Once described as a ‘bride cake’, the architecture of Sydney Town Hall is a composite of neo-Classical and French Second Empire elements, combining the imperial antiquity of ancient Greece and Rome with fashionable French architecture popularised in the public buildings and grand chateaux constructed during the reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870).
The first stage of Sydney Town Hall features a Classical revival ‘temple’ façade carved with an early version of the city’s coat of arms, and walls defined by paired columns, huge arched headed windows, and carved sandstone decoration including lion masks, finials, urns and friezes. The roofscape, with its slate-covered mansard pavilions with wrought iron cresting and finials, louvred dormers and decorative metal festoons, is considered to be the finest examples of French Second Empire architecture in Australia. This style follows through to the second stage (Centennial Hall) where the neo-Classical embellishment is subdued and the huge lantern roof and large stone side entrances provide the visual drama.
High above the roof, the central clocktower incorporates a neo-Classical styled domed ‘tholos’, round topped pediments, and finials but adapts the Second Empire styled overlapping scallop-shapes for sandstone roof covering.
A unique feature of Sydney Town Hall is the early use of Australian motifs for decorative detail throughout the building. From its colonial coats of arms to its profusion of native flora, the metalwork railings and light fittings, stained glass windows, mosaic floors, and carved cedar imbue the building with a truly Australian identity.
Across the world, from Stockholm to Santiago, from San Francisco and Shinjuku to Sydney, town halls share many common features. They are thought to have originated in Anglo-Saxon times as places where citizens came to pay their taxes and later, as the medieval meeting places for the members of guilds who upheld the standards for trading in cities and towns. With the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act in England in 1835, the ultimate civic symbol a city could have was an imposing town hall.
Town halls are almost always imposing architectural landmarks, connected to large outdoor spaces and adjoining administrative offices. Generally, they house a large debating chamber to uphold the democratic process of local government and the offices of the elected representatives who are responsible for the management of cities. They also contain the ceremonial spaces associated with civic duty and halls and rooms for public use.