cbd7-004-01.jpg (70527 bytes) Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

Capitol Theatre


New Belmore Markets 1892-3 George McRae
Hippodrome Theatre 1913-16 R.H.Brodrick 
Capitol Theatre Henry Eli White 1927-8
Lyric Theatre Peddle Thorp and Walker 1989-95


Corner Hay, Campbell and Pitt Streets




Inter-War Free Classical


brick and terracotta


This building was designed by George McRae and built in 1892-93 as a fruit and vegetable market next door to older ones that had been on the site since the 1860s. Originally a single story building, it was rebuilt with an extra floor in the early twentieth century, and used as a circus venue, a cinema and a theatre. If you look up you will see that the terracotta pediment is decorated with fruits and surprisingly, choko vines. The humble choko has all but disappeared from our vegetable menu. By the 1980s the building had become very rundown. It was restored by Ipoh Garden for the City Council in the early 1990s. The exuberant 1920s interior, imported from the United States, is intended to evoke a romantic courtyard with a ceiling lit to imitate a star studded night sky.
  The new retail extension.
  Above- the former Belmore Markets on the site.
  Above- Belmore Markets when first built in 1892. Note the original brick and terracotta arches. These would be later dismantled and lifted to form the new facade.
  Above- the new Capitol Theatre in the mid twenties.
The Capitol Theatre seen today is the result of a major redevelopment after a chequered history of rebuilding and additions to the New Belmore Market building erected by Sydney City Council. Completed in 1893, it soon fell out of use, and, after languishing for years, was converted into a circus called The Hippodrome in 1913.

Unfortunately, The Hippodrome was a commercial failure, and the operators soon approached Sydney Council to convert the use from a circus into an "atmospheric" theatre intended for silent movies and live performances. Henry E White, an experienced theatre designer in Sydney, toured the USA inspecting John Eberson’s atmospheric theatres to get ideas. Eberson provided White with a design along similar lines to his Riviera Theatre in Omaha, Nebraska. The interior was meant to create the illusion of sitting in a romantic courtyard under a brilliant night sky, with patrons dazzled by special climatic and lighting effects.

In total, five atmospheric theatres were created in Australia before the Depression, and the takeover by sound cinema. The theatre was restored and extended jointly between the owners Sydney City Council and the developer Ipoh Garden for major musical productions. The adjoining site, including former Watkins Terrace and a new glass vault, was redeveloped by Augustine Chan as a hotel and retail complex.

Information appearing in this section is reproduced from Sydney Architecture, with the kind permission of the author, Graham Jahn, Sydney architect and former City of Sydney Councillor.

The renovation of The Capitol Theatre was a labour of love by many dedicated and skilled people including architects, builders and subcontractors. This section provides a brief insight into what was involved in the renovation. 
• The Master Builders Association of NSW awarded its Restoration / Renovation and Outstanding Workmanship Awards to Fletcher Construction for their work on The Capitol Theatre. 

• Fletcher Construction worked closely with architects Peddle Thorp, the Heritage Council and Sydney City Council to ensure a balance was achieved between retaining the heritage significance of the 1927 atmospheric lyric theatre interior and satisfying the sophisticated requirements of modern theatrical productions.

• The penetration of external noise into the theatre is controlled by the construction of a new roof mounted on the existing roof. This was built early in the works period to allow the time-consuming task of restoring and reconstructing the plaster statues to begin as soon as possible.

• Other work in the auditorium included the demolition and reconstruction of the stalls floor, construction of balcony boxes, ceiling hatches and roof, re-configuration of the proscenium arch and the painting of the ceiling in a rich deep blue to create the desired effect of a Mediterranean night sky.

• The circular boxes (balcony stalls) on each side of the dress circle were added to the original 1928 design.

Andrew Andersons Talks - Architect, Director of Peddle Thorp Architects and overall supervisor of the restoration project.

