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Chief Secretarys Building, 121 Macquarie St, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Photographs View Photo Database Record
List Register of the National Estate (Non-statutory archive)
Class Historic
Legal Status Registered (21/03/1978)
Place ID 1824
Place File No 1/12/036/0034
Statement of Significance
The Chief Secretary's Building constructed in three stages from 1881 to 1896, is historically significant for its ability to demonstrate through its location, size, design and lavish external and internal treatment the importance and prestige of the Chief Secretary's department and that of the Public Works Department.

The Chief Secretary's building is significant for its association with the Chief Secretary, a pre-eminent position almost continuously held until the twentieth century by each Premier of NSW. The office space afforded for ministerial occupation illustrates this link as does the Executive Council Chamber. Several important figures in NSW political life held this office and through it, and the role of the Premier, were able to campaign for the political agendas of the time, including, but not exclusively, economic and land reform and Federation.

The building was also significant as the workplace of departments including Public Works which, had overwhelming influence on all aspects of life at every level of society.

The location of the building is historically significant. It forms a particularly important component in an area that, since its selection for the site of First Government House, has been associated with the upper echelons of political and administrative life in the country. It has close physical proximity to (second) Government House, the NSW Parliamentary buildings and the principal offices of the main departments, Treasury, Lands and Education symbolising the relationship to the office to both political and public offices.

The Chief Secretary's Building is significant as the site of important meetings that both foreshadow and contribute to the federation of the Australian colonies. Specifically, the building was the venue for an Intercolonial Convention in 1883 at which it was decided to form the Federal Council of Australasia, a body that prefigured the creation of a federal government. It was also the site in 1896 of one of four intercolonial military conferences that worked on the formation of a single federal military force, a task that contributed to the formal establishment of an Australian military force two months after federation. Within the Chief Secretary's Building, the Executive Council Chambers were the venue in the 1880s for conferences on postal communications, quarantine and immigration, the conferences reflecting growing intercolonial cooperation on matters of mutual interest and foreshadowing their eventual coming together into a federation.

The additions made to the building in the 1890s for Public Works demonstrate the increasing needs and specialisation of that department and the increasing expansion and prominence of the public service. The changes made to the building during the twentieth century, have the ability to demonstrate important new conditions in the wider community such as increased employment opportunities for women (Criterion A.4).

The building is historically significant for its continued use as government offices from 1881 to the present. The building illustrates the fully developed nineteenth century public service and the practical workings of that bureaucracy. The internal plan layout, individual spaces and degree of elaboration of finishes demonstrate the dual hierarchy of its users as well as the specific departmental organisation. It is a rare, though not unique, example of such offices on this scale (Criteria A.4 & B.2).

(Australian Historic Themes Framework: 5 Working; 7 Governing)

The building is also significant for its association with several outstanding and prominent figures in both the social and political life of NSW and Australia, including Henry Parkes, Charles Cowper and John Robertson who were some of the prominent incumbents of the office. The building is also significant for its association with two important architects, the original building having been designed by James Barnet, and the extension to this building designed by Walter Liberty Vernon (Criterion H.1).

The Chief Secretary's building is of aesthetic significance because of its major contribution to the surviving Victorian era streetscapes in Phillip Street, Macquarie Street and, in particular Bridge Street. It remains a dominant building in the pre-eminent administrative and political quarter of Sydney. The finishes and artworks purposely bought for the building, many from the Sydney International Exhibition and some commissioned in London, are of the highest quality and lavishness. They not only demonstrate the prestige of the department but are exemplars of late nineteenth century public taste and refinement.

The Chief Secretary's building is of architectural significance because of the high quality of its architectural composition and execution, both externally and internally. It is work of great importance in the professional careers of James Barnet as Colonial Architect, and the additions by Walter Liberty Vernon, Government Architect. The Chief Secretary's Building remains one of the pre-eminent public buildings of the nineteenth century in NSW (Criterion E.1).

The building has technical significance for the use of corrugated aluminium roofing on the dome, one of the earliest uses of this cladding material in Australia (Criterion F.1).
Official Values Not Available

The Colonial Secretary was one of the earliest offices appointed in Governor Phillip's administration in 1788. The Chief Secretary, originally known as the Secretary to the Governor and later the Colonial Secretary, had widespread powers and responsibilities. The Chief Secretary exercised control over departments as diverse as those of the Surveyor General and the Superintendent for Convicts. The Chief Secretary was the direct link between the Governor and the various departments.

