Sydney Architecture Images- Gone but not forgotten

Garden Palace Exhibition Building Sydney International Exhibition of 1879


James Barnet  


Royal Botanic Gardens


Built 1879, destroyed by fire 1882.


Victorian Italianate


wood and stucco 64 m 210 ft 


Contemporary Pictures
The Garden Palace was built from oregon timber shipped in from USA.
It took 8 months to build with 200 guys working the first round the clock shifts ,even by arc light at night.
The cruciform shaped building stretched 800ft (noth/south) & 500ft (east/west).intersected by a huge 31m diameter dome reaching 64m high.
Above- views from the roof of a very low-rise Sydney in 1880.
The interior
Above- image by Simon Fieldhouse
The Fire
The fire as seen from Mosman.
The site today
The Garden Palace was a large purpose-built exhibition building constructed to house the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. It was designed by James Barnet and was constructed at a cost of 191,800 Pounds in only eight months - largely due to the special importation from England of electric lighting which enabled work to be carried out around-the-clock.

Visually similar in many respects to the later Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, the Sydney building consisted of three turreted wings meeting beneath a central dome. The building was sited at what is today the southwestern end of the Royal Botanical Gardens (although at the time it was built it occupied land that was outside the Gardens), and was of primarily timber construction - a fact that was to assure its complete destruction when engulfed by fire in the early morning of September 22, 1882.

The only extant remains of the Garden Palace are its carved sandstone gateposts and wrought iron gates, located on the Macquarie Street entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens. A 1940s-era sunken garden and fountain featuring a statue of Cupid marks the former location of the Palace's dome. The only artifact from the International Exhibition to survive the fire - a carved graphite statue of an elephant, from Ceylon - is on exhibit at the Powerhouse Museum.

- With it's massive dome it was the tallest building in Sydney when completed, surpassing the 57m tall Town Hall clock tower built 4 years earlier. 
- Early on the morning of September 22, 1882 the complex was completely destroyed by a 6-hour fire. All that remains from the palace are the steel gates which can be seen on Macquairie Street. 
- The cruciform shaped structure had halls that stretched 244m x 152m long. At the end of the halls were stone towers 36m high for observation. 
- Builder John Young built the massive structure in only 8 months out of Oregon timber shipped from America. 1500 men worked around the clock (3 shifts), using powerful arc lights at night. 
- The 31 meter diameter dome was the world's 6th largest. 
- Architect James Barnet prepared plans for the building to hold an International Exhibition. 
- The northern tower housed Australia's first hydraulic passenger lift. 
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Sydney's forgotten palace
Richard Macey September 15, 2007

NO ONE knows how the Garden Palace fire of 1882 started.

One theory was that wealthy Macquarie Street residents, upset their harbour views had been stolen by the giant building, lit the blaze.

Another was that it was burnt to destroy the census of 1881. Stored in the palace, the records apparently exposed embarrassing secrets about the convict and squatter origins of many leading families. Or possibility it was an accident.

What ever the cause, the loss of Sydney's grandest building on September 22, 1882 was a disaster for the infant city.

The Herald reported it as news "the whole colony - indeed the whole of the Australian colonies, and we might add, the whole of the civilised world - will hear with deep regret".

Built from timber and galvanised iron in a corner of the Botanic Gardens for Sydney's International Exhibition of 1879, it housed displays of manufactured and agricultural products, including crystal glass, tobacco, maize and even electric light.

It was huge, but most people have never heard of it," one guide, Heather Branch, said yesterday. "It was several times bigger than the Queen Victoria Building."Directly under its 64-metre-high central dome was a fountain and a colossal statue of Queen Victoria. There were restaurants, an oyster bar and tea rooms.

The Herald's account of the fire described how witnesses saw smoke, "then an immense burst of fire" beneath the dome.

"The roar of the flames leaping up from the basement through the circular aperture for the fountain sounded, the men said, like an explosion.

"Flames wreathed round the great bronze statue of Her Majesty the Queen …" and went "rushing up in long tongues to the dome".

"The stained glass of the skylight dropped in a molten rain …Volumes of black smoke rolled up, and with a crash like a peal of thunder the mighty dome fell in."

Falling cinders set fire to a house in Potts Point and the heat cracked Macquarie Street windows.

Today little remains in the gardens, except for some entrance steps and a statue of a huntsman and his two dogs.

A graphite elephant is held in the Powerhouse Museum.

Where Queen Victoria's statue once stood is now a statue of Eros, erected decades after the blaze.

The executive director of the Botanic Gardens Trust, Dr Tim Entwisle, admitted the destruction of the massive building wasn't all bad. "It left us with a lot more space."


There are a few major differences between Sydney's Garden Palace and Melbourne's Royal Exhibition Building.

The Sydney building had less time to prepare, so timber was the most practical option. The Melbourne structure had more stone used in its construction, although time is used in beams supporting the roof.

In terms of these buildings being a white elephant, much of Melbourne's REB has been demolished. It was far, far bigger in 1880. (this picture shows an entire Northern Wing behind the current building that stands today)