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 


Historical Pictures
The Garden Palace was built from oregon timber shipped in from USA.
It took 8 months to build with 200 men working the first round the clock shifts ,even by arc light at night.
The cruciform shaped building stretched 800ft (north/south) & 500ft (east/west).intersected by a huge 31m (100ft) diameter dome reaching 64m (210ft) 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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For nightwatchman F. Kirchen of the Insurance Brigade, the early morning of 22 September 1882 had proceeded with little incident. At 3.00 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. senior police constables had visited the Garden Palace in Sydney's Inner Domain to pay their customary calls. At 5.35 a.m. Kirchen walked to the Domain roadway entrance to meet his replacement, J. McKnight. The man chatted for a few minutes. Shortly afterwards, they noticed smoke coming from under the dome of the Palace.

They ran to the small watchmen's entrance set in the larger entrance doors of the west tower. Kirchen unlocked the door. Inside was a great pall of smoke. A burst of flame leapt from the basement to ring the great statue of Queen Victoria that stood beneath the central dome. The fire spread rapidly, feeding along the dry wooden framework. From high overhead the stained glass of the skylight dropped like molten rain.

A telephone connected the building with No. 2Volunteer Fire Brigade Station. The men raised the alarm then fled the building. Kirchen braved the flames to return and rescue his pet dog. But there was nothing Kirchen, McKnight or the fire brigade, when it arrived minutes later, could do except watch helplessly as fire consumed the once magnificent building.

To the citizens of New South Wales, it was a day of incomparable disaster. The grandest building in Australia had burnt to the ground, barely three years after its construction. The blaze was visible for miles, a huge glowing pyre in the predawn darkness. With morning came the crowds, hundreds of the curious who flocked to the Macquarie Street gates and silently watched the smouldering ruins.

Once the Garden Palace had been the pride of New South Wales and the envy of other colonies. Now all that remained were a labyrinth of brick foundations and the tottering remains of the entrance towers .The Sydney Morning Herald, summing up the fire and its aftermath, commented succinctly that "the scene was the most imposing, as it was the most pitiful, ever seen in the colonies".

Built on a ridge of high ground in what is now the Royal Botanic Gardens, the Garden Palace dominated the city. From the ground to the tip of the dome, it measured 64 metres and it was this dramatic sight that greeted travellers as they sailed up the harbour towards Farm Cove. It was a rich evocation of the Victorian era, typifying the period's obsession with overstated style and grandeur.

The Garden Palace came into being as "a temple of the industrial arts" for the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879-80. The building was a symbol of New South Wales' emerging maturity and the colony's hopes of becoming a respected elder son of the British Empire. The centenary of New South Wales was still some years distant but the exhibition, and its most conspicuous manifestation, the Garden Palace, sought to prove a point. The year 1879, the Australian Building and Engineering News testified,

will be looked back to by posterity with pride as the yearn which the parent colony first drew together the peoples of the earth to witness the rapid strides the colony handmade in the van of progress amongst nations of the arts, sciences and manufacturing industries . . . [The exhibition is] an undertaking which has long been looked forward to by some of its ardent patriots as a means of attracting the attention of the various nations of the world to its immense importance, and it is now, figuratively speaking, about to claim a sort of public admission tithe society of nations.

The exhibition was a success. The technology of the world wagon display. The United States, Great Britain, the leading countries of Europe and all the Australian colonies mounted extensive exhibits. Over a million people passed the entrance gates in the 185 days of the exhibition, a remarkable figure ima country whose population barely exceeded 2.2 million. The increase in trade was astounding as Australian markets opened to the technological products of more advanced nations. The Garden Palace sprawled across the Inner Domain, occupying the area between what is now the State Library of New South Wales and the Conservatorium of Music. It was cruciform in design, much like the layout of a cathedral. Thematic. thrust of the building, the nave, was 244 metres in length and the transepts or intersecting arms, 152 metres. The nave and the transepts terminated in four stone entrance towers 20metres high, increased by the decorative wooden superstructures to 36 metres. Exhibition space on the ground floor exceeded two hectares. Above it a gallery, over five metres from the ground floor, ringed the building.

There was additional exhibition space in the basement and on two floors of the four entrance towers. The centre of the building was dominated by a massive dome, 30 metres in diameter, reaching its apex 47 metres above the ground floor. It was topped by a 12 metre lantern and further extended by a finial, an ornamental finishing piece. The dome was a thirty-six-sided polygon sheathed in galvanised iron. It was a source of immense pride that the dome was the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and the sixth largest in the world only slightly smaller than the domes of St Peter's, Rome, or St Paul's, London. The framework of the dome, and indeed of most of the Garden Palace, was made of wood. Twelve principal ribs, each weighing over five tonnes, were strengthened by twenty four intermediate ribs. Bolts and iron straps held the framework together. It was, as a journal of the period quaintly observed,” unique of its kind in construction”.

