Sydney Architecture Images-Sydney Architects

Walter Liberty Vernon  

Walter Liberty Vernon's early career began in England, where he developed a practice that produced buildings in the fashionable Queen Anne style that was current. Vernon, however, developed bronchitic asthma and was advised to leave England for the Colonies for health reasons. Prior to his departure, Vernon managed to gain a commission to erect new premises for Messrs David Jones and Company in George Street. He arrived in 1883 and set up practice. (Fig 25)

In partnership with Joseland, Oxley and Mocatta he won a competition for the design of the new suburb of Kensington, thus beginning his interest in town planning. On taking over as Government Architect, a new title determined by the Government, he was placed at the head of an office substantially the same as Barnet's. There were 73 staff members still working under Barnet's original designations. The office was placed in joint care of senior assistants Spencer and Rumsey, who carried on from Barnet's period. Robertson was promoted to the newly created post of Principal Assistant Architect. One of Barnet's sons, Thomas, continued on as an assistant archtiect. The office still worked in the 'room' system established by Barnet. Vernon was freed from the responsibility of emptying the 'privies' and sweeping the chimneys of the Government offices. Vernon was still responsible for the regular maintenance of the 938 buildings that the Government owned at that time. The Government, however, did not fully support this and the maintenace vote dropped to one third of the previous sum. 

Vernon organised a competition for Grafton gaol, but a second competition for a new mental hospital near Goulburn, was objected to by local residents. The Minister of Public Works instructed the Government Architect to incorporate the features of the winning schemes into a new proposal and the competition process became replaced by Vernon undertaking all public building designs. Vernon had argued to the Minister that the Government Architect's branch could accomplish the work for less than half the cost of the competition system.

In the middle of 1895, Vernon had to reduce his staff to 44 and reluctantly had to loose a number of his key officers. Edmund Spencer, who had been with the office since January 1867 was retrenched and Edward Rumsey retired after 20 years service. The longest serving staff member, Alfred Cook, was superannuated after 39 years continuous service under Blacket, Weaver, Dawson, Barnet and Vernon. Cook was typical of many who worked for the Government Architect or the Colonial Architect and who carried the design ethics of the office across a number of generations.

Vernon's office introduced a new approach to public buildings with an Arts and Craft style as shown through Fire Stations at Darlinghurst and Pyrmont, Post Offices and country Courthouses. These were decidedly less monumental than those of his predecessor Barnet (Fig 26) Vernon also built a number of major public buildings, such as the Mitchell wing at the State Library, the Art Gallery of NSW, Fisher Library at the University of Sydney and Central Railway Station. He also added to a number of the buildings designed by his predecessors including Customs House, the GPO and the Chief Secretaries building. 

A drawing by Vernon for the NSW Art Gallery.

The change in architectural style was influenced by a number of British trained architects who joined Vernon's office. One of these was George Oakeshott, who joined Vernon's staff in 1891 and became chief draftsman in 1897 until his resignation in 1900. He later became the first Director of the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs, NSW Works Branch, a position that Vernon himself applied for, but was unsuccessful. 

Vernon often had Gorrie McLeish Blair and John Barr both produce separate designs for key public projects and he would then choose the most appropriate of these. Blair ultimately became Government Architect in 1923 and Barr became First Class Assistant Architect until his resignation in 1923. 

At the beginning of 1896, Vernon's addition of a mansard roof and dome to Barnet's Chief Secretary's and Public Works building was complete and Vernon and his staff moved into the new office from the old Colonial Architect's office to the north of Hyde Park Barracks. (Fig 28)

The Architects branch of the Department of Public Instruction which had been run by William Kemp was instructed to amalgamate with the Government Architect's branch. The officers were transferred to Vernon's office on 1 July 1896 and this included Richard McDonald Seymour Wells who became Government Architect in 1927. 

In 1897 Vernon took six month's leave of absence to undertake an overseas tour to inspect architecture in Britain and Europe (Fig 29). Vernon's summary on his return was that…. "The Government buildings of this Colony do not suffer by comparison with those in European countries." The Vernon papers in the Mitchell Library have a number of scrapbooks from Vernons 1897 trip although most of the material is about his military role with the NSW Lancers. Vernon was in London for the festivities for the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria's reign. The scrapbook has the invitation to the Queens Diamond Jubilee Reception and Ball on the 5th July 1897 made out to Colonel Vernon. The celebrations included lavish lighting displays which must have made an impression on Vernon for his role in the Federation celebrations in Sydney in 1901. Vernons military career was almost more important than that of Government Architect. The Vernon scrapbooks are filled with military plans for operations in the Hunter Valley and drawings of manouvres at Jamberoo. (Fig 30)

In December 1897, a new Principal Assistant Architect, George McRae was appointed, who later succeeded Vernon as Government Architect. 

