One of Sydney’s truly iconic venues – the Hordern Pavilion – celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. It has not only stood the test of time, but shows no signs of stopping. Here is the fascinating history behind this much-loved building.
“The Hordern”, as it is affectionately known by Sydneysiders, has been an architecturally and socially significant Sydney landmark since it opened in 1924.
The increasing popularity of the Royal Easter Show and the demand for more exhibition space in the early 1920s drove the Royal Agricultural Society’s decision to remove four existing buildings – the Vehicle Pavilion, the Carriage Pavilion, the Lecture Hall and the Women’s Industries building – and replace them with the Hordern Pavilion.
Where did the name come from?
The venue was named in honour of the enterprising retail family, Anthony Hordern and Sons, and Sir Samuel Hordern, who was president of the Royal Agricultural Society from 1915 to 1941.
The building design
Designed in the Inter-War Academic Classical Style by architects Trenchard Smith & Maisey, the building featured fluted doric columns, a parapet and an imposing vaulted roof with lantern tower and cost £45,000 to build.
Incorporated in the design were a concrete floor, large door entrances and a spacious interior to easily accommodate vehicles and large machinery. The Hordern also served as a formal entrance façade to the Showground and was considered to “exemplify the dignity and enterprise of modern business”.
Construction of the Hordern Pavilion, 1924 (photo courtesy RAS)
Exhibits of excellence
The new venue was an impressive site for attendees at the Royal Easter Show of 1924. The Sydney Morning Herald of April 17, reported: “the architectural features of the new Hordern Pavilion have been much admired by visitors to the show. Throughout yesterday a large crowd passed steadily through, dividing their attention between the exhibits on the floor and the massive superstructure which supports the roof”.
The range of products on show at the Easter Show in that first year was enormous. There were motor vehicles, wireless radio communication displays and food items from (amongst others) Johnson Condiment Co, Glaxo, Wrigley’s Chewing Gum, IXL and Rosella Preserving & Manufacturing Co. The Singer Sewing Machine Co also displayed a variety of models!
In the first year, scale models of the ocean liners Moreton Bay and Otway proved very popular, as did the Wm Docker Ltd display of paints – which included a large model of the “proposed Harbour Bridge”.
The Hordern, circa 1920s
In the period leading up to World War II, the venue featured the newest and best Australian products and the content reflected the changing nature of Australia as a country. By the mid 1930s, there were more high-end items on display – grand pianos from Elvy & Co, wireless receivers, Regal and Globite luggage trunks and cases, modern gas appliances from the Australian Gas Light Company, high quality Bear & Co furniture and large exhibits from Lustre Hosiery who showcased machinery used in the manufacture of their garments.
Many uses, including some unusual ones!
Aside from the Easter Show, the Hordern was utilised for a variety of events, some of which were a little unusual.
In 1925 the first covered tennis courts in Australia were constructed in the venue, in 1932 the venue hosted the Australian model aeroplane contest, in 1934 the Hordern became sleeping quarters for a national gathering of the Youth Australia League and during WWII it was occupied by the Army and used as a bulk store.
Becoming a live music icon
The most significant change for the venue came in the early 1970s. The explosion of interest in Rock & Roll music in the 1950s, combined with the improved availability of air travel, resulted in a substantial increase in the number of artists touring Australia. As a consequence, the Sydney Stadium at Rushcutters Bay became the venue of choice for major international acts such as Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Cliff Richard and, of course, The Beatles.
When the Stadium was demolished in 1970 to make way for the Eastern Suburbs railway, the Royal Agricultural Society saw an opportunity and undertook to convert the Hordern Pavilion from an exhibition hall to a multi-purpose venue capable of hosting music and sporting events.
This conversion included the removal of the majority of the columns and the installation of a truss system, the inclusion of a false ceiling and bar and box office facilities as well as a mezzanine corporate box area.
This move heralded the beginning of a golden age of rock music in Sydney according to Glenn A. Baker, rock historian and thrice-crowned Rock Brain of the Universe: “Nothing much had happened since ’68. The vibe was bad. A girl died at the Monkees in ’68, and there was terrible social pressure on rock. The international acts, which had played Randwick Racecourse and Sydney Stadium, weren’t coming any more. Sydney was desperate for a new venue.”
