In 1926 The Grace Brothers, Albert Edward and Joseph Neal Grace, purchased the block of land on the corner of York, Clarence and King Streets in Sydney with the intention of building the Grace Building, which they believed would become the ‘showpiece of the company’. Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was well underway and it was their belief that this particular area would become a huge focal point for commuter traffic. The Art Deco design was by Sydney architects Morrow and Gordon, who envisaged a 213 foot central tower which would attract the eye along the city’s streets and make the building more prominent. Its design was heavily influenced by the Chicago’s Tribune Tower, a remnant of 1930s Art Deco architecture in the United States. Kell & Rigby commenced construction in 1928.
One year later the Wall Street Crash in the United States resulted in a market collapse in Australia and this severely effected Grace Bros., with this period seen as the first struggle for survival in the company’s history. Despite this major set back, the Grace Building officially opened on July 3, 1930. The buildings interior design heralded in a period of change for more comfortable working environments in Sydney and upon opening was considered an example of a modern office block.
‘Gone are the dingy offices where poor clerks spent their lives in semi-obscurity, and in their places are spacious, well-lighted and ventilated offices, which are really ‘homes away from home’. Cheerful colours are employed; floor treatments are made easy on the feet; radiators in winter; fans in summer; in fact every possible need is supplied; it is not even necessary to walk up the stairs now, for one is wafted upwards by high-speed lifts. Such a commercial palace is the Grace Building.’ (Building, 12 July 1930)
Over the years numerous tenants filled the floors of the Grace Building, including the Electrical Association of NSW, Shell Company, the Retail Traders Association and the firms of Swain and Graf and LH Wright. A year after opening Joseph Grace passed away and his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herrald on July 6, 1931 stated, ‘ … The Grace Building was not built for today; it belongs to tomorrow..’
On March 19, 1932 the Sydney Harbour Bridge officially opened and remains the widest and heaviest arch bridge in the world. However, this new bridge did not result in the heavy thoroughfare the Grace Bros. directors had hoped for, with successful retailing instead being reliant on the bus transport system. By 1940, with the commencement of the Second World War, Grace Bros. were having difficulty in leasing their office suites with only six companies taking up residence in the building. A year later there was talk of selling the Grace Building, with an estimated value of 525,000 pounds. The sale did not happen. In 1942 the building was requisitioned under national security regulations by the Federal Government for use as headquarters by the Supreme Commander of allied forces in the south-west Pacific, the American General Douglas MacArthur. Upon his arrival in Australia General MacArthur spoke the now famous words; ‘I have come through, and I shall return.’
During his use of the building safety alterations were made which included installing an air raid shelter in the basement and boarding up the ground floor facade. Aside from this however, no other major alterations were made to the design of the building. It is thought that a series of tunnels which run beneath York Street down to Circular Quay were connected to the basement of the Grace Building, with at least one of them thought to have housed secret emergency telephone equipment which would allow MacArthur to maintain his operations in the event that conflict in Sydney damaged communication lines.
With World War Two coming to an end, The Commonwealth of Australia was about to loose all the buildings they has acquired for the war effort, so in 1945 they compulsorily acquisitioned the Grace Building, notifying them four days later. Despite the discussions which had occurred prior to the war about the sale of the building, Grace Bros. was strongly opposed to the acquisition. Applying to the High Court, they sought to have the acquisition declared invalid and in April 1946 the High Court ruled in favour of the Commonwealth, however compensation was not addressed. The government used the Grace Building to house several government departments.
In August, 1948, Grace Bros. applied to the High Court claiming compensation of 1,368,456 pounds which was rejected and saw the company take their claim to the Privy Council in London. In 1953, eight years after the building was forcefully acquisitioned by the government, a final settlement of 1,215,800 pounds was awarded to Grace Bros. and this would form the financial basis for the companies expansion into Sydney’s suburbs.
Extensive renovation and restoration during the 1990s resulted in the return of many of the building’s original features, including light fittings, lifts, stairwells, high pressed-metal ceilings, marble floors, wide hallways, and elegant decorative ironwork. The Grace Building was listed on the Register of the National Estate in 1980 and placed on the NSW State Heritage Register in 1999.
In 1995 Kuala Lumpur based Low Yat Group purchased the Grace Building with the aim of turning it into a hotel. It reopened to the public on June 1, 1997 and is currently operating as the Grace Hotel Sydney, under Federal Hotels International.
As for the retail brand Grace Bros, the 1980s saw a merge occur between Sydney company Grace Bros. and Melbourne company Myer, and by 2004 the decision was made to re-brand all the stores under the one name – Myer.