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Pyrmont: Discovering the historic Sydney suburb

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Pyrmont is an inner-city suburb of Sydney in the state of New South Wales, Australia. It’s located 2 kilometres south-west of the Sydney central business district in the local government area of the City of Sydney and is also part of the Darling Harbour region.

Pyrmont was once a vital component of Sydney's industrial waterfront, with wharves, shipbuilding yards, factories and woolstores. As the industry moved out, the population and the area declined along with is. In recent years, it has experienced redevelopment and an influx of residents and office workers.

Today the suburb has a local, residential feel and the smells of the old sugar company in the area boiling molasses are long gone. The dirt of the coal-fired powerhouse is now a distant memory and has been replaced with a glittering casino. Chic cafes, restaurants and upmarket shops are dotted across the suburb.

Walking through today, it doesn’t take much to scratch the surface and uncover the marks of past ways. Tarted-up wharves still echo past labours and art installations utilising bits of industrial machinery are memories and tributes of past work. The evidence of old quarries still remain along with the sandstone that defines the peninsula.

We take a look at the intriguing, changing history of the suburb and how it became the place it is today.

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Aboriginal culture

Before European settlement, the Eora tribe of Indigenous Australians inhabited the area. Their Aboriginal name for this area was 'Pirrama', which is still the name of a road on the Pyrmont waterfront. Early artists sometimes portrayed Pyrmont as an isolated place, shrouded in mist, in the background of the city. It was a place where Aboriginal people gathered to keep watch over the strange ways of the new arrivals who were beginning to inhabit the area. Indeed, early European settlers recalled a distinct Aboriginal presence up until the 1830s.

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European settlement

Pyrmont was the site of quarries from a fairly early stage because of the quality of the sandstone. Pyrmont contained a mineral spring of cold water bubbling out of a rock and was thus named for a similar natural spring in Bad Pyrmont, close to Hanover, Germany. Thomas Jones was granted 55 acres of land on the peninsula in 1795. Land was sold to Obadiah Ikin in 1796 for 10 pounds, which he then sold to Captain John Macarthur in 1799 for a gallon of rum.

Pyrmont became a working class industrial and port community in the following years. A major sugar refinery was operated by CSR Limited. In 1900 the area had a population of around 30,000. The first Pyrmont Bridge opened in 1858. A larger bridge with a swinging span opened in 1902 but this was closed to traffic in the 1980s and was subsequently turned into a pedestrian precinct.

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Decay and development of the suburb

Pyrmont was regarded as a slum area in the 19th century. The suburb started to decay after World War II when industries closed down and the residents moved to the suburbs. In 1963 the Ultimo Powerhouse also closed and population numbers declined to only 1,800 by 1978.

By 1990 the population had dropped to around 900.

The Better Cities Program was initiated by the government to help rejuvenate the area. A couple of year later, a mission was deployed by the City West Development Corporation to renew the precinct and this responsibility was later transferred to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority in 1999.

This development led to a larger community of 13,000 by 2004 and an increase of trade with businesses moving back into the area, totalling 22,000 employees. Almost all industrial function is gone from the area now, replaced by low and high-rise residential developments. The sugar refinery closed down and a couple of buildings including The Cooperage and Tablet House were restored as residential and office spaces. Both are listed on the local government heritage register.

Pyrmont highlights

Harbourside shopping centre

Harbourside Shopping Centre is a large-scale shopping centre in Darling Harbour. It’s located next to the new International Convention centre with views of the city skyline. The complex includes restaurants, bars and entertainment and shopping options.

Metcalfe Park            

Situated on the waterfront in the commercial and technology cradle of Pyrmont. Metcalfe park is an open grass area offering views of Sydney City’s western edge. This was part of the Australian Steam Navigation Company shipbuilding complex, then incorporated in the redeveloped Darling Harbour until the area was rezoned as a residential complex in the 2000s. 

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Pirrama Park

Formerly a base for the water police, today it is a grassy 1.8 hectare park on the harbor which includes a sheltered bay, playground and areas for picnics and BBQ’s. The landscaped site has grasslands, a playground, a café, public toilets and picturesque spots. The park has a sheltered bay where visitors can access the water and the floating pontoon can be used by private boats. 

The Sydney Fish Market

Sydney Fish Market incorporates a working fishing port, wholesale fish market, fresh seafood retail market, a delicatessen, a sushi bar, a bakery, a gift shop, a fruit and vegetable market, a florist, a new meat deli, a beverage outlet, a seafood cooking school, indoor seating and an outdoor promenade for visitors. There are daily wholesale auctions for Sydney's seafood retailers.The market sits on the Blackwattle Bay foreshore in Pyrmont, 2 kilometres west of the Sydney central business district. It is the world's third largest fish market.

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Union (Pyrmont) Square

Union Square is an irregular and informal space between Union Street, Paternoster Row and Harris Street. Union Square was created in 1998 as a by-product, when Union Street and Pyrmont Bridge were closed to vehicles. With open space and level surfaces between steps, it has become the social centre of Pyrmont, the site of the Anzac Day service and Christmas carol services among other events. Its dominant feature is the Pyrmont War Memorial.

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Welcome Wall

The Welcome Wall pays tribute to the migrants who have travelled the world to call Australia home. More than 200 countries are represented on the Welcome Wall, which faces Darling Harbour and Pyrmont Bay, where many migrants arrived in Australia.Located outdoors on the museum's northern boundary, the wall faces Darling Harbour and Pyrmont Bay where some of the many new settlers arrived. The wall is accessible all year-round and the bronzed panels include hundreds of inscriptions and includes a history about the migration history.

Maritime Museum

The museum is Australia’s national centre for maritime collections, exhibitions, research and archaeology. It includes one of the largest and most diverse in-water fleets in the world including  cold war submarine HMAS Onslow, naval destroyer HMAS Vampire, and the stunning replica of Captain Cook's tall ship HMB Endeavour. The museum also hosts six permanent galleries, an ever-changing program of temporary exhibitions, and a 3D cinema, ensuring that there is something for everyone. For kids there's arts and craft activities and an under-fives play zone.

The Star casino

The Star is the second largest casino in Australia after Melbourne’s Crown Casino. The Star features two gaming floors, eight bars, seven restaurants, 351 hotel rooms and 130 serviced and privately owned apartments. It also includes the 2,000 seat Sydney Lyric theatre and Event Centre.

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Pyrmont fire station

Pyrmont Fire Station, built in 1906, is a rare, relatively intact, example of the larger form of fire station built in the metropolitan area during the first two decades of the operation of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. Its design and layout reflects the state of the art fire station at the turn of the century, as distinguished by a high level of on site residential accommodation for paid firefighters and their families, a high level of hand equipment based on horse drawn technology, permanent stables and a location which is amongst the highest in its vicinity.

Monica Limanto