Following an outbreak of plague in the Rocks area, it was decided to demolish a majority of the buildings. Vernon was directed to carry out the building work as a matter of urgency. He established a small sub-branch under Alfred Brindley, who renovated 1,000 properties and a carried out the design and erection of many dwellings and commercial premises in the area, including 32 model dwelling house erected in Windmill Street in 1908. 

Robert Charles Given Coulter was another talented draftsman, who joined Vernon's office in 1900 and retired in 1929. Coulter produced a legacy of beautiful perspectives and aerial views that were used during the 1909 Commission of Enquiry into Improvements for Sydney and the Suburbs. His drawings were also used for explaining solutions for the Harbour Bridge and sites for the new Australian Capital.

Towards the end of Vernon's time as Government Architect, another English architect joined the office, William Moyes, an architect who had been articled to Charles Renny MacIntosh in Glasgow. Moyes would have brought to the office a new enthusiasm about some of the developments in English architecture and may have well influenced the design of a number of key buildings. 

Cobden Parkes, in recalling his early days in the Branch in 1909 described how drawings were prepared and the dress of those who worked in the office. "The procedures were simple - drawings were prepared on Watman handmade paper with 3H pencils then traced in ink onto linen and prints made by some process - print proof copying machine (housed on roof). Small drawings and written matter was often duplicated by the gelatine roll process.

"The dress was rather formal and many wore frock-coat striped trousers and hard black bowler hats. This soon disappeared. We signed letters and signed minutes after the words…. 'I have the honour to be your obedient servant….' " 

On 11 August 1911, the day of his 65th birthday, Vernon's twenty one years of administration came to an end, leaving the capable George McRae as his logical successor. Vernon died on 7 January 1914. Seven week's prior to his death he entered hospital for treatment of a leg he had injured while testing a patent fire escape as Government Architect. The leg had to be amputated, but as Vernon refused an anesthetic, complications set in which led to his death. 

The Prime Minister of Australia, Joseph Cook, in remembering Vernon said…. "It is with most profund regret…. that I saw that Colonel Vernon had gone over to the great majority. His was a most useful and valuable life…. It was Christopher Wren to whom it was said 'if you could see his monument, look around'. So with Colonel Vernon. The public will see his monuments for a long time - perhaps for all time - in the city and in the country". 

To perpetuate his memory, the Lord Mayor of Sydney convened a public meeting, which raised funds to establish the "Colonel Vernon Scholarship in Architecture and Town Planning".

Cobden Parkes, who had joined the office of the Government Architect on 7 May 1909 recalled Colonel Vernon as…. "A very fine gentleman". Parkes, the son of Sir Henry Parkes was also to become a later Government Architect.

George McRae who became the next Government Architect, was born in Edinburgh in 1858. He arrived in Sydney in 1884 and was appointed Assistant Architect in the City's architect office. He became City Architect and City Building Surveyor in 1889 and was responsible for the design of the Sydney Town Hall. In 1897, he was appointed Principal Assistant Architect to Vernon in the Government Architect's branch. In his first year of administration on taking over from Vernon, the branch had become very large and on the whole an efficient Government vehicle. McRae played a less individualistic role in the Department's activities.(Fig 31) The perennial staff of Blair, Barr, Coulter and Wiltshire carried on in the office. On a lower rung was a cadet architectural draftsman, Cobden Parkes. 

Parkes remembers McRae as…. "He was a fine stamp of a man. He gave the impression of possessing a nervous disposition, but was very kind and considerate and was in charge when the branch moved from the Public Works to the temporary building that had been erected in 1913 on the western corner of Phillip and Bridge Streets." 

In 1912, a new Buildings Branch was established and one of their first projects was the completion of temporary premises known as the 'tin hut' at the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets. The building was designed by the Government Architect's branch to accommodate the Railway's Branch of the Department. The railway staff refused, however, to occupy a building of such a temporary nature and instead the Government Architect was directed to move himself and his staff there. So in 1912, McRae and his staff moved out of the Chief Secretary and Works building by Barnet and Vernon, into a tin hut across the road.(Fig 32) The Branch was housed in the tin hut until 1937, when it returned to its former sandstone office building. It remained in that location until taking up accommodation in the State Office Block in 1967. 

McRae continued Vernon's work at Central Railway Station and designed the Education Department building in Bridge Street in 1912, the Parcel's Post Office 1913, and the Taronga Zoo lower entrance. The office's versatility was demonstrated by its design of surf pavilions for the beach resort of Manly at North and South Stein in 1914. The extension to the existing institution of the Coast Hospital at Little Bay was carried out along with work at a number of district hospitals.