At first the Chief Secretary's office, like that of the Governor and other public officials, was contained within their private homes. In 1813 Governor Macquarie approved plans for an elegant single storey house and office for the Chief Secretary. In 1832 the British Government declared that residences were no longer to be provided to public officials. The Bridge Street residence was then used as the office of the Chief Secretary. Within this building the first debates were held regarding both the creation of responsible government for the colony and the federation of that colony as an independent commonwealth. This building was located on a site now slightly to the rear of that occupied by the Department of Education building in Bridge Street. This first, purpose built building was not demolished until 1915.

In 1856 New South Wales was granted responsible government. The first Chief Secretary appointed under the new Constitution Act was Stuart Alexander Donaldson and the first Under Secretary was William Elyard. This important step in self government brought with it a number of new portfolios requiring new office space as well as a greater need for the departmental head and staff to be located in approximately the same space.

It was against this high profile role of the Chief Secretary as well as the expansion of that and several other departments and the escalating costs of rental properties such as those in Phillip and Young Streets that the construction proposal and plans were formed for a new building for the Chief Secretary.

The first Government House (now the Old Government House Site) had been demolished in 1846. After the demolition, the existing street pattern was extended towards the quay and Bridge Street was extended to meet Macquarie Street. The land to be occupied by the Chief Secretary's building (the north-eastern corner of where the Old Government House had been), had been subdivided in a pattern that was to be preserved in the later building plan. Six lots in an L shape fronted Bridge Street and were separated from the rest of the block by a narrow land, also L shaped, that ran between Macquarie and Phillip Streets.

The site of the building on Bridge was highly symbolic of the elevation in status of the office. It would form a significant element of the most important political and administrative offices. In close proximity to Government House, the gates to that residence being across the road, it was close to Parliament House and overlooked the Treasury Building. Its position halfway between Parliament and Government House, was both practical and illustrative of the respective relationships of those offices.

By 1869 sufficient finance had been raised to construct a new building for the office of the Chief Secretary as well as providing offices for the Works Department. James Barnet, the Colonial Architect, designed a multi-storeyed building to occupy the six lots in an 'L' shaped portion of the block fronting Bridge Street. The drawings were prepared July 1869 to mid 1870. For this work Barnet was paid nineteen pounds and ten shillings. Barnet considered it second only to his work at the GPO.

The first tender for the work, excavation and masonry, was let in 1873 to the McCredie Brothers. By June 1878 over seventy-six thousand pounds had been spent, sixteen thousand pounds above the original estimate. The finishes and artworks were purposely bought for the building, many from the Sydney International Exhibition and some commissioned in London. The last works on the building included the commissioning and erection of statues by Giovanni Fontana and the completion of the finishing trades. In 1880 it was reported that work on the Chief Secretary's building was completed at a final cost of 81,558 pounds, nineteen shillings and one penny. It was noted, though, that the finishing trades were continuing, 42,620 pounds having been spent on them. These works were completed the following year.

By the end of the 1880s space within the building was at a premium. In November 1889 the Acting Engineer-in-Chief prepared a sketch of a proposed extension to the existing Chief Secretary's building. It encompassed a building of six storeys fronting Phillip Street. The building was designed to house the Railway Commissioners and the clerical staff of the Public Works Department on the ground and first floors. The principal consideration for the new building was economy. The work was to be done quickly, the tenders let as soon as possible and the project to be kept under twenty thousand pounds. Tenders were called in March 1890 for the resumption of the terrace houses and yards that occupied the site of the proposed extension to the building. The tender for what became known as the first contract, the six storey building, was let in April 1890. In July 1890, while work continued on the first contract, approval was given for the construction of an extension to this only partially constructed building. This extension was considered necessary largely because of the needs of the Public Works Department. The new building was designed to house that department and free the Board room of the office which was then occupied by the Public Works Committee. The cost of this new work was estimated to be 14,136 pounds and it involved the resumption and demolition of more terraces along Phillip Street. The tender for the second contract was let in September 1890. A further modification to the work was the decision to link the new (and extended) building to the existing building by means of a more substantial link than the originally designed iron footbridges. Eventually it would be a five storey addition.