“We took in two bays of the Manning Building next door to fit in the new foyer and the working spaces – rehearsal rooms etc. But it was still pretty tight getting the detail planning right for the very specific interrelationships that are necessary behind the scenes in a theatre”

“Though the decorations in the new lobby are quite different from the old, certain devices remain the same. The carpet flows through both, and there’s theatrical new bracket lighting, which is the same kind of device as the period brackets in the old part, but completely different in style and effect. The new ceiling is cobalt blue, but overlaid with a stainless steel mesh, as opposed to having those little twinkling stars, and the walls use the same rich earth colours: terracottas, ochres etc’

“The old part of the building is rich in decorative works, sculptural embellishments, and it seemed very desirable that the new area should have a memorable example of today’s art. Laurens Tan’s marvellous sculpture titled ‘Octogene’ has certain linkages with 1928. The enormous baroque frame is the sort of thing you might well have seen in a grand old cinema, but it’s entirely contemporary in execution, being out of galvanised steel sheeting. State of the art technology is used in the video art which is a principle component.”
Construction of the first Belmore Markets begins on a site bounded by Castlereagh, Hay, Pitt and Campbell. They open 14th May 1869.
Second Belmore Markets (Capitol site) open. Used for theatrical and circus performances on Saturday nights.
Council decides that the Tivoli and the Capitol (two theatres) would be erected on the sites of the old and new Belmore Markets.
Wirth Bros take a 10 week lease on the new Belmore Theatre for a ‘circus and hippodrome’. The council claimed the auditorium could be used as hippodrome, circus, theatre, opera house, concert hall, vaudeville entertainment hall or for photo plays (early silent motion pictures).
1914 1915
Belmore Markets dismantled and re-erected as the Hippodrome – home of Wirth’s Circus in Australia. The detail of the market walls were erected 10 metres higher.
On April 3, Wirth’s Circus and Hippodrome opens – the largest
theatre in Australia.

The 13-metre ring in front of the proscenium arch had a hydraulically operated floor which dropped to fill with water for aquatic events.

Beneath the stage were animal pits. Part of the Hippodrome show was an exhibition of numerous caged animals. At other times, the Hippodrome was used for dramatic stage shows, variety concerts, vaudeville and, in fact, anything that attracted a large audience.

The Hippodrome failed financially that same year.
Wirth’s in negotiation with Stuart Doyle, MD of Union Theatres plan to remodel the building as The Capitol Picture Palace.
(June) Union Theatres acquires the lease from Wirth's and the
construction of The Capitol begins within the walls of the Hippodrome, Managing Director of Union Theatres, Stuart Doyle, has plans for a chain of ‘atmospherics’ around Australia to be known as ‘Million Dollar Theatres’.
The Capitol opens with a 2,999 seat auditorium. It featured an
‘open air’ Florentine garden surrounded by walls and balustrades, statues, tress, doves, shawls and period furniture – all beneath a ‘blue sky’ which darkened as session time approached.

When all was dark, stars began to twinkle in the ‘night sky’ as fake clouds drifted overhead. Included in the décor was a massive pergola across the entire rear of the dress circle, from which clung vines and ferns.

Statues throughout were replicas of famous European works of art. The courtyard at the entrance to the back stalls was an exact replica of the courtyard of the Pitti Palace in Florence.

More than 23,000 people attended in the first two days.

Open Program:
Overture, featuring CAPITOL ORCHESTRA plus WURLITZER
study; TODDLERS, a Paramount novelty featurette; On Stage, TED HENKEL & HIS BAND.

Intermission, FRED SCHOLL at the mighty WURLITZER, OPERATIC INTERVAL interlude from Mignon.

Main Feature: “HIS LADY” starring John Barrymore & Dolores
Costello, musical score by Ted Henkel.

