What is trachyte and how did it come to be the unsung hero of Sydney’s building stones?

The answer is found in this fascinating story of how a hard stone quarried in the New South Wales Southern Highlands became the city’s most important stone after sandstone.

The title provides an apt description: trachyte was Sydney’s hard rock.  Sandstone with all its virtues was the premier building stone of Sydney’s early and middle years but trachyte had qualities sandstone lacked and so it perfectly complemented the ‘yellowblock’ of our heritage buildings.  Sydney’s hard rock provided what sandstone, with all its beauty, could not provide.

This tough, distinctively coloured igneous stone was first quarried at Mount Gibraltar near Bowral in the 1880s and soon began appearing in the kerbs and gutters along the growing city’s streets.  Soon it was adopted by builders and architects and it can still be seen overhead in the keystones of great buildings as well as underfoot, in myriad small and large scale projects throughout New South Wales and beyond.  Its importance in the city is why the authors have called their tale Sydney’s Hard Rock Story.

The book is handsomely illustrated  throughout and contains 245 illustrations including 25 colour photographs.  It traces trachyte’s extensive uses, starting with its geology and some of the dramas of Bowral’s ‘Gib’ and its quarrymen.  It continues by examining its basic, utilitarian beginnings like kerbing.  After designers were awakened to its qualities they used trachyte to create some of Sydney's finest commercial streetscapes, as well as monuments, foundation stones, commemorative plaques and paving.

A special feature of the book, showcasing many fine and surprising examples of this special stone, is the illustrated trachyte walk in central Sydney.  


About the Authors

Robert Irving is an architectural historian, a Fellow and former President of the Royal Australian Historical Society, and was a senior lecturer in Architecture at UNSW. He was the co-author of Identifying Australian Architecture, published in 1989, as well as several other works including First Views of Australia 1788-1825 (1987). The History and Design of the Australian House (1985) and Fine Houses of Sydney (1982).

Ron Powell is an architect, landscape architect and stone consultant.  For a decade, until recently, he was manager of the NSW Centenary Stonework Program, which provides a strategic approach to the ‘catch-up’ maintenance of state-owned heritage stone buildings and monuments; he was also Landscape Director for Darling Harbour, and Public Domain Co-ordinator for the Pyrmont/Ultimo Redevelopment.

Noel Irving is a research assistant and picture researcher who has worked on publications including Paradise Purgatory Hell Hole (2007) and Twentieth Century Architecture in Wollongong (2001).  He was co-author of Donald Thomas Esplin, Sydney Architect: His Life and Work (2008).  Noel, like Ron, has also served as a member of Sydney City Council’s Sandstone and Trachyte Committee.


book Cover

Please order a copy/copies by emailing:


$40 per copy will cover handling and postage.

Funds may be transferred electronically to:


NAME: Powell Trachyte Book

BSB: 659 000

ACCOUNT NO: 1000 593 37

BANK: State Government Employees Credit Union


and please include your name in the transfer.

Cheques may be mailed to:

Ron Powell

9a Blackheath Street

Leura NSW 2780




trachyte walk map

Below is an excerpt from the walk described in the book.

This walk visits some of the most outstanding Sydney examples of trachyte in streetscapes, architecture, monuments and decoration.  It also includes a few other places of historical or visual interest that the keen-eyed observer will pass on the way.  The walk, with highlights indicated by bold numbers linked to the accompanying map, traces a route from Wynyard station to Town Hall station. 

Begin at the York Street entrance to Wynyard Station.  Wynyard was named for the Wynyard Barracks that were established on this spot at the end of the 18th century.  The underground station was opened in 1932 as part of the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening celebrations.

1.   The station entrance is part of the 1934 Art Deco skyscraper (later Transport House) that housed the Department of Railways offices and was designed by architects HE Budden & Mackey, opening in 1936.  The street-level façade, including the administration entrance, is clad in polished trachyte, with green-glazed terracotta facing above.  A close look at the trachyte will reveal ‘bowralite’ or veining in the stonework.  The then Railway House won the 1935 Sulman medal for design of a type most calculated to improve the architectural design of buildings fronting a city street.

walk 01

2.   Across York Street is Wynyard Park which was originally the Barracks Square, dating from 1792.  The statue of John Dunmore Lang, erected here in 1888-90, commemorates his many achievements including the foundation of the Presbyterian Church in Australia.  The base of the statue is an interesting early example of trachyte.

trachyte walk 2

Turn right at the station entrance and walk south along York Street.