Cobden Parkes in writing to Ted Farmer about his reminiscences of the office recalled his time working under McRae. His graphic descriptions of field supervision recalls a time long past…. "To gain field supervision, I sought service each year in the various district offices as relieving architect and found the experience gained to be invaluable. I spent three months as District Architect at the Armidale office in 1920…. The work supervised was mostly of a minor nature and the country side about Inverell to the Queensland border was covered by buggy and pair, hired from Adams Livery Stables. Mr Adams would be advised by letter and would meet me at the Inverell Hotel after breakfast, for a week's tour of inspections commencing on a Monday morning and terminating at Deepwater on the following Saturday…. Adams stocked the buggy with provisions, tent and stretchers. In this way some 20 inspections were undertaken and the need to stay in small bug-infested hotels was avoided. On occasions it was necessary to hire sadle horses to reach some isolated buildings located off the road system." 

R C G Coulter was continuing his role within the office and designing infrastructure works related to the railways and to the approaches to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The office was becoming involved in larger scale engineering structures to ensure they had appropriate design input. McRae died on 16 June 1923, while still holding the office of Government Architect.

Gorrie McLeish Blair succeeded McRae and assumed control of the branch under the title of Acting Government Architect. McLeish was born in 1862 in Scotland and had entered the branch in 1895 as an architectural draftsman. By 1912, he had become First Class Assistant Architect in charge of the drawing office and along with Barr had become one of the key designers producing alternative schemes for Vernon. 

On 1 July 1925, Blair was confirmed as Government Architect. During that year a number of War Memorials were designed and constructed by the branch, and in 1926 Blair proceeded with the extension of the Mitchell Wing to complete the National Library. Blair was responsible for the design of additions to Katoomba Courthouse and wards at Rozelle Hospital. He retired in 1926, after only a few short years as Government Architect, but after having made a major input into the design output of the branch since he joined in 1895, 30 years before.

Cobden Parkes recalls his time working for Blair and particularly the elevation of Mr Wilshire as design architect in charge of the drawing office. While Wilshire was a sound architect, Parkes seemed to think he was far from being a strict taskmaster and some officers took advantage of his kindly nature…. "Mr V. Wilshire i/c the Drawing Office was a sound architect, a most humane and kindly gentleman and many members of the staff took full advantage of his goodness of heart to absent themselves from the office for hours and to engage in private work - almost glaringly - and this led to a certain discredit of the office". 

Richard McDonald Seymour Wells was born in Australia in 1865 and his promotion to Government Architect in 1927 saw him as the first Australian born architect to hold the post. Wells had first joined William Kemp's office in the Department of Public Instruction in 1881, working on the design of schools. He transferred between the Department of Public Instruction and the Government Architect's branch for a number of years as the responsibility for school design changed between departments. He first joined the Government Architect's branch in July 1896, but returned to the Department of Public Instruction the next year only to be transferred back in 1904 to the Government Architect's Branch and then to be returned in 1912 to the Department of Public Instruction. It was during this period that Wells designed the conversion of the old stables by Greenway to a new Conservatorium of Music in 1913 and supervised its construction in 1914 and 1915.(Fig 34)

As Government Architect, Wells supervised work on the Dixon wing of the State Library of NSW, Travers building at Sydney Hospital, nurses home at Maitland Hospital and many additions to public schools. Wells retired as Government Architect in 1929. 

Edwin Smith, as the next NSW Government Architect was an outside appointment. Unlike a number of his predecessors he had not worked his way up through the Government Architect's office to the top position. Smith was born in 1870 in Scotland, and arrived in Australia in 1889. He initially worked as a draftsman in the Queensland Department of Public Works and later became Chief Architect in the Victorian Department of Public Works. Smith left his position in Victoria to move to New South Wales in 1929 where he set about reorganising the Government Architect's branch to absorb the Architect's Branch of the Department of Public Construction. 

Cobden Parkes recalls the arrival of Edwin Smith and his reorganisation where certain senior officers were retired and new appointments were made. The office at this stage was still in the tin hut. "At this period of time, the branch occupied the first floor and portion of the ground floor of the timber-framed two-storied building located at the corner of Bridge and Phillip Streets on the west side. (The current site of the Museum of Sydney)…. The first floor contained certain clerical spaces and offices for the Government Architect and his senior clerk and a large drawing office capable of seating about 50 persons, and as the Branch expanded a second drawing office was established on the ground floor, together with space for mechanical and electrical staff" 

Smith moved Mr Grove, who was the architect in charge of schools into the position of Senior Assistant Architect. Cobden Parkes was put in charge of the combined drawing offices and H Grove in charge of the metropolitan district. Parkes refers to one of his first roles as officer in charge of the drawing office…. "Firstly, it was necessary to place the Plan room on a completely new basis. Up to 1930 all tracings were rolled and kept in 'draw filing' without any system of numbering." 