Despite this massive outlay consideration was given to yet a third extension to the south of the new wing or, more precisely, what measures could be taken to avoid this additional project. This was investigated by the Government Architect, Walter Liberty Vernon because even with the additionals the Public Works Department could not be accommodated in the building. To avoid a costly solution, Vernon proposed raising the height of the existing building to create virtually two new floors, he estimated this work would cost approximately 12,000 pounds, although savings were to be made by substituting a less expensive timber and slate roof for the concrete dome roof then in the contract. Fallick and Murgatroyd were contracted to carry out the new stage of work. The various works finally completed in 1893 cost 54,926 pounds two shillings and ninepence. Vernon's additions represent one of the first and major works by the newly appointed Government Architect. The additions were completed in a style and quality matching the exterior of the original building by Barnet.

Following a fire to the roof of the Public Works Offices in 1894 an extensive Mansard roof and central dome was added providing additional accommodation and adding to the architectural completeness of the building. Corrugated aluminium roofing was used on the dome, one of the earliest uses of this cladding material in Australia.

For the final years of the nineteenth century and for most of the following twentieth century work within the Chief Secretary's Building was confined to altering and adding as the need arose. There were no planned programs of extension or renovation. The interiors of the building began to reflect this ad hoc approach to office accommodation which in turn illustrate the changing roles of the various departments housed within the building. Minor alterations, particularly the provision of ladies lavatories in 1915, illustrates a changing pattern within the workforce that serviced the departments. The period of the 1920s was the most active in terms of work carried out on the building.

After World War II improvements were made to the building to bring it in line with modern standards and requirements. The construction of the State Office Block in the 1960s and the subsequent relocation of the Public Works Departments there allowed the Chief Secretary's building to be renovated and re-used for several new purposes. Through the later 1960s and to 1971 the Chief Secretary's Building underwent major changes to accommodate new occupants principally the Divorce Courts, including accommodation for judges, the Opera House Trust, the Commissioner for Western Lands and the Valuer General's Department.

A Bicentennial project in the 1980s, restored the stonework of the building. This work was completed in 1990 at a cost of approximately two million dollars. In 1995 a $15 million refurbishment of the Chief Secretary's building was carried out.

The original building comprises levels 1 to 4 was constructed between 1873 and 1881. In 1894-96 the mansard at level 5 and the dome were added. The Phillip Street additions were built in four major stages over the period 1890-1893. Stage 1 : 3 bay width, levels 1-6. Stage 2 : Infill over Phillip Lane, Levels 2-5. Stage 3 : 2 bay width, Levels 1-6. Stage 4 : Mansard increased in height, Level 6. Other alterations included: Before 1897 - Room added on level 2 & 3 of original building. 1914 - formation of Governor's Suite, Level 2 of original building. 1920 - Insertion of timber stair, level 1 to level 2, north-east corner of original building. 1942 - conversion of Bridge Street lift from hydraulic to electric operation. April 1967 - the Department of Public Works relocated from the Chief Secretary's Building to their new headquarters in the State Office Block. Major alterations to interiors occurred on all levels and safety aspects improved. After 1970 - the original latrine block in the middle of the courtyard was demolished and the pre-1897 additional rooms on levels 2 & 3 of the original building were demolished. The building was entirely re-roofed and the sandstone facade cleaned.

The importance of the office of the Chief Secretary is emphasised by the almost continuous responsibility for this portfolio taken by successive Premiers of NSW after the institution of responsible government in 1856. This link between the chief political office and administrative department was not broken until the middle years of the twentieth century. The office space afforded for ministerial occupation illustrates this link as does the Executive Council Chamber. Because of the dual political/administrative connections of this office it was associated with several outstanding and prominent figures in both the social and political life of NSW and Australia, these included Henry Parkes, Charles Cowper and John Robertson who were some of the prominent incumbents of the office. Through the association of the office with these figures it has come to be associated with dominant political and social agendas of the nineteenth century, including Federation, economic and land reforms. From 1881 to 1891 Sir Henry Parkes, Premier and Colonial Secretary occupied the corner office on the third floor of the building.


In 1883, the Chief Secretary's Office was the venue for an important Intercolonial Convention at which, prefiguring the powers of the future federal government, the Australian colonies endeavoured to work out a mechanism for adopting a united position on matters of foreign policy, as well as on other issues of common concern. The convention came about as a result of the colonies' apprehension about German designs on New Guinea and French preparations to annex the New Hebrides. In the face of the refusal by the British government to take action on either issue, the Queensland Premier, Sir Thomas McIIwraith, put the idea of an intercolonial convention to the Victorian Premier, James Service. Service set to work to organise the convention and it was eventually held in the Chief Secretary's Office in Sydney in November-December 1883. The major outcome of the meeting was an agreement to establish the Federal Council of Australasia, a body that would have a degree of overarching authority in the areas of foreign affairs, defence, quarantine, criminal and commercial law, the enforcement of court orders and the regulation of fisheries. The Council was formed in 1885 and first met in Hobart in January the following year; it eventually covened for a total of eight sessions up until its last meeting in January 1899. Though the powers of the Council were quite circumscribed and it suffered from the failure of NSW to support it, it nevertheless marked an important step in the movement towards the federation of the Australian colonies.

