Sydney’s sandstone heritage at risk


…by Laila Ellmoos

For almost 200 years, NSW has had a government-appointed architect to oversee the design and construction of public buildings in Sydney and across NSW. Emancipist convict Francis Howard Greenway was the first, appointed by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in 1816. Although later censured for his excessive spending on public works, Macquarie’s decision proved to be far-sighted. Twenty-two architects have followed in Greenway’s stead.

The longest serving was James Barnet from 1862 to 1890. In this 28-year period, the Colonial Architect’s Branch was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of 1,351 buildings across NSW. These include some of Sydney’s most recognisable public buildings such as Sydney’s General Post Office and the Lands Department Building.

Between 1958 and 1973, the Government Architect’s Branch led by Edward Farmer won numerous architectural awards for its innovative public buildings. It was also a training ground for some of Australia’s finest architects, including Ken Woolley, Russell Jack and Andrew Andersons. The office, at one time reputed to be the largest architectural practice in the southern hemisphere, continued to lead NSW government’s massive building program up until the early 1990s.

On the cusp of the 200th anniversary of the appointment of Australia’s first government architect the end of public architecture in NSW is nigh. The Government Architect’s Office (the GAO) is about to be cut to the bone, again – its first massive chop was in the early 1990s during the reign of Nick Greiner as NSW’s premier. It’s recently been announced that the office will be reduced from 120 staff to 12.

The future is not bright for our historic public buildings either, especially our sandstone heritage. The cuts to the GAO will likely include the specialist heritage team, which provides practical and strategic heritage advice across government and leads the way in best practice in the heritage field. The NSW government is also closing its stone yard based at Alexandria, which employs a team of skilled stone masons and heritage tradesmen responsible for the upkeep of Sydney’s sandstone heritage. These practitioners have carried on the legacy of master mason George Proudman, who did much to develop a group of skilled masons to conserve NSW’s significant sandstone buildings in the 1970s and 1980s.

I was employed as a historian at the GAO’s heritage team in the mid to late-2000s and had the great pleasure of working with some of the dedicated and highly skilled stone masons and building fabric specialists at the ‘yard’. Two projects from this time are close to my heart. The first was providing background historical research to enable skilled stone masons to reinstate the missing head of a marble statue of Charles Dickens so he could be returned to Centennial Park. The second was to provide historical advice for a new statue carved of the surveyor James Meehan, destined for one of the niches in the façade of the Lands Department Building constructed between 1876 and 1892.

Sydney has a legacy of late Victorian buildings built with locally sourced stone known as ‘yellow block’ because, although grey when first extracted, with oxidation it becomes a warm ochre colour. Sandstone not only forms the foundations of Sydney but from the mid-19th century, became its main building block as the town grew into a city.

In the 19th century, public architecture was seen to play a role in expressing and instilling a sense of civic identity and pride. As a result, many of NSW’s public buildings symbolised its development from a penal settlement to a self-governing colony.

The NSW government is responsible for managing the largest heritage asset portfolio in the state, and has done since the first public buildings were constructed. I’ve recently dipped into Russell Jack’s history of the NSW Government Architect’s Branch from 1958 to 1973. He had this to say about the branch’s approach to NSW’s built heritage when Farmer was at the helm:

Farmer considered that the Government Architect’s Branch should be custodian of historic buildings belonging to the State Government…By such control he hoped to prevent the unsympathetic additions and makeshift maintenance that often took place.

What’s to become of our sandstone heritage in the age of neo-liberalism and the free market? And will the legacy of master mason George Proudman be short-lived?

It will be such a blow for Sydney’s built heritage to lose the dedicated and skilled heritage practitioners at the GAO and the stone masons at the Public Works stone yard. The yard’s specialist stonemasons have well-recognised carving skills; they also take practical measures to make sure that passers-by are safe from falling stone – sandstone, while a beautiful building material, has a limited lifespan. Apart from the loss of skilled staff, what is to become of the machinery used for precision cutting of sandstone with the closure of the yard, and what will be the fate for the sandstone stockpile, essential for the ongoing maintenance and repair of our wonderful sandstone public buildings?

These are sad times indeed for public architecture in NSW.

To hear more about the stonemasons from the yard, go to the ABC Hindsight archive:

[Image: detail of a carving on the General Post Office, photographed by Gary Deirmendjian in c2001 (City of Sydney Archives, Deirmendjian Sydney Sandstone Collection 21370)

15 thoughts on “Sydney’s sandstone heritage at risk”

  1. What a comprehensive overview of this vital issue. Thanks Laila. PHA (NSW & ACT)has already written to the relevant ministers about the closure of the stone yard but we may need to consider direct action when the crunch comes. Are members ready to woman/man the barricades?

  2. It is really interesting how governments never learn from history. It was only after an outcry about threats to Sydney’s sandstone heritage in 1991 that the Greiner Government implemented the Centenary Stonework Program. Over the years the program has completed essential maintenance on Sydney’s sandstone buildings.
    It is sad to see this legacy under threat.
    This state of affairs is also related to the parlous state of traditional trades training in NSW, and Australia in general, and the maintenance cycle of the country’s stock of colonial buildings.
    Various government reports have called for leadership on these issues. Something that is sorely lacking.
    Read more @

  3. Thanks Stephen I’ll try to keep you guys updated on how the campaign is going. It’s great to have your support on this and there is also an appreciation of you down at the Alexandria stone yard.

  4. I am a lecturer in sculpture at the National Art School. We take all of our students to the “yard” at Alexandria during their course of study. It is always incredibly valuable as a learning experience an the stonemasons their are fantastic to watch and talk to about their work. They are obviously so committed to their work. We put together a petition to show our support for retaining this marvellous resource and sent it to the premier Mike Baird. If it closes it will be such a short sighted decision which will inevitably be reversed in future but after what damage has been done?

    • Hi Laila
      No, we have a paper petition I can email you if you like. My email is The advice I have received about petitions are that for the issue to be debated in parliament it needs to be a paper petition. So rightly or wrongly we are now committed to this version. Thanks for the great article on your blog.

  5. To all that want to further support this campaign if you have the time we are gathering a group to at City of Sydney Town Hall to be in the gallery of the council chambers to witness the putting forward of a motion supporting keeping NSW Public Works Heritage Services in public hands. Meet on the front steps of the town hall at about 6:30pm aiming to be in the council chambers gallery by 6:45pm.
    I can be contact on 0407 701 392.

  6. I saw Minister for Heritage Mark Speakman, my local member, at the Cronulla Spring Fair last weekend and when I raised this issue with him he assured me the stone yard was not going to close! I’m not sure that he knew much about it however. Here’s hoping he’s right

  7. Hi Pauline
    Interesting news I hope it’s true as well. In mean time we are still pursuing signatures for our petition and spreading the word of what they have told the the guys at the stone yard, that is they will be privatised. The latest offer from the department is a staff buy out. The problem with this is it is still privatisation and will still have a negative effect on the preservation of our Heritage buildings and the maintaining of the skills.
    Follow us on Facebook ‘Save our Heritage Services’
    Thanks for all the help and all you guys at the Professional Historians Association.

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