Sydney Architecture Images- Building Types

Sydney Sandstone

Sydney sandstone is the common name for Sydney Basin Hawkesbury Sandstone, historically known as Yellowblock, is a sedimentary rock named after the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, where this sandstone is particularly common.

Weathered sandstone in situ at Tamarama beach

It forms the bedrock for much of the region of Sydney, Australia. Well known for its durable quality, it is the reason many Aboriginal rock carvings and drawings in the area still exist. As a highly favoured building material, especially preferred during the city's early years—from the late 1790s to the 1890s—its use, particularly in public buildings, gives the city its distinctive appearance.

The stone is notable for its geological characteristics; its relationship to Sydney's vegetation and topography; the history of the quarries that worked it; and the quality of the buildings and sculptures constructed from it. This bedrock gives the city some of its 'personality' by dint of its meteorological, horticultural, aesthetic and historical impact. One author describes Sydney's sandstone as "a kind of base note, an ever-present reminder of its Georgian beginnings and more ancient past."

Sydney University Great Hall Sandstone Crest (one of a series)

The quality of the sandstone known to Sydneysiders as Yellow block became well known early. Called on by the Colonial Architect, for example, to be used in the main buildings of the University of Sydney, the stone was supplied from the Pyrmont quarries where there were at least 22 quarrymen working by 1858. Among them was Charles Saunders, licensee of the hotel 'The Quarryman's Arms' who became Pyrmont's biggest quarrymaster. Pyrmont yellowblock not only had good hardness, texture, and color, it was also suitable for carving and so it could be incorporated into buildings in the form of sculptures and finely carved details. The sculptor, William Priestly Macintosh, for example, carved ten of the explorers' statues for the niches in the Lands Department building in "Pyrmont Freestone".

Argyle Cut

Saunders' quarries, known locally as Paradise, Purgatory. and Hellhole, were so named by the Scottish quarrymen who worked there in the 1850s. The names related to the degree of difficulty in working the stone and its quality. The best stone was 'Paradise', a soft rock that is easy to carve and weathers to a warm, golden straw colour. The Paradise quarry was near present-day Jones and Saunders Streets, Purgatory quarry was off Crown Road in Ultimo, near present-day Pyrmont Bridge Road, and Hellhole was where Jones Street now is, near Fig Street. Before World War I, quarries opened up in other Sydney suburbs, such as Botany, Randwick, Paddington and Waverley.


The men who worked the stone were highly skilled and organised. Their trade union was the first in the world to win the eight-hour working day in 1855. The daily wages for quarrymen and masons in 1868 has been cited as ten shillings, while labourers earned seven to eight shillings per day at that time. Stonecutters were subject to a range of lung diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and a disease known as "stonemasons' phthisis" which was suspected to be a form of tuberculosis. In 1908 questions were asked in the Legislative Assembly in the parliament of New South Wales about how likely the men cutting sandstone in Sydney were to contracting the disease and whether the Government should grant medical aid to them.

QVB using Sydney sandstone in a Neo-Romanesque style

Art Gallery of NSW, formal use of Sydney sandstone in Neoclassical style

The early administrators sent groups of prisoners to an area nearby, named The Rocks, to eke out what ever existence they could from the land and build housing for themselves. These first occupants hewed out sandstone from the outcrops and built simple houses. Convicts were also employed tunnelling through what is called the 'Argyle Cut' in The Rocks. The rock was dumped in the mangrove swamps at the head of the Tank Stream to begin to make Circular Quay. Later development in The Rocks area led to bond stores and warehouses being built on the bay, with better housing and pubs for entertainment. Millions of cubic feet of sandstone was excavated from Sydney's Cockatoo Island to create a dry dock on the island.

St Mary’s Cathedral, formal use of Sydney sandstone in Gothic revival style

In the early days settlers found at hand a convenient substitute for stone in the hardwoods, and in Sydney sandstone was so plentiful and so easily worked that no one thought of going afield to explore for something better, and even today [1915] freestone, as the sandstone is often called, is nearly everywhere employed by architects and builders.

Demand for Pyrmont stone surged in the years following the gold rush when prosperity meant that many public and private buildings were constructed. From the 1870s, various building sites had up to 300 masons working and carving the stone. Historians have reported that during this period, there were more masons working in Sydney that the whole of Europe. It was estimated that by 1928 total production of dressed sandstone from Pyrmont was more than half a million cubic yards (about 460,000 cubic metres) and much was carted away to build other places.