• Before and after floor plans of the boarding house and US Information Service offices.

46 Margaret Street, Sydney, 1952–53

Snelling replaced an old sandstone building, built progressively from around 1870 to 1925, with a modern, four-storey office building, including premises for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company and the United States Information Service.

The Sydney city site sloped downwards from east to west, and faced south to Wynyard Park. The earliest building on the site, Lamington Hall, originally was a boarding house and by the 1950s incorporated a Greek café, tobacco shop, hat shop, and a restaurant, The Tulips. Working to a tight time frame in a context of acute post-war shortages of both office space and building materials, Snelling revised the ground floor from several changes of level to one, which was accessed via a generous entrance staircase with a skylit garden at the southeast corner of the building.

An existing light court was converted for a new elevator shaft, with concrete-encased RSJ floor beams extending in four directions from this structural core. The original load-bearing walls were replaced by steel framing. The original façade of stone blocks was removed (to Snelling’s own house site at 9 Coorabbin Road, Northbridge) and replaced by a curtain wall of dark green 16-in square ceramic tiles across the ground floor, with bronze-framed strip windows across the upper floors above pale green porcelain enamel spandrels.

In a hand-typed press release announcing completion of the project, Snelling wrote:

‘I have no doubt that the most economical thing would have been to demolish the building and put up a new one in its place, but that was impossible because of post-war Government restrictions on the allocation of materials for new commercial buildings. We just wouldn’t have got the cement, steel or bricks. So it was decided to do a drastic remodelling job, using parts of the old boarding house and two old buildings at the back, which had apparently been built as stables around an old inn courtyard.’

Snelling’s press release also claimed that the project had “attracted attention in architecture and building circles overseas” and that it was “the most startling remodelling operation in the business heart of the city in the last 20 years”.

After the insurance company moved into the ground and first floors, the upper two floors were gradually furnished for the US Information Service. Its auditorium included one of Sydney’s earliest Scandinavian-style sinuous ceilings, suspended as waves of timber battens. The chairs and curtain were red, and a large graphic panel was fixed to the left of the stage.

The project was strongly praised by the editors of University of Melbourne newsletter, Cross-Section:

This old building in Margaret-st has become one of Sydney's smartest offices, husing the Hartford Insureand Co and US Information Centre, after a thorough, thoughtful and urbane rebuilding job by Mr Douglas Snelling, arch't. Work started in Sept '51, was restricted by controls which have since been lifted. It has a washable face, brilliant interior colouring and profuse footpath planting. Cost: about 150,000 pds (MacDonald Const'ns). Everywhere costs are forcing more people to remodel rather than build but few are as successful as Hartford.

Sources

—Architecture. 1954. ‘Insurance company’s offices, Margaret Street’, April–June, p. 85.

—Architecture and Arts. 1954. ‘New office building from old’, September, p. 39.

Cross-Section. 1953. 'This old building in Margaret-st ...', 1 March, p. 2

—Pemberton, Gary J. 1984. Douglas B. Snelling: A Monograph of His Works (B. Arch dissertation). Sydney: New South Wales Institute of Technology.

—Snelling, Douglas B. Ca. 1953. Dramatic change in Lamington Hall – old Sydney landmark (press release provided by John Hunt, 2003).