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Age-old appeal: Why Sydneysiders are clamouring to buy heritage apartments

The Block's heritage challenge
Contestants in the next season's The Block will be converting a former soap and candle factory into a home.

 

Modern apartments may boast sleek construction and integrated appliances, but for a certain type of buyer nothing can compare with an apartment building that has stood the test of time. Whether it’s a compact art deco block from the 1930s, a converted industrial building from the 1910s or a renovated manor from even earlier, these grand old apartments are attracting Sydneysiders.

“The phrase is ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ – and I really think they don’t,” says Iain Halliday of BKH Architects, which has worked on several apartment restorations and adaptive re-use projects in recent years.

For many Sydney buyers, nothing can compare with an apartment building that has stood the test of time. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill.For many Sydney buyers, nothing can compare with an apartment building that has stood the test of time. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill. Photo: Supplied

For buyers focused on sturdiness, older apartments – from an era when buildings were almost exclusively made with bricks and stone – can be reassuring. “We’re doing a gut renovation on a 100-year-old apartment building in Potts Point at the moment and, having stripped it back to the bones, we can see that it’s solid as a rock,” Halliday says.

These buildings from Sydney’s earlier days also offer airy dimensions. The ceilings are often higher and the rooms larger. “In many cases, the internal spaces are simply much more generous,” says heritage architect Graham Brooks.

The phrase is ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ – and I really think they don’t.Iain Halliday, BKH Architects

Halliday concurs. “Older buildings in Sydney have fundamentally different bone structures,” he says. “In modern apartments, you typically get ceiling heights that are ‘to code’ and nothing more.”

Iain Halliday of BKH Architects believes that "they don't make them like they used to." Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill.Iain Halliday of BKH Architects believes that “they don’t make them like they used to.” Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill. Photo: Supplied

Halliday and Brooks worked together on Cleveland & Co, the recently completed development in Redfern that saw two commercial buildings – one from 1889 and one from 1937 – joined together to create 39 apartments. Throughout the building, original features such as floor-to-ceiling windows, cast iron columns and timber beams, joists and floorboards were retained.

Brooks also served as a consultant on the Griffith Teas renovation in Surry Hills, which transformed an old factory into apartments. In both cases, buyer demand was exceptional. Both sold out within hours, he says.

In Glebe, where a number of residential buildings from the 1800s have been subdivided into apartments, demand for old-fashioned interiors is increasing according to Ray White Glebe sales director Eileen Carroll.

Quality historic apartments often retain their value well during market fluctuations. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill.Quality historic apartments often retain their value well during market fluctuations. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill. Photo: Supplied

She sold apartments in Glebe’s Rosebank House: a converted three-storey manor built in 1858 with an extension, built in 1901, that served for many years as an annexe to Balmain Hospital. “These older apartments attract people who want to put down roots,” Carroll says. “If you’re looking for a long-term investment, instead of something to flip, you’re generally looking for an apartment with character.”

Perhaps surprisingly, she also says that older apartments can be less ongoing work than newer builds. “These older buildings were solidly designed,” she says.

BresicWhitney Hunters Hill sales director Nicholas McEvoy, who holds the listing for 2/5 Mount Street on the Hunters Hill peninsula, says that grand old apartments are a savvy way to protect wealth. “Older buildings often offer a better cost per square-metre ratio than new apartments.”

The ceilings are often higher and the rooms larger in heritage apartments. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill.The ceilings are often higher and the rooms larger in heritage apartments. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill. Photo: Supplied

Well-built and well-maintained historic apartments often retain their value better during market fluctuations than new builds, he says.

The grandly proportioned apartment was in a converted sandstone manor, and has views of the water and of the property’s mature gardens. The building, named Treago, dates back to 1861 and was extended to its current size in 1881. It has since been converted into four residences. 

Thick walls minimise disturbances from the neighbouring apartments, and all facilities – such as the laundry – are internal. “It doesn’t feel like an apartment,” says McEvoy, who will take the property to auction on October 21 with a guide of $1.9 million. “Internally, it feels more like a house.”

Due to solid design, some heritage apartments need less ongoing work than new builds. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill.Due to solid design, some heritage apartments need less ongoing work than new builds. Image: 2/5 Mount Street, Hunters Hill. Photo: Supplied

Unlike New York, which boasts a seemingly endless supply of lofts and historic blocks, the number of old buildings in Sydney is small. Brooks expects demand for grand old apartments will continue to grow as apartment living becomes more accepted in Australia. “My business has consolidated very strongly in the past 20 years,” he says. “The regulatory environment for heritage work is getting more sophisticated, and developers who focus on heritage buildings are maturing, too.”

Brooks thinks warehouse and factory conversions will perform particularly strongly as we move to higher density living. “With those apartments, it’s a unique product in each case,” he says, “unlike most modern apartment buildings which are just formulaic churn-outs.”  

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