Katoomba’s Art Deco Splendour
One of the most romantic places in Australia, Katoomba lies in the heart of the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains, just 90 minutes west of Sydney. A century ago, the increasing popularity of the automobile (by 1927 one in every four Australian families owned a car) made it even easier for Sydneysiders to spend a grand weekend away enjoying the spoils of Katoomba, then known as the ‘Playground of the Commonwealth’. Here’s where to capture the essence of the Art Deco era during your visit to this pretty town, which today is just as well known for its excellent bushwalking.
This ‘Grand Old Lady’ of the Blue Mountains opened in 1883 as The Great Western, and today The Carrington is the only 19th-century grand resort hotel still in use in New South Wales. In 1992, building contractor Geoffrey Leach began the long process of restoration. Vast Victorian oil paintings went off for cleaning, Ming vases were dusted off, chandeliers were cleaned and re-hung, silver was polished, clocks were returned to working order, and pieces of furniture were copied for the guest rooms (the bedheads even have the CH — Carrington Hotel — logo). It’s at The Carrington that the annual Great Art Deco Weekend takes place every February, when Deco fans flock here in all their finery for a weekend of 1920s music, dance, fashion and design.
Bethany Gospel Hall
Wander down Waratah Street and behold the brickwork of the Bethany Gospel Hall, built by the Christian Brethren in 1953 as a testimony to their faith. A fine example of post-war ecclesiastical design, the building’s steeped and herringbone brickwork was completed by parishioners Frank Bailey and Frank Price.
The Paragon building on Katoomba Street was once a renowned cocktail lounge with a sprung floor for dancing. In 1925, owner Zac Simos engaged the office of Henry White, architect of Sydney’s State Theatre, to reconstruct the building in Art Deco style. A banquet hall was added, followed by the ‘blue room’ done out in ocean liner-style. Sculptor Otto Sheen produced the alabaster friezes depicting Greek mythology figures for the front dining area. While it’s currently under renovation, the building’s beautiful leadlight shopfront can still be admired from the street.
Traipse down Katoomba Street and you’ll spy many other fine examples of glazed shopfronts from the 1920s. The Café Niagara building, around the corner on Bathurst Road, is a particularly fine example of an inter-war functionalist building. Think bay windows with metal framing and varnished timber entry doors with chrome-plated chevron door pulls. The name of the former ‘refreshment room’ was incorporated into the design, with its parapet sign in neon lights set into a panel of glass bricks. Today, the building houses a bar called The Bootlegger.
Originally opened in 1911 as the Kings Theatre, this Katoomba Street building went on to house a dancing venue and a roller skating rink before architects Crick and Furse were called in to transform the old theatre for the talkies (as movies with sound were called at the time). At the gala opening of The Savoy Theatre on 18 December 1936, Swing Time starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was shown. The upstairs area is now the atmospheric Avalon restaurant, which serves hearty comfort food. In 2020, the building’s entrance foyer was transformed into the Downstairs lounge bar.
Katoomba’s antique emporiums are treasure troves of paraphernalia from the town’s Art Deco era. At Macarthur’s Arcade on Katoomba Street, where the Macarthur family once ran one of Australia’s earliest radio and televisions stores, you can browse antique dealers’ wares while admiring the building’s original tiling and wrought iron work. Don’t miss Mr Pickwicks Fine Old Books downstairs.
Also on Katoomba Street, the Palais Royale is another grand Katoomba hotel with Art Deco flair. Formerly two separate cottages, the property underwent a major renovation in the 1930s courtesy of then-owner, one Mrs Marsh. The thousand pounds she reportedly won in a public lottery enabled the Marshes to add a second storey and create the building’s grand ballroom — a magnificent mirrored space reminiscent of the Palace of Versailles. Later converted into a bible college, the building received a multi-million dollar facelift in the late 1990s and reopened as an elegant hotel once again.
The former owners of The Paragon, the Simos family, had this Streamline Moderne-style home built in the early 1940s. It was designed by G.N. Kenworthy, who was renowned for his Art Deco buildings throughout Sydney, including the Cremorne Orpheum (which still operates as a movie theatre). This curved beauty at 12 Cliff Drive, near the Echo Point Lookout, includes a garden summer house and a Corinthian-columned pergola.
Everglades House & Gardens
Strolling through the gracefully designed Everglades House & Gardens, in Leura, directly east of Katoomba, is a must, but be sure to stop into the tearooms as well. This Moderne-style 1930s building was once the home of one Henri Van de Velde, importer/exporter who was also a fitness fanatic, which is evident in the 1930s-style steam chamber still intact in the orange-tiled bathroom. Upstairs there’s another bathroom with a giant spa. Across the garden there’s a squash court, built in the style made famous by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, which is now a gallery.
The design of the Leura country mansion now known as Leuralla Toy & Railway Museum was influenced by US architect Frank Lloyd Wright, with all construction carried out by hand. The timber work alone, including the wood panelling, sideboards, cabinets and even the dining room table and tulip motif chairs, took two years to complete. Inside is the collection of collector and barrister Clive Andreas Evatt, who passed away in 2018, and his wife Elizabeth. They launched the toy and railway museum in 1983 at the home of Clive’s grandfather Harry Andreas. This significant 20th-century toy collection comes from toys played with by the children and grandchildren of Andreas, some made by his skilled hand. Other toys were brought by Clive’s uncle Herbert Vere ‘Doc’ Evatt, the ALP leader and one-time president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, on his travels.