Orwell St, Kings Cross, Sydney

The Metro Theatre, originally called the Minerva Cinema, was built in 1937. It is not to be confused with the current Metro Theatre music venue (formerly the Roma Cinema) at 624 George St.

The Metro Theatre is one of the few remaining examples of Art Deco cinema design in Sydney, and it also stands on a truly historic site. The Minerva thrived as a cinema in the 1930s and 1940s -- one local shopowner recalls children being given free lollies and comics there at the Saturday matinees. After television decimated the cinema industry, it was turned to use as a dance and concert venue during the late 1950s and 1960s. But its main claim to fame, from our perspective, was as the venue for the original Australian production of the rock musical Hair.

The production premiered on 4 June 1969. The Australian version of the controversial "tribal love rock musical" was produced by Harry M. Miller, and directed and designed by Jim Sharman. The cast included former Cam-Pact member Keith Glass, actors Reg Livermore and John Waters, and several black American singers specially imported for the show, including the late Chuck McKinney (later the lead singer of the Hot City Bump Band and, from 1970, Marcia Hines. The musical backing was provided by an augmented lineup of Tully (later replaced by Luke's Walnut) with special lighting effects by UBU and a specially-made 35mm film created by UBU's Albie Thoms.

The production ran in Sydney until 1971, and despite early fears that it might be censored or closed down, it was a huge popular success and earned its investors a return of more than 600% on their original stake. During 1971 the production moved to Melbourne, when it was completely redesigned by Brian Thomson. After the Melbourne season it toured other cities until 1973.

The theatre is currently occupied by Kennedy-Miller Productions.

Notes on the history of the site

The street in which the Metro Theatre is located, Orwell St, takes it name from Orwell House, a beautiful colonial mansion that had stood there for more than a century. At the time Orwell House was built, the whole area was known as Darlinghurst, probably after Eliza Darling, wife of the then Governor, Ralph Darling (1821-34).

In 1828 Darling ordered that the land along the ridge of the Wooloomooloo Peninsula (now Kings Cross and Potts Point) be divided into large estates, governed by strict "villa conditions" which required the contruction of large houses and the establishment of extensive grounds.

The lots were then granted to various leading members of the community in 1828 and 1831. Over time, seventeen magnificent properties -- grand colonial mansions set in huge gardens of up to ten acres -- were built along the ridge on either side of what is now Darlinghurst Road / Macleay Street, stretching from the William Street area all the way down to the end of the point. Although later joined to the mainland by the construction of the Garden Island naval dockyard, the point and the island were at originally separated by a narrow channel, as the name suggests.

All the villas were set in lavish gardens and the grounds were stocked with exotic plants collected from all over the world. The leafy character of many parts of Kings Cross and Potts Point owes much to the gardens established in that period.

Even today, standing on the crest of the ridge, the attraction of the site is obvious -- it commands sweeping views across Sydney, from the Blue Mountains to Sydney Heads. Its location was also close enough for fast, easy travel into town but far enough from the noisy, smelly and increasingly crowded city centre, so it soon became the most fashionable area in the colony. Although most of the mansions are now long gone, the evocative names of these magnificent estates -- Roslyn, Springfield, Brougham, Kellett, Orwell -- survive in street and building names throughout the area.

Orwell House was built by John Stephens, who later became the first Solicitor-General of NSW. The land where it stood was the first granted in the area and the house was the first villa built on the ridge, begun around 1829. After Stephens' death it passed through a succession of private owners until its regrettable demolition in 1937.

As with so much of Sydney's colonial and Victorian architectural heritage, only tattered scraps of this once beautiful and exclusive precinct remain. Needless to say the huge size of the properties and the desirability of their location made them valuable prizes, and all the original estates were gradually carved up. For the biggest and grandest, Elizabeth Bay House, this happened within only a few decades as the owners, the Macleay family, ran into financial hardship.

Undoubtedly built by convict labour, all the villas were of immense socio-historical importance. Some were designed by famed colonial architect John Verge and all were prime examples of the colonial style. Yet in spite of their unquestionable significance, tragically few have survived. Some were torn down in the later 1800s, but several survived into 1920s and '30s and even beyond:

  • Goderich Lodge, located where the Hampton Court Hotel now stands, was demolished in 1915
  • Rose Hall was still standing in 1919 but has since been demolished. The Horizon Apartments, one of the egregiously ugly Modernist high-rise edifices designed by Harry Seidler, currently deface the Sydney skyline from the exact site where this charming villa once stood
  • Rosebank was lost sometime in the 1920s,
  • Craigend was demolished in 1922; both it and Rosebank were replaced by mundane blocks of apartments
  • Springfield, now the site of the "New Village Centre", was torn down in 1934
  • the magnificent Grantham was, like Orwell House, a huge mansion built in the same Gothic Revival style as Government House; both it and the beautiful Roslyn Hall, reputed to be the most spendid house in the area the hill, both survived until 1937
  • Tarmons, one of the houses attributed to John Verge, was demolished only in 1966.

Of the original seventeen villas, only five remain:

  • Tusculum was, incredibly, saved from demolition as recently as 1983. It has been restored and is now the headquarters of the NSW Chapter of Royal Australian Institute of Architects
  • Telford Lodge, although greatly modified and now housing various business offices, still survives in Brougham Street
  • Barham Lodge, likewise much modified and now housing staffrooms, classrooms, a laundry and a dining room, still stands in the grounds of the SCEGGS Darlinghurst private school, just off Forbes Street
  • Rockwall, another Verge building, stands next to the site of the old Chevron Hotel in Potts Point. As a trade-off for restoring Rockwall and some of its surrounding land, the Mirvac Group were allowed to demolish the Chevron in 1995 and erect another notable Potts Point eyesore. Standing in stark contrast to its colonial neighbbour, the ironically-named, huge and utterly charmless Landmark building, originally built as a Travelodge Hotel, has been converted to private apartments
  • the magnificent Elizabeth Bay House narrowly escaped demolition in the mid-1960s. Restored by South Sydney Council in the 1970s, it was taken over by the NSW government in 1980 and was first house to come under the control of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW.


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