With the fall of the Lang Government in 1931, the great financial depression was felt in the State. The Government set up unemployment relief…. "and this called for expenditure on a large number of projects." Unfortunately this led to an urgency to build quickly rather than focus on design quality of what was produced. Parkes comments…. "In some cases Hospital Boards were given a few days to accept or reject a new scheme in preliminary sketch form." 

One of the significant buildings produced during Smith's time was Quirindi Courthouse designed by Harry Rembert. Rembert had joined the Government Architect's branch on 9 August 1926, one month before Gorrie Blair resigned the position of Government Architect. The Quirindi Courthouse was the first of a number of key buildings produced by Rembert (Fig 35), who remained in the Government Architect's office for 39 years, playing a very influential role in fostering and encouraging design quality up until his retirement due to ill health in 1966. If he had not had health problems, there is no doubt that Rembert would have become Government Architect rather than Ted Farmer in 1958. Other works undertaken during Smith's term include the Sydney University Blackburn Building and Lismore Police Station. Smith retired in 1935. 

The new Government Architect was Cobden Parkes, who was appointed on 4 October 1935, the day after Smith's retirement. Parkes was the second son of Sir Henry Parkes and had been employed in the Government Architect's branch as a cadet in 1909 (Fig 36, Fig 37). He enlisted in 1914 and following convalescence after the War, re-entered the office in 1920. Cobden Parkes was the first Government Architect to be fully trained within the office. He had worked under all Government Architect's since Barnet - Vernon, McRae, Blair, Wells and Smith. When he retired in 1958, Parkes had within his office the three succeeding Government Architects, Farmer (who joined in 1939) Weatherburn (joined 1938) and Webber (joined 1949). So Parkes knew nine Government Architects (including himself) personally.

The Branch moved from the temporary tin hut in 1937 and returned to its former sandstone offices across the road. It remained here until taking up accommodation in the State Office Block in 1967.

One of the early buildings to be designed during Cobden Parkes' time as Government Architect was Harry Rembert's Newcastle Technical College buildings. Working drawings for the science building were signed by Cobden Parkes on 12 February 1936. This was one of Rembert's important buildings influenced by the Dutch architect Dudok. 

The Sydney Technology College, Hoskins Block, was another important building designed in 1938 by Rembert. In 1939 Parkes made an overseas tour to examine contemporary developments in hospital design. While he was in England, he visited the architectural offices of the Middlesex County Council and determined to reorganise his own branch along similar lines…. "I accompanied the Minister for Health on an extended visit abroad in 1939 and had the opportunity to study the operations of the Middlesex County Council, which was an office comparable in size to that of the Government Architect in New South Wales and the same type of work was undertaken…. I recognise the difficulty of transplanting such a desirable scheme…. but a partial system conducted within the metropolitan district was logical." 

Parkes' major pre-War achievement was the extension of the Public Library over Blair's basement wing. The dominant feature of the design was an imposing main entrance portico centrally placed on the northern façade. World War II had a wide effect on Parkes' office when essential buildings came to a standstill as an all out effort was made to increase the hospital building programme. In the decade of post-War recovery, Parkes used prefabricated aluminium buildings imported from Great Britain in the building of schools and hospitals. This was not seen as producing an entirely satisfactory design solution, but overcame short-term needs. To overcome the backlog of building the service of the outside profession was called upon, usually to prepare documents or to finalise working drawings to design sketches done by the Government Architect's office.

Cobden Parkes became involved in advising the Government about the international competition for the Sydney Opera House. Parkes was appointed one of the assessors, but once the competition had been won by Joern Utzon the project was run directly by an Opera House Trust headed by Professor Harry Ingham Ashworth.

On 1 August 1958 Cobden Parkes retired after holding office for 23 years. During that time he had seen the modern movement become inherent in hospital design, (Fig 38) coped with the emergency works during the War and had to co-ordinate the erection of pre-fabricated aluminium buildings of the post-War construction era. 

The Royal Alexandria HOspital For Children, 1939.

But it was the work of Harry Rembert in building up the design office and particularly with Cobden Parkes in instigating a trainee programme that was the beginning of the next rejuvenation in the Government Architect's office.

In 1964, Cobden Parkes was awarded the gold medal - the highest honour that could be awarded by The Royal Australian Institute of Architects. He had been President of The Royal Australian Institute of Architects at the National level from 1950 to 1952 and he played a major role in the professional association for architects in Australia. 

Max Freeland's book The Making of a Profession has a glowing picture of Parkes…. "As Councillor, Honorary Architect, President or Vice President or money-raiser of such organisations as these Parkes is a legend. A man of great character, charm, dignity, understanding and natural humanity, Parkes aspires affection in all who know him." 

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