When English architect, John Spencer unveiled his plans for the arcade in the mid-1880s he received a standing ovation. The plans were ambitious. The arcade was to be 340 feet (approximately 104 metres) long, and three storeys high, running between Pitt and George Streets. Magnificent cedar staircases at each end of the arcade led to the second and third floor galleries which were linked by a central bridge.
As Sydney grew around the arcade, it changed very little inside and soon became a refuge from increasingly crowded, noisy streets. The early 1900s are remembered by people who travelled to the city from the suburbs by tram especially to see the electric lights in the Strand Arcade – one of the first places in the city to be lit by electricity. It was browsers paradise. Shops crammed onto the ground floor included stamp and book specialists, milliners and jewellers working in the windows of their shops, because there was nowhere else to sit. For twenty years it was a thriving, friendly place, a haven in the heart of Sydney.
An "indiscretion" in the Wentworth Hotel swung the Strand Arcade into the 20s. The incident led to an unceremonious eviction from the hotel of Sydney jeweller and well known man-about-town, Percy Stewart Dawson. Dawson vowed he would never be thrown out of a nightclub again. To guarantee that he decided to build his own: The Ambassadors Café. The club housed a large, extravagantly decorated ballroom which seated 700, and a small Palm Court used mainly for luncheons and afternoon tea dances.
The depression brought everything back down to earth in the early thirties. One regular visitor to the Strand, Barbera Preece, remembered the spirit of friendliness and resourcefulness in the arcade that lasted throughout the war.
The Nut Shop, which still operates today, opened in 1939. The owner was Karl Mendels who had recently arrived in Australia after fleeing Europe with his young family to escape Nazi persecution.
Most of the action in the Strand during the fifties seemed to take place in the basement. The scene was Chequers Night Club, owned by the infamous Wong family who lent a touch of the Orient to the arcade and came complete with a fierce six foot tall Chinese manageress. Chequers was the fashionable place to eat, drink, be merry and enjoy the spectacle provided by Sydney's racing fraternity and a handful of flashy dancing girls. An interesting mixture after midnight.
At 3.00am on the morning of May the 25th 1976, a fire broke out at the Arcade. Twelve fire crews fought the blaze for hours but the building was left in ruins.
The painstaking process of rebuilding and restoration began until, in 1977 it was ready for a fashion parade. Against the Victorian backdrop, models, dressed in the latest 70s fashions, paraded to the delight of shoppers and guests. The show was spectacular: harem pants, smocks, dirndl dresses and scarves." The future of the arcade was looking rosy.
The Strand Arcade remains a majestic beauty in the middle of the hustle and bustle of Sydney's CBD. Many retailers including The Nut Shop, Strand Hatters and Coomb's Shoe Repair & Service have traded for decades, becoming well known Sydney institutions. Today the centre is a unique mix of Australian designer fashion and specialty stores catering for a clientele looking for something that’s a little more unique, crafted with care.