It was announced recently that Australia Post has secured a deal to sell one of Sydney’s grandest heritage buildings – the General Post Office in Martin Place, a Renaissance style building in one of the city’s busiest squares.
During the 1830s, the post office which operated on the site of today’s General Post Office building was housed in a former police station. In the late 1840s it was given a new portico facade, complete with Doric columns, and in 1848 artist Joseph Fowles described it as ‘one of the most important buildings in the colony, not merely as regards the structure, but as being the centre and focus, the heart, as it may be termed, from which the pulse of the civilisation throbs to the remotest extremity of the land.’
As the population of New South Wales expanded, so too did the demand for an improved postal service. In 1864, the Colonial Architect, James Barnet, was appointed to design the new post office for the growing city. Straddling the Tank Stream, the building was in an Italian Renaissance Palazzo style. It was built of Pyrmont sandstone with granite quarried at Moruya, and constructed over a 26-year period in two stages.
With the first stage of the building completed, the General Post Office was officially opened in September 1874. The second stage of construction, which now included the clock tower, began in 1879. The clock tower functioned as a timepiece for the city, and was also used to telegraph meteorological messages to Sydney’s residents from the South Coast through the use of mechanically operated, colour-coded flags.
In addition to housing the colony’s postal service, the building housed the telegraph department from 1867 and from the early 1880s, Sydney’s first telephone exchange. The first telephone installed in the building in August 1880 ran only between the GPO and the Royal Exchange and the Sydney Morning Herald described many of the conversations had over a telephone for the first time, as having ‘a rather silly character’.
There were some alterations made to the building in 1927, and in 1942 during World War II the clock tower was dismantled to reduce the visibility and vulnerability to aerial attack. It wasn’t replaced until 1964.
Over the 1980s the General Post Office underwent dramatic changes when it was leased out and refurbished. Part of the building was sold by Australia Post in the 1990s and converted into a hotel, along with boutique shops, cafes and restaurants.
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator, and the Executive Officer of the History Council of NSW.
She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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