(April 20th) The first ‘talkie’ film is screened – ‘Beware of Bachelors’  
The theatre runs into financial difficulties and films are scarce.
Also, the central shopping district moves to the other end of town, and the Depression hits hard forcing The Capitol to close on November 24th.
(April) Capitol reopens, with 2 Australian productions from Efftee Studios. No orchestra – only the Wurlitzer played by Billy Dick. The orchestra pit is filled with pot plants and a fountain.
By the early to mid 30s through to WW2 the Theatre had gained a reputation for lesser quality films (horror and westerns). Special guests appear from the Tivoli. There is an upturn in box office receipts, but a downturn in theatre maintenance - Lighting effects were not repaired, cloud machines stood motionless, the famous blue lighting around the wall started to fade away. The Theatre was in a sad state of disrepair.
The Capitol closes for ‘makeshift’ repairs. Workman remove
unwanted decorations such as banners, tapestries, artificial foliage and those lighting effects which weren’t working simply had their wiring cut.

In March The Capitol re-opens as a first release house using
Dianna Durban as a drawcard.
Late 1940s
From the late 40s through to the early 50s it was obvious that the first release policy was a failure. Electricity bans force more lights off.

The famous organ is closed down in October 1947. The theatre
begins to experiment with Jazz Concerts and Beach Girl contests.

The theatre is threatened with demolition to allow construction of the Eastern Suburbs Railway.
Greater Union attempts to resurrect theatre for first release films.  

(August) Australian Opera moves to The Capitol with ‘Othello’ for
3-months after Her Majesty’s theatre is destroyed by fire.

A new aspect emerges about The Capitol – it has perfect acoustics and sightlines providing the audience with an amazing new visual and sound experience. The ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ and ‘Australian’ newspapers praise the acoustics.

(September) Lord Mayor requested meeting with G.U., J.C.W., Aust. Eliz. Theatre Trust, Empire Talkies & NCT Productions to discuss future of theatre. Greater Union was granted a lease for 3 years from 02/012/70 on understanding that they spend not less than $150,000 on repairs and renovations.

(21st December) Harry M. Miller takes over lease for ‘Jesus Christ
. Paid $2,000 per week. Re-equipped stage and generally tidied up inside, installing drink bars in rear of back stalls where seats were removed. Housed orchestra in several ‘bunkers’ under stage connected by TV monitors. The external of the Theatre was painted ‘Superstar’ brown.
(February) The massive 3/15 Wurlitzer plays its last tune.
It’s dismantled and is eventually re-erected at Orion Theatre, Campsie in 1988.
(29th February) Greater Union vacates Capitol after over 40 years of lease. Harry M. Miller takes over lease for ‘J.C. Superstar’
A 2 year success for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ makes it the most
successful stage presentation in Sydney’s history – but then the
theatre again goes dark and falls into disrepair.
Mid 1970s
Hoyts lease theatre for sexploitation films.  
The Capitol Theatre is classified by the National Trust.  
(4th May) ‘Telegraph’ Sydney City Council advertises for tenders for The Capitol.

(September) Bill Shopov takes 2 year lease for $2,000 per year plus $30,000 rates to use the theatre for rock venue.

Various rock concerts and rock videos.
Sydney City Council attempts to interest developers in the site and at one time proposed the construction of a modern lyric theatre to replace the crumbling Capitol. Ian Hanson and members of A.T.H.S. approach council for inspection of theatre.

Mike Walsh from SUN backs Capitol renovations.
Sydney Morning Herald – letter from Noel Ferrier says pull Capitol down.
Used as film set for ‘Les Patterson Saves the World’, ‘Those Dear Departed’ and ‘Nellie Melba’, plus various commercials and rock clips.

The theatre begins to slowly decay, speeded up in 1988 by leaking box gutters which have caused damage to side walls and sections of plaster.
Placed on National Estate by Heritage Commission.  
New State Government and new Council Administration makes firm commitment to restoring The Capitol and returning it to live theatre.
(January) Sydney City Council calls for tenders to redevelop The Capitol area, conditional to restoring theatre.
(24th January) The Capitol Theatre reopens to widespread acclaim for its magnificent restoration and facilities, continuing more than 100 years of entertainment tradition on the site.

Some guests, who had attended the original opening night in 1928, said it looked even better in 1995.

The restoration and extensions into a lyric theatre, including new galleries and back stage facilities cost $35 million.