The Garden Palace was an architectural and engineering marvel, but it was the dome itself that attracted the most attention. It provided light to the interior of the pavilion by way of twenty-six oval windows, each measuring 3 metres by 2 metres, set into the drum of the dome, as well as the skylight under the lantern. The interior was tinted pale blue and dotted with gold stars; the woodwork was buff picked out with red and gold. On a cornice at the base of the dome was inscribed Psalm7, Verse 24: "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the World, and they that dwell therein”. Under the dome, on the ground floor, was an opening 9 metres in diameter, which illuminated the basement area. Rising from the opening was a pedestal, on which stood a bronze statue of Queen Victoria.

Fashioned by English sculptor, Marshall Wood, it towered 7 metres above the ground floor. From the railing around the base of the statue were views of the basement, where, amidst elegant fountains, the cream of society came to take refreshments.138Entry to the basement was by four stairways from the main floor, at points near the statue, and a main entrance athel east tower. The eastern side of the building, the main facade, had wide balconies along the basement and ground floors.

The view from these balconies, across the Botanic Gardens to Farm Cove and W Woolloomooloo and taking in the expanse of the harbour, was nothing short of breathtaking. From the eastern and southern entrances to the Garden Palace the entire Exhibition grounds could be seen, comprising much of the Botanic Gardenias well as the southern half of the Domain.

At this southern extremity, bordered by the carriage drives (now Hospital Road and Art Gallery Road) were machinery halls, the agricultural hall, horse and cattle stalls and the livestock parade ground. Theine Arts Gallery, forerunner of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, was also in the area. Thousands flocked daily to the entrance gates, purchasing day tickets at one shilling each or leather-cased season tickets priced at three guineas.

There were miles of pathways through beautifully maintained gardens dotted with statues and such exhibits as the Maori House, restaurants including Compagnoni's, Cripp's and Emerson's Oyster Saloon, and the products of the world's industrial achievement crammed into little more than 14 hectares. But it was the Garden Palace itself that commanded the most attention, that drew the crowds like magnet to its majestic bulk. The Garden Palace was designed by James Johnstone Barnet, colonial architect of New South Wales.

That it was the grandest of Barnet's 12, 000-odd projects in his years in the position there is little doubt, but there are sufficient reminders of his work, both in Sydney and throughout New South Wales, to give some idea of the ability of this architect. His General Post Office (1866- 85), Lands Department (1876-92) and Chief Secretary’s Department (1878) in Sydney, and the Bathurst(1878) and Goulburn (1885 - 87) courthouses are outstanding examples of Renaissance-influenced Neoclassical architecture. It was Barnet who almost single-handedly created Sydney's High Victorian character. Initially the Sydney International Exhibition was to have been housed in the exhibition buildings at Prince Alfred Park and run by the Agricultural Society of New South Wales.

The society had held a number of successful exhibitions including the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1870, which celebrated the centenary of Cook's discovery of the east coast of Australia. New South Wales had sent exhibits to the London International Exhibitions in 1851 , 1862 and 1873, to the Paris Exposition Universale of 1855, 1867 and 1878, and to the massive Philadelphia Exhibition of 1876. Returning from the United States, officials were fired with enthusiasm and it was to be The Garden Palace from Fort Denison in January 1880expected that moves would be made to organise the first Australian international exhibition.

Early in 1878 a proclamation appeared in the Government Gazette serving notice that the Agricultural Society of New South Wales intended mounting an international exhibition in Sydney. As invitations were extended to the nations of Europe, to America, Japan and the colonies of the British Empire, the enormity of the project soon became evident. Within months the society's facilities and its meagre resources were stretched to the limit; by October it appeared as if its plans would have to be abandoned.

The success of such an exhibition was of paramount importance. Australia in general, and New South Wales in particular, would be on show to the world. The politicians in Macquarie Street were beginning to voice their doubt that any private organization, even one as respected as the Agricultural Society, could mount such an event. No-one was so aware of this as the premier, Sir Henry Parkes.

