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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Sydney: the Victorian Apogee

Metropolitan Sydney went from 50,000 people in 1950 to 380,000 in 1891. Add that expansion to the Victorian obsession with dignity, and you're looking at a builder's paradise.

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This is the Queen Victoria Building, built in the 1890s as the Queen Victoria Markets, a fresh produce market. Fifty-odd years later, a columnist called it "monstrous, antique and an incongruity among the surrounding modern structures... a glaring example of civic apathy and backwardness." It's a good thing George McRae, the architect who designed the thing, wasn't around.

(The polemicist was Mary Corringham, writing in Sydney's Daily Mirror for 12 June 1956. She's quoted in Fromonot and Thompson, Sydney: History of a Landscape, 2000, p. 88.)

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How tastes change: in the 1950s plans called for demolition and conversion to a parking lot. Several decades later, the owner (the city itself) in partnership with Ipoh (a Singapore company later owned by the Singapore Investment Corporation) restored the building to better-than-new. The only thing the owner didn't restore was the tramline that used to run up and down busy George Street. Judging from the deserted street, we must be here early Sunday.

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Mother hen and her chicks. Photographed by a hawk in descent.

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The Guardian Genius of the City holds the symbols of wisdom and justice. To her left, Labor and Industry has wheat under one elbow, a ram at one foot, and fruit and a beehive at the other. The companion figure represents Commerce and Exchange and is shown with a sailing ship, a ledger, and a bag of money. Labor and Industry looks sulky; Commerce and Exchange, snooty.

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Inside now: four shopping floors. Yes, don't worry, there's an underground parking lot, installed during the restoration to keep up with the times.

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Tiers.

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"Look, ma, no stairs!"

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Next to the building in another of those "she's not amused" statues of Victoria. She arrived here in 1987 and perched in what had been a traffic island. Previously, she stood outside the legislative-assembly building in the Republic of Ireland. She wasn't amused there, either. Nor much loved.

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Not a bad likeness, though.

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Next door is the Town Hall, from 1868 but with a slightly later clock tower. Jahn writes in his guide to Sydney architecture that this is the city's "only non-religious building to retain its original function and interiors since it was built." He also points out that it was built "as far away from colonial Government House" as possible. There's Aussie pride for you.

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Tower atop temple.

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The stairs seem a bit brighter than the building. They're newer, because they had to be replaced when the original entrance was weakened in 1934 by tunneling for the underground train system.

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Stiff upper lip! In the previous month, the prince had narrowly escaped assassination in Sydney. He recovered from his wounds in time to lay the foundation stone; the man who shot him in the back was hanged a couple of weeks later.

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The Town Hall is shown here with the adjacent St. Andrew's Cathedral and, rising to the heavens, Lumière, a residential high rise designed by the here-there-and-everywhere firm of Foster and Partners.

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St. Andrews, consecrated in 1868, is the cathedral church of the local Anglican diocese. Joan Kerr calls it the "perfect example of the colonial desire to reproduce England in Australia"

See Our Great Victorian Architect: Edmund Thomas Blacket," National Trust of Australia, 1983, p. 47.

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Can't tell where you are? Perfect.

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Can't do it here, either. It's the GPO, designed by the prolific James Barnet. Built over an extended period between 1864 and 1891, it was, as Jahn writes, Sydney's "Opera House of the 19th century." Kirsten Orr has dug deep and come up with this quote: the GPO was to be "centre and focus, the heart... from which the pulse of civilisation throbs to the remotest extremity of the land."

See Orr's article in Limina, XIII, 2007, p. 67. She was quoting Robert Garran, author of "The Post Office Bells" and writing in the Sydney Evening News for 30 June 1891.

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Side view. See the highrise on the right? Stay tuned.

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The GPO now is largely a facade for two highrises: a Macquarie Bank and a Westin Hotel. A small post shop struggles to hold down the historical fort. The bell tower seems a bit brighter than the building below, but that's because it was removed during World War II for fear that it might collapse under attack and destroy vital communications systems below. It was rebuilt in 1964.

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Victoria sits above the royal coat-of-arms and two young ladies identified only as run-of-the-mill "allegorical figures." Wisdom and Plenty, perhaps?

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The GPO courtyard now leads to the hotel and bank but includes the GPO Grand, a restaurant.

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Another clock tower. On what? I'll give you a hint: the lawn (Belmore Park) has been here since the building was completed by Walter Liberty Vernon in 1908. The location was previously a cemetery.

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Strange, no? An austere neoclassical building atop some heavily rusticated lower floors, with darkness on the upper level. You still don't have a clue!

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A close-up doesn't help, although it does suggest that Australia grows kangaroos tall as emus.

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Now you get it?

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Sure you do: the dark area isn't so dark when you're inside. It's a light-rail station, replacing old trams and serving Sydney's Central Station, to the right.

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Another do-over. It's the Customs House, built originally in the 1840s but rebuilt in 1887. The top three floors were added in 1903. The building served as the headquarters of Australian Customs until 1990, when ownership was transferred to the city. What then? Since 2003 it's been the Sydney library.

