You know, we often take Sydney Town Hall for granted. It’s undeniably a city landmark – we sit on its steps and watch the world go by, use it as a meeting place, and it has given its name to a train station – but it is also a very special building. City of Sydney Council announced this week that they are embarking on the final stage of conservation works to spruce up the building, a reminder to look up when we’re in the city and appreciate the hall’s architecture, design and history.
This has been a long term project, but in a just a few more years the Town Hall will be sparkling like the cultural gem it is. This stage of the works entails enclosing the southern and western exteriors with scaffolding so that the sandstone can be cleaned and repaired. And the stained glass windows in the main hall will be carefully removed and restored.
Sydney Town Hall was originally designed by J H Willson, and its two stages of construction was overseen by a series of five architects over a period of two decades. The building exhibits an exuberant French Second Empire architectural style, combined with Neo-Classical tempe-like elements. There are lots of carved columns, dentils, festoons of flowers, and lions heads.
A town hall encompasses the vision and aspirations of the civic fathers – and Sydney Town Hall is just that. At the time of its completion in 1889, Sydney Town Hall was a daring, technologically innovative building. It had a large roof expanse without columns, and the ceiling was a pressed metal ceiling by Wunderlich – the first of its kind at such scale. There was decoration of native flora and the largest organ in the southern hemisphere which was the envy of the world. This was a place for the people of Sydney: a civic and cultural venue for elections, parties, anything. The building is a testament to the artisans and craftsmen that brought the building to life.
But it is the stained glass windows in the interior which are the real stunners. A pair of semicircular stained glass windows designed by Lucien Henry, a French artist living in Sydney, encapsulated through symbolic imagery Sydney’s place in the world and its promise as a city. You might have seen them if you’ve gone to a concert in Sydney Town Hall – they grace the stairwells on the northern and southern side.
On one side is a traditional design acknowledging the British empire, with the incorporation of Captain Cook on board a ship with a telescope. But it is the southern window that takes your breath away. In the southern stairwell New South Wales is represented as an allegorical, draped in a Union Jack with a solar halo and headdress of rams’ horns and wool. She holds a miner’s lamp in one hand, representing the mineral wealth of the colony, and Neptune’s trident, representing its maritime power, in her other hand. She stands commandingly over Oceania; she is the jewel of the southern hemisphere. The side panels are decorated with waratahs, flannel flowers and firewheels, as well as the stars of the Southern Cross.
High above the main hall a series of stained glass clerestory windows also feature native flora. The windows depict musical instruments, fruit and Australian native wildflowers. These are also believed to be the work of Lucien Henry.
It is clear that the subject matter reflects white values of the day, and while the application of native flora was itself an innovative step at that time, the windows did not embrace or include our First Nations Peoples. But the designs of the Town Hall were definitely expressing an emerging appreciation of the unique flora and fauna of this land and presenting these symbols as part of the colonial Sydney identity and a nascent national identity. It is interesting that it was a migrant, French-born designer Lucien Henry, who saw the place with fresh eyes and revolutionised Australian decoration.
The building is special for its continuing use as the offices of the Council of the City of Sydney and as the city’s civic and cultural centre. The hall is built on the former site of Sydney’s first official European cemetery. There are so many layers of people, decoration, occasion and celebration connected with this site that together tell the unique history of the City of Sydney.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa, for ten years of unstinting support of the Dictionary! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio