Walking around the streets of Pyrmont, where the Powerhouse Museum is located, you can see glimpses of sandstone both decorative and functional. The material that once formed the distinctive cliffs and gulleys on the peninsula now exists as layers beneath the streets and as decorative elements on some early buildings. Examining the changes in Pyrmont and Ultimo since white settlement while researching the exhibition Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole, my view of this local landscape has shifted.
One of the major industries on the peninsula in the nineteenth century was the sandstone quarries run by the Saunders family in Pyrmont. Starting in 1853 and continuing until the 1930s, quarrying changed the geography of the area.
The Saunders quarries employed over 300 men in the last decades of the 19th century. Work at the quarries is thought to have been done by local people in the trades of quarrymen, blacksmiths, engineers, farriers, wheelwrights and carpenters. The three main Saunders quarry sites, were named Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole by the Scottish workers. These grindstones appear to be from the Paradise quarry.
Hellhole was located north-east of Wentworth Park on Wattle Street. It was a deep hole some six metres below street level which filled to the brim with every heavy downpour. Purgatory was adjacent and further north, producing a very hard stone with a grey streak which could crack. Paradise or Half Way was less than a kilometre north of Hellhole and produced the best stone, yellow block.
Many of the beautiful sandstone buildings like Sydney University including Fisher library, St. Mary’s, St. Andrews, The GPO, The Great Synagogue, The Art Gallery of NSW and Sydney Institute are made from the golden stone of Pyrmont.
‘Strangers visiting Sydney are often struck by the magnificence of our public buildings, the richness of their ornamentation and the mellow tone of their colouring. This freestone of Sydney seems to absorb into itself some of the brightness of the sun.’ (Robert Saunders Esquire, Australian men of mark, 1788-1888, Vol 2).
The Department of Commerce now repairs old Sydney sandstone buildings using stone dug from the foundations of early 21st century Pyrmont developments.