Special thanks to www.capitoltheatre.com 



The Capitol Theatre, Sydney, was Australia's first example of what had become known in America as the "atmospheric" style of auditorium, intended to make patrons feel as if they were out of doors, with grottos, statuary and a sky-like ceiling where stars twinkled and clouds moved slowly across. This style of theatre had been popularised in America by the architect John Eberson, and contrasted strongly with the traditional "hard top" school. Atmospheric theatres were considerably less costly to build than their traditional counterparts, and it was at the Paradise Theatre, Faribault, Minnesota, that the oft-quoted instruction to electricians was posted: "Please do not turn on the clouds until the show starts. Be sure stars are turned off when leaving", words, which, as the late Ben Hall observed, might well have come from the Book of Genesis. [Ben Hall, The Best Remaining Seats, Bramhall House, New York, 1961]


      "Imagine yourself seated in a beautiful, old world, Florentine garden. Above, the blue Mediterranean sky. Stars twinkle. Clouds float by as if in silent admiration of the beauty encased in those creeper-covered walls below.

      "Rare statuary half-hidden in the twilight, adorns the alcoves and niches. Copies of famed pieces from the Vatican, the Louvre, the Museum of Santa Maria del Fiore, tell a story of elegance.

      "Magnificent objects of art in beaten silver and gold and rich tapestries find a place in the gorgeous decorative scheme. White pigeons flutter to a resting place with love birds in the foliage of the cypress trees. Peacocks proudly display their brilliant plumage to the idler...

      "Staggering in its immensity, enthralling in its magnificence, as you enter the mighty portals of this treasure house you will be amazed at the glory of the panorama that unfolds itself before you. Never before such supreme comfort, such splendour, such startling reality in construction, decoration and musical and motion picture entertainment." [Capitol Theatre, Sydney, pre-opening advertisement, 1928]

Fred Scholl introduced at the Capitol another novelty feature to Australian audiences:

      "The third [unit was] three organ numbers by Frederick Scholl, the most popular of which was 'Ain't It a Grand and Glorious Feelin'?' illustrated by comedy slides. Certainly - words and everything. The house took to the idea; and one of these days Scholl is going to work a miracle with an Australian audience. Under the gentle persuasion of his organ they're going to join in and sing as cheerfully as they do in the best Broadway houses when these novelties appear." [Everyone's, 8 August, 1928]

Special thanks to http://theatreorgans.com 

Riches, trade and sense defied White Australia

Troy Lennon The Daily Telegraph January 28, 2011

Old Belmore (Paddy's) Markets. Opened in 1869 and named the Belmore Markets after the then Governor of the colony. Chinese gardeners brought cartloads of vegetables to this market daily. The buildings were demolished in 1910. DATE c 1909. Picture: Courtesy City of Sydney Archives Source: The Daily Telegraph

THE year of the rabbit is nearly upon us and Sydney begins its Chinese New Year celebrations tonight, with a launch at Belmore Park, near Central station.

Despite some periods of anti-Chinese feeling, Sydney has mostly embraced its residents of that origin. Among them was the merchant Way Kee. Born in Canton (Guangzhou) in 1824, the son of a merchant, he came to Australia about 1853. Working at first for other merchants, he soon made a name for himself in the Chinese community -- appointed in 1857 as treasurer of the Koon Yee Tong, an organisation that returned the remains of dead people to their homeland. By 1871 he had established his own business in The Rocks and in 1876 he leased a stretch of Lower George St, demolishing the buildings and erecting three new shops and residences including his Sydney home.

Two of the shops were rented out and sometimes housed gambling operations, but at a royal commision into gambling Way Kee denied knowing anything about the practice. Having only a smattering of English, he said, through an interpreter, that "I never go out. I always sit inside my shop." He explained that the Koon Yee Tong was not a front for vice. Way Kee had often campaigned against the vices of lower-class Chinese in Sydney, particularly gambling and opium smoking.

From his shop he controlled an importing empire that included several regional shops in NSW and Queensland, a market garden in Lane Cove and business interests overseas. When he died of a heart attack in 1892, 3000 people attended his funeral. Starting with a Christian service, it then became a funeral procession, with brass bands and waving banners, that wound through Sydney for two hours. The procession ended at Smith's Wharf where an elaborate ceremony was conducted as Way Kee's remains were put aboard the Tsinan, bound for more funereal ceremonies in China.

