cbd005ab.jpg (55021 bytes) Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

General Post Office


James Barnet  


1 Martin Place (and George Street).




Victorian Free Classical




Government Post Office
The General Post Office was constructed in stages from 1866-91. It is the most notable work in the city by colonial architect James Barnet. The realistic carvings facing Pitt Street and Martin Place, carved by sculptor Thomas Sani, caused a public scandal. They were viciously attacked by the press and Parliament as being “hideous in form and expression” and attempts were made to force Barnet to remove them.
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The most disinterested public sculpture to a man of science I know of in Sydney is that on the Pitt Street side of the G.P.O., completed with the second phase of the building in 1883. It is, reputedly, of Archibald Liversidge, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Sydney, and was carved by the Italian, Tommaso Sani, under James Barnet's general direction. It is, however, only a section of one of four spandrel sculptures.

All the G.P.O. spandrel sculptures caused a great public outcry when they were completed. Their naturalistic style and their semi-comical references to real people were considered most inappropriate for the permanent medium of architectural carving. For instance, the postman appears to be a portrait of the post-master general, Francis Wright, delivering a letter to a servant girl who is flirting with him. The architect of the building was also there, Barnet being depicted as a Michelangelsque God still dreaming of his combined museum, gallery and library building (in the background). Liversidge was included in the spandrel representing Sydney's professions – as 'the Professor' – along with Sir James Martin as 'the Judge'.They formed a pair with Commerce and Mining.

Questions were asked in Parliament about these relief sculptures and a Select Committee was set up to decide whether they should be removed. The President of the English Royal Academy, Lord Leighton – a lifelong Classicist announced on seeing photographs of the controversial works: 'You have indeed an uphill fight where such things are possible'. Such a furore over modestly realistic representations in stone implies that the sculptures somehow posed a real threat to establishment values. Like the buildings that housed them, scientific pursuits were moving away from exclusively British interests, from being the province of the governor or resident gentlemen of means or even from being allied with privileged institutions such as the Australian Museum and Sydney University. At the G.P.O. the ordinary person was being publicly invited to view the various activities of the colony – including science – depicted in a style he or she could understand, although, as yet, no building allowing significant participation in such activities was being contemplated by 1883.
Above right- replacing the clock.
Above- the same view 70 years apart.

General Post Office

General Post OfficeMartin Place, George and Pitt Streets, Sydney
1864-91 James Barnet (CA)

Built at huge expense over the Tank Stream, the General Post Office was constructed in stages from 1866 to 1891. It could well be described as Sydney’s Opera House of the 19th century since the relative cost, the time taken in construction and the rejection, then belated recognition, of the architect are all parallels.

The project came to the attention of James Johnstone Barnet (1827-1904) when he was appointed acting Colonial Architect in 1862. The General Post Office was regarded as a building which would come to symbolise Sydney in much the same way as the Houses of parliament at Westminster symbolise London or the Eiffel Tower Paris.

In fact the post and telegraph services of the General Post Office (compared to the Australian Museum or a new Parliament House) were held in such high esteem that the creation of a ‘monument’ gathered unprecedented support across the full spectrum of politics. The projects required the resumption of St Martins Lane for a block between Pitt and George Streets. Barnet’s original sketch shows the 100 metre frontage of the building to be without attics, mansard roofs or a clock tower.

At the opening of the first stage, the Post Master General exclaimed that the General Post Office ‘will not be surpassed by any other similar structure in the Southern Hemisphere’.


Above- a view looking down Martin Place in the late forties showing the GPO without its clock tower (removed during the war so as not to act as a target for Japanese bombers).

Unfortunately, slow progress in the second stage and some adverse comment about his carved figures sparked a controversy in Parliament. The panels over the Pitt Street colonnade depict the following subjects: Telegraph, Literature and the Press, the Professions, Commerce and Mining, Agriculture, Pastoral Pursuits, Science, Art, Banking and the Post Office. The figures were depicted in ‘present day clothing’, which led to them being unfairly described by one MP in Parliament as ‘tedious abortions’. It was such a contentious issue that a Board of Enquiry was set up, headed by the Gothic architect (and rival) William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-99). The board instructed that the ‘grotesque carvings’ be immediately removed. Fortunately, the Parliamentary report was ignored by the Post Master General and the ‘offensive’ carvings remain in all their glory. In the ‘Sydney’ panel, the architect Barnet can be seen giving instructions to a workman. The tower over the Queen’s statue was taken down during World War II because of the threat of air raids and the possibility of the tower collapsing and destroying the trunk telephone exchange located to one side. The mansard roof was added after Barnet’s time. The building is subject to a Federal Government redevelopment proposal which may see the execution of a hotel tower behind the original structure, the restoration of the main building and a glass-roofed atrium between the new and old.

Information appearing in this section is reproduced from Sydney Architecture, with the kind permission of the author, Graham Jahn, a well-known Sydney architect and former City of Sydney Councillor. Sydney Architecture, rrp $35.00, is available from all good book stores or from the publisher, Watermark Press, Telephone: 02 9818 5677.

With thanks to http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/ 

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The Westin Sydney
No.1 Martin Place
Sydney NSW 2000
Phone: +61 2 8223 1111
Toll Free: 1800 656 535
Fax: +61 2 8223 1222
E-mail: The Westin Sydney