Observatory Tower

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Its interior looks more Downton Abbey than downtown Sydney but, writes Sue Williams, this former IBM office building is a block off the old chip.

Powerful business leaders, leading barristers, a world-renown playwright, diplomats, a top publisher, a NSW Parliament Opposition leader, even a former Australian prime minister … they’ve all, at various times, called this place home. It’s been the setting for love affairs, political intrigue and high-level corporate deals.

But above all, say those who currently live and work in one of Australia’s top apartment buildings, Observatory Tower at Sydney’s historic The Rocks, it’s one big, happy family.

“I just love going there every day, opening that big front door and stepping into the grand foyer,” says Tony Cottle, who’s been working as a concierge at the 27-level, 199-apartment building for the last 17 years. “I’ve got to know everyone over the years, and it feels such a privilege to be a part of it.”

And even people who swore they’d never, ever live in an apartment have been won over by its charm. Jane Watson, for instance, a confirmed house-dweller, resisted strongly when her husband Dean suggested they try apartment-living when they made the move with their business, the Watson Headache Clinic and Institute, from Adelaide to Sydney in 2012.

“I always said I couldn’t get my head around the lifestyle and couldn’t imagine living in a space where everyone lives on top of each other in a stacking arragement,” says Jane, 58, a tenant in the building. “I had a problem with heights, too, and always liked having a house with a garden and backyard. But we agreed to try living at Observatory Tower, and now … I absolutely love it!”

The building, a long-time Sydney landmark, has stunning views from its higher levels over the harbour, bridge, Opera House and The Rocks. With a 24-hour concierge service, it also has a striking foyer with a marble staircase leading up to a two-storey library, as well as an 18-metre indoor pool, a spa, sauna and gym for its 300-400 residents, half of them owner-occupiers, and half tenants.

The cheapest south-facing one-bedroom apartment on a lower floor these days sells for around $780,000, while the most lavish of its five penthouses – a three-storey, three-bedroom-plus-studies home of over 600 square metres, including a rooftop garden – is currently for sale for a cool $10.5 million.

All this glamour, however, is a world away from its beginnings as business high-rise offices The IBM Centre, built in 1961 on land used as a cooperage and timber storage depot. One of the first buildings to be constructed in Australia with steel frames and ‘drop-in’ concrete slabs, it was then only 22 storeys tall.

Thirty-three years later, in 1994, the building was sold off and extensively redeveloped to become a residential tower, with extra floors taking it higher to 143 metres, widened to incorporate balconies and additional apartment space with a new pod on the western side and painted a dark green.

Apartments were sold off the plan and residents started moving in from completion in 1996. Amongst the first were two people who’d worked for IBM, met in the lift in the first week of the company’s move to the building, fallen in love and decided to return to the tower to live there after its transformation.

“Many of our former colleagues ask us how we can bear to live in a building where we formerly worked,” says former IBM personnel manager John Wood who these days sleeps on the side of the bed which is on the new addition of floor while his wife Yvonne, who used to be the IBM managing director’s secretary, sleeps on the side that stands on the original section. “I assure them that the atmosphere here now is a lot more peaceful than it was in those working days!”

Dianne Gakas was also around from Observatory Tower’s early days, after moving from a large house on Newport Beach. She and husband Bill had grown tired of spending around 20 hours a week driving into the city to work, and bought, 30 seconds after viewing it, a two-bedroom apartment. Four years later, in 2006, they bought a bigger unit, higher up.

“I fell in love with the lobby, and then with the apartments,” says Dianne, 65, a former partner in a medical centre. “I love the privacy of it – how noone can walk past and peer in – the security and the ambience of the building. You can make a snap decision to go away and you just turn the key in the lock, let the concierge know and there’s nothing else to do.

“Every time I walk through the front door, whether it’s after ten minutes’ shopping or six weeks on holiday, I feel like I’m walking into a grand hotel.”

That’s an opinion echoed by even the most recent newcomer. Nine-year-old schoolboy Jonathan Clinton moved in with his mum and dad five years ago from Indonesia and has become a big fan. He’s made friends with a couple of other children in the building and he’ll often meet up with them, swim in the pool and go to the gym with his mum Fatima.

“I’ll go on a treadmill or ride 2km on an exercise bike or do a plank – my longest is two minutes!” says Jonathan, who plans on being a basketball player or cricketer when he grows up. “It’s pretty great here. Our neighbours are all really nice and I can walk to school or we go to the Botannical Gardens, or walk around the harbour or skateboard nearby. And the concierge are all very nice.”

Chief among those concierge is Tony Cottle. He was visiting his dad in the UK from his home in Barbados when he met a young Australian woman in London, who was about to travel to the Caribbean for a friend’s wedding. They arranged to meet up and soon became a couple. When Judith decided to return home to Australia, she persuaded Tony to leave his job at the front desk of the Barbados Hilton Hotel to join her.

“It was meant to be for a few weeks, but it’s turned into 18 years,” says Tony, now 54. “I came for an interview at Observatory Tower and I just walked in and thought, ‘Wow!’ It was a place that oozes class.”

Tony still lives happily with the woman who lured him over and has been at the building’s front desk ever since. Highlights include being asked to park one resident’s $400,000 Ferrari for him. “I’ve always worked in the service industry and I love the job here, the building and the people,” he says. “It’s a very well-run building and professionally managed; it’s a fantastic place to work. It’s a dream come true.”

One of the newest members of the Executive Committe helping run the place is Karen Catalano, the acting office manager of an insurance research centre for IAG. She arrived two years ago and fell in love with the building. “It has such a great sense of community and family about it,” she says. “You really get to know people and it’s in such a vibrant location.”

Building manager Glen Webber, 55, has been doing his job for 13 years, after managing commercial buildings. There are always challenges with co-ordinating building work with so many residents, he says. “But there’s a real community feel to the place and the people are generally quite sociable,” he says.

“You get to meet a lot of people from very different backgrounds … pollies … successful businesspeople … everyone.”

Pictures:  Lorrie Graham

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