Although the idea for a ‘town hall’ was first suggested by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1813, the quest for a civic hall for Sydney can be said to have begun in earnest following the passing of the Sydney Incorporation Act in 1842. This official declaration recognised the colonial settlement as a township and imposed a managerial structure to its administration. To begin with, the first elected aldermen met in public houses, among their constituents, but as the volume of their work and their social status increased, pressure was applied to find a civic home of their own. Their preferred site was a neglected cemetery in the trading and commercial heart of the city, on George Street, close to the markets and wharves.
The Old Sydney Burial Ground (in use between 1793 and 1820), described by visiting French explorer, Francois Peron in 1802 as “an object of curiosity by several striking monuments that have been erected in it; and the execution of which is much better than could reasonably have been expected from the state of the arts in so young a colony” had by the 1840s become an eyesore and a community health hazard.
So keen were the aldermen to secure the site that they organised for Sydney’s first royal visitor, HRH Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, to lay a foundation stone on 4 April 1868, even though negotiations were still underway for the transfer of the site and no plans for a building had been drawn.
Finally, the colonial authorities in Macquarie Street capitulated and following the passing of an act of parliament to close the cemetery, the city fathers secured the site they had long campaigned for. Within a matter of months, the site on which the town hall would be erected was exhumed and cleared and the Municipal Council announced a public competition for building designs.
Built on the site of Sydney’s first official European cemetery, Sydney Town Hall was constructed of honey-coloured ‘yellow block’ sandstone quarried from nearby Pyrmont between 1868 and 1889. Architecturally, it is a striking example of French Second Empire (Napoleon III) architecture, taking its inspiration from the Hotel de Ville in Paris and French chateaux and is distinguished by its mansard roofs and wrought iron cresting. The design was chosen from a winning entry submitted by architect J H Willson in 1868. His original concept was interpreted and embellished by successive council architects and engineers as the building evolved.
Although the Town Hall is a multipurpose building with a high degree of adaptability, but the primary functions of Sydney Town Hall have changed little in over 140 years. Large spaces which can be adapted for meetings, exhibitions, receptions and performances dominate the interior which also accommodates the council chamber and civic offices for the lord mayor and aldermen. Outside, the steps and balconies provide the ceremonial platforms for street parades and stages for democratic expression while high above, the public clock keeps the city on time.
Sydney Town Hall has always been the civic office of the lord mayor and aldermen of the day. It was also once a hub of offices for the city engineers, architects, surveyors and inspectors whose services are now located in Town Hall House. Council’s civic staff, protocol and venue management are now located here, ensuring that the public use of Town Hall is well managed and monitored.
Behind the scenes, there is also a complement of staff whose job it is to keep the building in top operational order and looking its best.