear, the Russell is a small hotel very much in a relaxed European tradition, offering friendly, attentive service.

The slight inconvenience of sharing a bathroom was for me more than compensated for by a large room in the tower with a view of Sydney Harbor, a continental breakfast served in the tearoom, the convenient location and a rate of $110 Australian ($90 U.S.).

Rates vary; rooms with private bathrooms are slightly higher. Write to the Russell, 143A George St., Circular Quay, Sydney, Australia 2000.

Combining both historic interest and luxury in Melbourne was the august Windsor, a magnificent twin-towered, eclectic, Victorian-styled structure built in 1883 across the street from the state Parliament House. It has also been designated a national trust.

The interior, with its richly tiled and carpeted corridors, elaborately painted walls and designed friezes and high, graceful ceilings, is all very much in the grand hotel tradition.

Also in that tradition are the of rates, from $165 Australian and up . . . and up. The Windsor, 103 Spring St., is an Oberoi hotel. Even if you aren’t a guest, the hotel is worth a visit, both for its architecture and its afternoon Devonshire tea.