The Chief Secretary's Office was the venue for another important meeting that foreshadowed a future area of responsibility of the federal government when it came into being in 1901. In the late 1880s, the British military officer, Major-General J.B. Bevan-Edwards, had completed a comprehensive survey of the Australian colonies' defences, as a result of which he had recommended that all of the colonial forces should be combined into a single federated military structure. Four intercolonial military conferences during the 1890s began the work of implementing Edward's recommendation. One of these conference, comprising a meeting of the Intercolonial Military Committee, was held at the Chief Secretary's Office in January-February 1896. The work of the four intercolonial military conferences of the 1890s contributed to the formal establishment of an Australian military force on 1 March 1901, two months after federation, when the Commonwealth assumed control of all of the former colonial military forces.

Several other important intercolonial conferences were held in the Executive Council Chambers within the Chief Secretary's Building. These conferences, which dealt with matters of mutual interest to the colonies, presaged their later cooperation within a federation and, like the question of defence, prefigured the powers of the future federal government. Thus, the Chambers were the site of a Postal Conference in May 1883 and of another in January 1888. Under the terms of the Constitution, the Commonwealth assumed control of postal communications after federation. In September 1884, the Chambers hosted an Australasian Sanitary Conference on the subject of quarantine, which likewise became a Commonwealth responsibility after the federation of the colonies. The Chambers were the venue in June 1888 for a Conference on the Chinese Question which was held at the height of colonial fears over the level of Chinese immigration. The conference was part of the process that saw the colonies enact stricter and fairly uniform laws to keep Chinese and other Asians out of Australia. Thought race did not, as a result, constitute a burning issue during the 1890s and the federation agitation of that decade, the restrictive immigration laws of the colonies were quickly replaced at federation with the Commonwealth's Immigration Restriction Act which inaugurated the White Australia Policy. Apart from conferences on particular issues like this, the Executive Council Chambers also served as the location for at least two Premiers Conferences prior to federation, one in March 1896 and another in April 1900.


In its existing configuration the Chief Secretary's Building consists of 2 major directly linked components. At Macquarie, Bridge and Phillip Streets - a four storey sandstone building, with a copper and slate roof mansard and a copper clad dome. The original building was designed by Barnet in what is now called the Victorian Free Classical style; characteristics of this style evident in this building are the massive basement wall with superimposed classical orders and circular arched openings, wide arcaded balconies and balustraded parapets. Barnet adopted a scheme of interior decoration that involved variations from floor to floor and a further variation within each floor. Flooring is in timber and marble.
W.L.Vernon added to and extended this building in the Victorian Second Empire style, the chief characteristics of which can be seen in the iron crested mansard roofs and the pavilion dome. The dome has corrugated aluminium roofing, one of the earliest uses of this cladding material in Australia.

The second component, known as the Phillip Street additions is a five storey sandstone building with copper roofed mansards, designed by the Acting Engineer-in-Chief.
History Not Available
Condition and Integrity
Physical condition is good (1997).
121 Macquarie Street, 65 Bridge Street, 44-50 Phillip Street, Sydney.
Bennett, S. C. 1970 "Influence of defence on Australian federation", Army Journal, no. 249.

City of Sydney Heritage Inventory, No. 2118.

Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis Consultants Pty Ltd & Thorp W. 1994 "Chief Secretary's Building 121 Macquarie Street and 50 Phillip Street, Sydney: Conservation Plan" Vol 1& 2, prepared for the Minister for Planning, NSW.

NSW Heritage Office "Chief Secretary's Building" State Heritage Register Report.

O'Keefe, B. & Pearson, M. 1998. "Federation: A national survey of heritage places", Australian Heritage Commission.

Yarwood, A. T. & Knowling, M. T. 1982. "Race Relations in Australia: A History", North Ryde, Methuen.

Report Produced  Thu Sep 18 11:02:49 2014