Exploding onto the rock scene
The work was completed in February 1972 and the following 11 years proved to be extremely busy.
During this period there were an estimated 1,237 events which drew a total attendance of 3,805,500. Virtually every major act that played in Sydney from 1972 (until the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre in May 1983) performed at the Hordern, and the list reads like a who’s who of contemporary entertainment.
- Jethro Tull
- Cat Stevens
- Roy Orbison
- Joe Cocker
- Cliff Richard
- The Jackson 5
- Status Quo
- BB King
- The Supremes
- Frank Sinatra
- Lou Reed
- Bee Gees
- Eric Clapton
- Paul McCartney & Wings
- The Eagles
- Neil Diamond
- Billy Joel
- Bob Marley
- Elton John
- Fleetwood Mac
- The Police
- Stevie Wonder
- Dire Straits
“The rock scene came surging back and the Hordern was the epicentre,” wrote Glen A. Baker. “Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton, Yes, Gordon Lightfoot – so many great nights. One amazing moment came when a certain Norman Gunston, aka Garry McDonald, climbed onstage and played harmonica with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.”
But not just rock
Aside from the many concerts, the venue was the home to many large meetings and congresses, children’s shows, ice shows, religious events, ethnic shows and sporting events, both serious (boxing, tennis and gymnastics) and not so serious (Harlem Globetrotters, wrestling and roller derby). The Australian Ballet featuring Rudolph Nureyev even performed in the venue, and in 1982 the Hordern hosted six different tennis tournaments!
Another shift in the use of the Hordern came in the guise of the Dance Parties of the mid to late 1980s. The venue was first used for this purpose by Mardi Gras in October 1984 and this was followed by the Sleaze Ball in 1985. Mardi Gras used the venue intermittently over the next few years until their events became fixtures at the Hordern Pavilion and Royal Hall of Industries from 1991 to the present day.
After the Entertainment Centre opened
After the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, most of the major tours generally played the “EntCent”, but the Hordern continued to attract a host of local and up-and-coming acts. The period cemented the Hordern with its reputation as a local favourite. Between 1983 and 1999 acts that played included:
- The Angels
- David Bowie
- Midnight Oil
- Jimmy Barnes
- Australian Crawl
- Style Council
- Crowded House
- Hunters & Collectors
- Paul Kelly
- Iggy Pop
- The Ramones
- The B-52s
- Public Enemy
- Nirvana (at Big Day Out – see Youtube clip)
- Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Green Day
- Smashing Pumpkins
The Hordern continues to draw a variety of performers, events and exhibitions
Becoming part of Centennial Parklands
In 1997, the Royal Easter Show moved to Homebush Bay, and the Hordern Pavilion (and adjacent Royal Hall of Industries) became independent venues. They were renovated and refurbished in 1999 and re-opened by new operators the Nebenzahl family’s Playbill Venue Management.
The Hordern remains a concert venue and, as has been the case since 1983, it is the place to go to “get up close and personal” with your favourite act before they move to Arenas or Stadiums.
Despite the ‘competition’ of other venues in Sydney, the Hordern has continued to attract some of the biggest acts. In recent years the list of performers include:
- the Chemical Brothers
- Ben Harper
- Foo Fighters
- John Butler Trio
- John Mayer
- Justin Timberlake
- Black Eyed Peas
- Maroon 5
- Kanye West
- James Blunt
- The Killers
- Snow Patrol
- Arctic Monkeys
- Kings of Leon
- Florence & The Machine
- One Direction
One Direction at The Hordern (photo by Eva Rinaldi used under Creative Commons)
The Hordern continues to host live music and comedy, while also a acting as a busy exhibition and function venue. It has held many significant private functions, including hosting the AFL’s prestigious Brownlow Medal presentation on the only occasion it has ever taken place outside of Melbourne!
Ninety years after it opened to much public acclaim, the Hordern Pavilion remains one of Sydney’s best-loved entertainment landmarks and it will undoubtedly continue to have a significant role to play in the Sydney venue landscape.
The Hordern has an amazing history, so feel free to use the comment feature below to tell us your favourite Hordern memories!
The Hordern is probably the most iconic live music venue in Sydney over the last 40 years
Thanks to Playbill Venue Management for assisting with this post.
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