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Another conversion. Designed by the same Walter Liberty Vernon who did the railroad station, this was the Treasury Building and also housed the office of the New South Wales premier. It was completed in 1896 and converted to something else in the 1980s. Maybe you can guess from the highrise behind, to which this building is an adornment. If your eyes are impossibly sharp, the black plaques on the lamp posts tell the story.

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Here you go.

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Here's a neighboring building that's still pretty much what it was. We'll have to get closer.

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The sign reads Colonial Secretary; the building is now called the Chief Secretary's Building. The architect was the same James Barnet who did the GPO, and this building, which was completed in 1875, continues to house important bits of the state government, most augustly the governor of New South Wales.

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At the corner there's another allegorical figure, thoughtfully labelled for the incorrigibly ignorant. It does make you wonder why she has a spear, but Wisdom might not suffer fools. Asking her could get tricky.

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Here's Barnet's triumph, the Lands Department, built of the glorious local sandstone in stages between 1876 and 1894; the clock tower is a 1938 add-on.

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The figures in the niches have weathered amazingly well, which goes to show that sandstone isn't as soft as its name suggests.

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We'll snoop a bit.

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The only decipherable name here is Mitchell, at the lower left. He was Surveyor General of Australia from 1827 until his death, which came in 1855 while Mitchell was on the job surveying a road east of what is now Canberra.

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That sash is a reminder that Wellington had made him a lieutenant colonel for services in the Peninsular War. Mitchell might have been shown, however, not with binoculars but with a pistol, since he was party to the last duel fought in Australia.

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His neighbor is John McDouall Stuart, the first man to traverse Australia from south and north and back again. In his wake came the overland telegraph and, much later, the main highway that now bears his name. He looks like he's having a blast.

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Stuart is not to be confused with Charles Sturt, who explored the Murray River Basin in the 1820s.

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And who's this? Why, it's Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist on Cook's first voyage, which included visits to both Australia and New Zealand.

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Heaven knows what he's holding. He was president of the Royal Society for 41 years, however, so it must be important.

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And here's Ludwig Leichhardt, an explorer who disappeared in 1848 while attempting to cross the continent from east to west. He may have died in the Great Sandy Desert, in which case he made it two thirds of the way across.

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There's no end of these "yellow block" things, in this case the New South Wales Department of Education building, completed in 1914 and designed by the same George McRae who designed the Queen Victoria Building.

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One more example of institutional masonry: it's the Mitchell Wing of the State Library of New South Wales, built with a bequest of a fantastic collection of Australiana acquired by David Scott Mitchell. He was a second-generation Australian who had the good sense to choose a rich father who himself had the good sense to settle on 50,000 acres of land that turned out to have lots of coal.

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Could private enterprise ever compete with Sydney's public buildings? Think "banks." Here's an early example, the first Commonwealth Bank, built 1847-50, though the third story came in the 1880's. The capitals are cast bronze atop marble columns, and they are in the approved, bottom-up sequence of Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Now it houses the Athenian Greek Restaurant.

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Here's something a bit later, the Bank of New South Wales from 1912. Jahn writes that the banking hall was built to serve bookmakers at the nearby Tattersalls Club, while the offices above were added speculatively.

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Much grander: when completed in 1928 this was the headquarters of the government savings bank of New South Wales; a few years later it was taken over by the Commonwealth Savings Bank of Australia. Jahn writes of its "immense civic presence." In 2012 the Macquarie Group bought it and made it their world headquarters. Funny how you can buy heritage. Old photos show telephone poles marching in front the building with 15 crossbars.

See Fromonot and Thompson, p. 46.

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The even more massive Commonwealth Bank of Australia, completed in 1916 with a fully steel frame.

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Time for a re-do. The bank's gone, but the smell of money remains.

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After banks, think insurance. Today's Société Générale House was built in the early 1890s for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America. It was designed by an American architect, too, Edward Rath. Jahn calls it "one of Sydney's most powerful buildings."

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Less inspiring? This is the Trust Building from 1912. For decades it housed the Daily Telegraph, an independent paper when this building was new but since then part of the Packer and then the Murdoch empires. The building now has various tenants.

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Enough gravitas. Here's the Soul Pattinson Building, built by one Washington H. Soul Pattinson to sell patent medicine. When new, in 1887, it was called Phoenix Chambers; hence "Resurgam" up top. Take two spoonfulls twice and a day and you'll be good as new.

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Here's a shopping arcade inspired by London's Burlington Arcade. Opened in 1892, it was remodelled in 1969.

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Mark Foy built Sydney's first department store with natural lighting. That was 1909, although until 1928 the building had only two stories. The business flourished into the 1950s but closed its doors in 1980 and in 1991 was converted to Downing Centre, housing law courts.

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The terracotta panels and glazed bricks came from the UK.

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The Great Hall of the University of Sydney, completed in 1859.

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View back toward the city, about two miles distant.

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Entry. None too impressive.

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But the plaque over the door gives you a moment's pause.

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View in the courtyard.

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Exterior.

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Lantern.

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Royal arms.

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A well-armed neighbor.


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