3.   The Sydney City Council began to use trachyte for kerbs and gutters in the 1880s and the kerbs at the edges of York Street, the ‘frames’ of the drainage inlets and the stormwater lintels are all made of cut trachyte blocks.  Similar kerbs, still displaying the textures made by the masons’ tools, can still be seen in almost all of Sydney’s streets.

trachyte walk 3

4.   The AWA Building, 47 York Street.  For decades the soaring communications tower which caps this building, made it the tallest structure in Sydney.  Built in 1939 and designed by the architects Robertson, Marks & McCredie, its Art Deco entrance motif is constructed of polished trachyte.  The large Pegasus emblazoned high up on the façade – often seen as a symbol of power and speed – is said to have been chosen by Sir Ernest Fisk, the pioneer of wireless technology and a founding director of AWA.

trachyte walk 4

Turn east (left) into Wynyard Street.

5.   Regimental Square, at the east of George Street end of the street.  Although there is no trachyte here, this busy little square which commemorates the Royal Australian Regiment, was formed by closing the street to traffic.

George Street was named after the English king who reigned when European settlers arrived in Sydney.  The George Street end of Regimental Square presents a view of a powerful streetscape with some of the most impressive and historic buildings in the city.  The two on the diagonally opposite side of George Street are most unusual in being clad in trachyte for their full height.

6.   The former Bank of Australasia (now ‘Paspaley’), on the Martin Place and George Street corner.  It was the American architect Edward Raht’s second Sydney building, designed in 1901.  The entire building is faced in trachyte, with walls of rock-faced ashlar.  The coat-of-arms and the sea-shell motif at the corner pediment represent some of the most detailed trachyte carving in Sydney.  The building has two large basement levels which extend outwards for 5 metres beneath Martin Place.

trachyte walk 6

Walk along George Street towards Circular Quay. Here the trachyte kerbs, in place since the late 19th century, were replaced and new flagstone paving laid as part of the streetscape renovation leading up to the 2000 Olympics. Some of the trachyte flagstones laid in this vicinity were a massive 2 metres long, 1.2 metres wide and 10 centimetres thick. 

7.   350 George Street, next door and just north of Angel Place. Built for the Equitable Life Assurance Company of the United States and opened in 1895, this uniquely designed building brought Edward Raht - and the Federation Romanesque architectural style - to Australia. The great entrance arch, dominating the robust trachyte facade, was intended to last forever: its rock-faced voussoirs (a wedge-shaped arch stone, see Glossary) were set in molten lead rather than mortar. As well as the rock-faced work, the facade has tooled and polished trachyte - the three principal finishes for trachyte in Sydney.

trachyte walk 7

8.   The former National Bank of Australasia, designed by architects Robertson & Marks in 1925, has a Classical facade at street level, faced in polished trachyte. The facade still bears its original name, but is now part of the ‘Ivy’ complex, the substantial development that extends northwards and, at the rear, to Ash Street where more trachyte detailing may be seen.

trachyte walk 8

9.   A careful look at the northern part of the Ivy will reveal some recycled and coarse-tooled trachyte, incorporated into the modern facade detailing of the Royal George hostelry. Palings Lane is a narrow passage - oddly, just south of its sign post - which leads east to Ash Street. It is an echo of Paling’s Music Warehouse, which once stood in this vicinity and was one of the first buildings in which trachyte was used.

trachyte walk 9 

Walk to the next corner and turn east (right) into Hunter Street. This street was named after John Hunter, who succeeded Arthur Phillip as the second governor of NSW. Along here, as in most other streets, the kerbing is utilitarian trachyte.

10.   On the corner of George and Hunter is the brick-built former Skinner’s Family Hotel. It is one of Sydney’s oldest buildings, erected in about 1845. More traditional trachyte kerbing may be seen in Hunter street.

11.   Down the slope approaching Pitt Street, the walk ‘descends’ into what was the gully of the old Tank Stream, so named for the ‘tanks’ that were cut into the bedrock in 1791 to form early Sydney town’s reservoirs for the early settlers.






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