The ceremony was organised by Quong Tart, who ran a luxurious city tea room.

By then another Canton-born man was founding his empire. Kwok (or George) Bew was born in China in 1868, the son of a farmer. After his father died he left for Sydney in 1883.

His English must have been good because he was a door-to-door salesman in Grafton before becoming a produce merchant in Sydney. He founded Wing Sang & Co, a fruit shop that sold produce grown by Chinese farmers in northern NSW, traded through the old Belmore Markets in what is today Belmore Park -- a centre for modern Chinese New Year Ceremonies. Wing Sang & Co grew to be a major player in the wholesale banana market.

Converting to Christianity, in 1896 Bew married Darling Young, daughter of a Chinese-born merchant based in Bourke. With merchants including Mark Joe, Ma Ying Piu and Choy Hing, Bew established Wing On & Co, which had operations in China and around the Pacific. In 1904 Bew became vice-president of the Chinese Merchants Defence Association, which fought the "White Australia" policy and sentiment.

He also became an avid supporter of Chinese republican revolutionary Sun Yat Sen, becoming president of the Sydney branch of the Chinese Nationalist League (Kuomintang) in 1916. In 1917 Sun invited him to return to China. In 1918 he opened Shanghai's Wing On shopping emporium, which would grow to become China's largest department store. It stood across the road from the Sincere Department Store, established by another Chinese-Australian merchant, Ma Ying-piew. Bew and Ma Ying-piew brought to China what they learned from emporia such as Anthony Hordern & Sons.

While expanding into other areas of business, Bew was also noted for his charitable and philanthropic work and in the 1920s he was appointed the director of the Central Mint of China. He died in 1932, survived by his wife and eight of his 10 children.
Construction of first Belmore Markets begins on the current site of the Capitol Theatre as Sydney’s first permanent fruit and vegetable market.
Belmore Markets Open

Second larger and redeveloped Belmore Markets open and the venue is first used on Saturday nights for theatrical and circus performances.

Wirth Bros sign a 10-week lease on the new Belmore Market site for its circus and hippodrome.
Belmore Markets dismantled and re-erected as the Hippodrome. All of the features of the original market are retained in the outer shell of the theatre today.
Wirth’s Circus and Hippodrome opens – the largest theatre in Australia.

Union Theatres acquires the lease from Wirth's and construction of the Capitol Theatre begins within the walls of the Hippodrome & Market.
The Capitol Theatre opens with a 2,999 seat ‘open air’ Florentine garden auditorium. Over 23,000 people attend in the first two days.
The first ‘talkie’ film is screened – ‘Beware of Bachelors’


Theatre shows mainly Westerns and horror films.
Depression hits and films are scarce – theatre closes down at the end of the year
The Capitol Theatre closes for ‘makeshift’ repairs - many decorative elements removed.
Organ closed down. Theatre features Jazz concerts and beach girl contests. Demolition threat from early plans for Eastern Suburbs rail line.

Greater Union attempts to resurrect theatre for first release films.

Greater Union granted a three-year lease with $150,000 to be spent on repairs.
Wurlitzer Organ is dismantled and eventually re-erected at Orion Theatre, Campsie. Harry M. Miller rents the theatre for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ closes after successful two year run. Theatre falls into disrepair.

Theatre rented to promoters for rock concerts and music videos.
Council considers proposal to replace theatre with modern lyric theatre.
Used as film set for ‘Les Patterson Saves the World’, ‘Those Dear Departed’ and ‘Nellie Melba’ as well as commercials and music clips.

Heritage Commission places Capitol Theatre on the National Estates.
Sydney City Council calls for tenders to redevelop the Capitol Square region, conditional upon the restoration of the theatre.

The Capitol Theatre reopens to widespread acclaim for its magnificent restoration and facilities, continuing more than 100 years of entertainment tradition on the site.