Harbour Rocks Hotel

May 1, 2013

Achieving subtle elegance in the heart of tourist town takes more than a little finesse, as Gillian Serisier discovers on a visit to SJB’s Heritage project, the Harbour Rocks Hotel.

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There is a very fine line between designer comfort and the fantastical, neither of which is out of place in a contemporary hotel. The latter is always great fun, while the former has come to epitomise the seasoned traveller’s destination of choice – where classic design is paired with well-balanced quirk and personality. One local project that has struck the right balance is the Harbour Rocks Hotel by SJB Interiors, which has transformed a formerly chintzy and unfashionable hotel in the heart of Sydney’s tourist trap, The Rocks, into something altogether chic, sophisticated and imbued with character.

The transformation of the Heritage-listed building, which dates back to 1887, proved fraught. Originally a three-storey brick store building and three sandstone terraces, the site was first converted into a hotel in the 1980s – and much of the work involved the removal of newer additions to help restore the original built form. Each room had to be built as a model for approval before work could begin, while a full-scale mock-up of the facade was required for colour scheme approval. The reward, however, is the end result: an unusual, but entirely sympathetic facade of silvery grey, deep grey and dense black that emphasises the architectural details to beautiful effect.

The rooftop terrace of the Harbour View Suite, overlooking the Sydney Opera House


SJB has succeeded in the task of revitalising this historic site by embracing the building’s heritage and utilising those aspects to lend charm or gravitas where needed. The restoration, however, goes well beyond the physical changes. The wine bar that opens onto the street, for example, has been renamed Eric as a tribute to the sailor who fell in love with the neighbourhood Madam, Scarlett. Scarlett herself has also been acknowledged – lending her name to the hotel restaurant. Director of marketing, David Lowe, quips: “We’ve brought Eric and Scarlett back together after all these years.”

The wine bar comprises a flow-through area accessible from both the lobby and the street. The cliché of the ‘hotel bar’ has been firmly avoided, with a particularly good design solution that draws on a palette of natural materials framed by the street view. A featured wall map is one of the earliest of the area, adding not touristy tack, but a sense of charm, simply by virtue of not being announced or signposted. This subtle thread recurs throughout the hotel, with letters, drawings and photographs displayed without side note. The bar itself, made entirely of silver travertine, is bold and elegant with a top surface of inlaid brass chosen for its ability to age. The plumply round About a Chair by Hee Welling (Corporate Culture) in matte black is a sophisticated and subtle choice, offering the guest a slightly cocooned experience. These have been teamed with simple matte black bar stools, all of which work well with a floor of solid spotted gum.

The hotel lobby, housed inside the former bond store. A custom-made wax chandelier hangs in the void above.


The main foyer and atrium of the hotel have been stripped back to expose the brickwork of the original storage building, while the previously filled-in arches have been liberated. Jonathan Richards, SJB’s director of interior design in Sydney, explains, “We wanted to reveal some of the texture of the building, so that you see some of the history as a visual highlight of the interior.” Effectively, the designers have juxtaposed the exposed Heritage surfaces with contemporary finishes, pairing textured wallpaper with walls scabbled of paint to a certain point and then left as a layered revelation of the building’s history. Having borrowed an idea or two from the Christian Liaigre-designed Mercer Hotel in New York, the lobby marries a library of dark wood with a well-balanced selection of contemporary design and antiques. As such, slim black Afra lamps from Anta (Hub Furniture) with glowing gold interiors complement Paola Navone Ghost lounges for Gervasoni (Anibou), an antique Persian rug and a table made from a Papua New Guinean carved wooden bed.

Exposed sandstone walls in the Scarlett Restaurant are complemented by a neutral colour palette


The original brief for the refit included an elevator and an additional floor but, due largely to Heritage restrictions, neither of these requests was met. Rather, SJB proposed an elegant stairway of timber and steel for the foyer and, in place of the former breakfast area, a new courtyard and four additional rooms. Stone walls, previously hidden behind plasterboard in an old storage area, now house the slim and elegant Scarlett Restaurant. “We wanted to make more of the stone, which you couldn’t really sense before, and bring it to life with the lighting,” says Richards. To this end, the walls have been completely exposed, with the addition of new flooring of spotted gum. Alvar Aalto lights, a suspended mirror, marble tables and a white and timber version of the Welling chairs combine to make this an altogether charming space.

The courtyard provides a calm and private area surrounded by Boston ivy


The large central portion of the 1980s extension was recomposed as a courtyard overlooking the Nurses Walk. “We wanted to create an oasis in the middle of the hotel,” Richards explains. The result is a calm and private area with considered landscaping by Daniel Baffsky of 360° landscape architects that will shift dramatically with the seasons thanks to a profusion of Boston ivy. Completing the reconfiguration, four guest accommodations now face the courtyard, with Juliet balconies over- looking a fine green planting of bamboo.

Dark grey walls and modular timber furniture features in each of the 59 bedrooms


Overcoming Heritage constraints in the rooms, including a ban on wall wiring, was achieved with elegant solutions such as freestanding (and fully wired) timber bedheads and pole-mounted flat screen televisions. Again, Heritage colours have been challenged with a decision to leave the brickwork visible below a rich dark shade of grey, while the floors are carpeted in a soft pattern of cream and caramel. Because each room had to be Heritage approved, SJB designed modular furnishing units that could be used throughout – including wardrobes and desks. Using simple lines and pairing wenge with mirror, these pieces achieve a smart, urbane sensibility complemented by the exceptionally well-proportioned Iko Iko chair (Jardan) in caramel leather. Moreover, and unusually for a Heritage building, each room is filled with light from large windows.

Black and white photos in the rooms, taken in the 1980s before the original hotel conversion, allude to the building’s history


SJB has reconfigured the hotel in a way that not only reconnects the disparate elements, but also brings additional flavours to the fore. The use of light, for example, is of paramount importance to any interior; however, with a Heritage site, character is also important. For the hallways, SJB has sourced lighting from the US that glows subtly like the gas lamp, while in the rooms, lighting is a mix of highly contemporary and the industrial chic of Jielde (Euroluce). Effectively, SJB has brought a beautiful old building back to life and wholly into the realm of the contemporary.

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