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Hyde Park Barracks

Hyde Park Barracks c1820, State Library of NSW

The State Library of NSW has just opened a new exhibition – Imagine a City: 200 Years of Public Architecture in NSW. In the Dictionary of Sydney, architects Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill detail how Sydney’s built environment developed from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the establishment of the Government Architect’s office. I spoke about 200 years of Sydney’s public architecture with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast radio.

Thousands of years before the British established the colonial settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788, Sydney’s original inhabitants, the Eora people, traversed the Sydney basin and used it for its natural supply of food and water. There were various shell middens and rock engraving sites across Sydney’s foreshore demonstrating how Aboriginal people used the land. But the British saw these middens as one of the key ingredients to the construction of the new colony, burning the shells to produce lime for cement mortar.

Governor Arthur Phillip produced two foundation town plans – one at the point of embarkation at Sydney Cove in 1788, the other inland at Parramatta in 1789. Initial plans for Sydney included a main street just under 61 metres wide, however, there was no coherent grid or town limits. During Lachlan Macquarie’s tenure as governor from 1810-21, he initiated a series of public buildings which gave Sydney its own distinctive form, elements of which exist today.

Government House stables

Government Stables 1842, State Library of NSW

The British government rejected Macquarie’s request to appoint a permanent government architect, insisting that this particular job be a temporary one. Yet when the architect and convicted forger Francis Greenway arrived in Sydney in 1814, he became the first of 23 NSW government architects, a role which would span the next 200 years. The role of the government architect was to manage the government’s public building projects across the colony of NSW.

One of Greenway’s first buildings was the Government Stables, a gothic structure with turrets located near Government House. We now know it as the Sydney Conservatorium of Music building. Then came more public buildings, such as the Supreme Court on King Street, St James Church and one of the more iconic of Sydney’s older buildings, the World Heritage listed Hyde Park Barracks. Macquarie Lighthouse in Vaucluse was also designed by Greenway and opened in 1818 – the first and longest serving lighthouse site in Australia.

First Macquarie Lighthouse, Vaucluse 1870s, State Library of NSW

First Macquarie Lighthouse, Vaucluse 1870s, State Library of NSW

Successive government architects played a major role in Sydney’s development over the 19th century. Mortimer Lewis, who served between 1835 and 1849, designed the Darlinghurst Courthouse, Australian Museum and Customs House. James Barnet designed other famous Sydney buildings like the General Post Office in Martin Place which was built using Pyrmont sandstone and the Department of Lands building on Bridge Street.

Walter Liberty Vernon was another famed government architect from 1890 to 1911. His notable contributions include the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW and Central Railway Station, he also designed public buildings for Sydney’s suburban areas, such as Newtown’s old post office building and Darlinghurst Police Station.

In more recent times, the Government Architect’s Office has seen a dramatic reduction in staff from 120 to four, and so the State Library of NSW’s exhibition is as much a marker of the end of an era for this historically significant government office as it is a celebration of Sydney’s most loved public buildings. For more information about Sydney’s public buildings, read the full article in the Dictionary of Sydney.

Customs House

Customs House Circular Quay 1910s, State Library of NSW


Listen to my segment at 2SER radio and read the original article by Philip Thalis and Peter John Cantrill at the Dictionary of Sydney. For other interesting segments, see my Dictionary of Sydney project post and visit the Dictionary of Sydney blog.