If you go into the centre of Sydney today, you’ll find the palatial Strand Arcade linking George and Pitt streets. It is Sydney’s only surviving Victorian shopping arcade dating from the late 19th century.

Royal Arcade, photographed by Brian Bird in 1949 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. a3267004)
Royal Arcade, photographed by Brian Bird in 1949 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. a3267004)

It was once one of six covered shopping arcades built in the city centre between 1881 and 1892, concentrated in the area between George, Castlereagh, King and Park streets.

The lost arcades of Sydney were the Royal Arcade (between George and Pitt streets), the Victoria Arcade (linking Castlereagh and Elizabeth streets), the Sydney Arcade (between George and King streets) and the Piccadilly and Imperial Arcades (linking Pitt and Castlereagh streets but around a block apart). Some of those names may sound familiar but what we see today is not a patch on what went before!

Strand Arcade 1970s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17476)
Strand Arcade 1970s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17476)

Sydney’s 19th century shopping arcades were based on the European arcade architecture of the early 1800s. Shopping arcades were a transition from street level shopping to the department store experience of the 20th century. Arcades were effectively covered streets aimed at high end consumers, which provided customers with a place to promenade, and the opportunity to shop at individual shops concentrated in one place.

Imperial arcade under construction 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/4742)
Imperial arcade under construction 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/4742)

But as shopping trends changed in the 20th century, with a move to the large department stores in the 1920s and 30s, and as sandstone Sydney was sacrificed to glass and steel, five of the six Victorian shopping arcades were demolished. Only the Strand Arcade remains, although there’s a glimpse of the Sydney Arcade’s facade on King Street. The Piccadilly and Imperial Arcades live on in name only.

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