It was realised that the best way to ensure that the exhibition be mounted in the most acceptable fashion- in a way best calculated to ensure the most glowing success-was to have the project under complete control of the government. But how to wrest it away from the Agricultural Society? In a deft piece of political manoeuvring, Parkes waited until the society was closest to terminating the project, until the commissioners came, hats in hand, to Macquarie Street, and then generously offered to take control. In November 1878 the government accepted the responsibility of planning and carrying out the Sydney International Exhibition.

Parkes moved with lightning speed. He instructed James Barnet to prepare plans for a pavilion to house the majority of the exhibits. The overwhelming prerequisite was that the building should befit such a momentous event. Asthe Illustrated Sydney News later pointed out: "It is satisfactory tolearn that the building to be erected by the government will beworthy of the occasion and the colony. The colony can afford to carry out this undertaking in a liberal and handsome manner;140but we may doubt whether it can afford to carry out the [project]shabbily".

A site was chosen on high ground adjacent to Macquarie Street in the Inner Domain, which at that time was used as a run for the governor's livestock. Barnet produced his finest work in the Garden Palace, a task that was made more remarkable by the constraints upon him. The government had less than ten months before the advertised opening date. The building had to be erected quickly but be as grand and luxurious as possible, even though it was initially envisaged as a temporary structure. The site was laid out on 2 January 1879, two days before Barnet's plans were formally approved. On 13 January construction commenced and just one month later a foundation stone was laid at the dome's eastern pier by Lady Robinson,the wife of Governor Sir Hercules Robinson.

To mark the occasion the governor read a speech before an official party including Parkes and Barnet: The distinctive feature of this great show is this, that whereas in all former exhibitions the colonies have, asit were, been brought into competition with each other, in this case the Australian colonies, as a whole, will enter into friendly rivalry in the arts of peace with the outside world ... [the exhibition will] serve to show the ready identity of all Australian interests and hasten the day when these Australian provinces will occupy a proud position before the world as a united federal dominion. It is easy to imagine a self-satisfied smile crossing the lips of Sir Henry Parkes at the mention of federation and perhaps a half murmured "Here, Here".By May over 3000 labourers were employed on the construction and allied work, most of them on the Garden Palace itself.

The builder, John Young, had installed a number of large carbon-arc electric lights, which were among the first to be seen in Australia. They floodlit the site and allowed work to continue around the clock. There were only minor interruptions to the rapidprogress. On the night of 22 April, a twenty-four-year-old labourer, Samuel Allan, was killed when he fell from the framework. The next day a strike was called by the majority of the site's 650 carpenters. The demand was for increased wages, from ten shillings to twelve shillings a day, supposedly to offset the danger of working high above the ground . The government held firm against the demands and the strike collapsed within four days.

The Garden Palace was completed on schedule, just weeks before the official opening. Tradesmen worked feverishly to complete the interior and exterior decorations, even while the exhibits were being laid out. Over 18,000 people crammed the grounds for the official opening. While previous days had seen heavy rain, the morning of 17 September was clear and bright, a perfect spring day on which to launch the Sydney International Exhibition.. The official party and invited guests congregated in the north transept.

Towering above the crowd was an organ built by Gray and Davison of London in the 1820s and purchased for the exhibition by Sir Daniel Cooper. The opening ceremonycommenced with a performance of the official cantata, with words composed by Henry Kenqall and music by Paolo Giorza. A large number of musicians and a chorus of 700, including many schoolchildren, gave a splendid reci(al.The exhibits of Great Britain (with a single Irishexhibitor), Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Japan a~d the United States attracted considerable attention as did the displays from India, Ceylon, Fiji and the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Penang and Malacca).Considerable space had been reserved for the Australian colonies and New Zealand. There was Japanese porcelain, Florentine mosaics,French tapestries and bronze. In the basement, an English firm displayed iron piping claimed to be immune from rust. In the afternoon hundreds assembled to watch the first demonstration of a new washing machine.

Operated by a thirteen-year-old girl, the machine washed a selection of dirty work clothes, borrowed from engineers in the machinery shacks. In the northern tower the Whittier Machine Company of America had installed the first passenger elevator in Australia. The wooden elevator car was made of highly polished ash and fitted with carpets and seats. It sat on top of a shaft which, powered by a steam engine, rose from a pit sunk into the foundations of the building.

The social life of Sydney was just as exciting as the exhibition itself. Dozens of official receptions and balls were held to honour visiting dignitaries. In October 1879 a ball was held aboard the French man-of-war, Le Rhin, presided over byCaptain Adolphe Fran<;ois Mathieu, Commissioner-General for France. The vessel , moored in Farm Cove, was lit by hundredsof candles mounted on the gunwhales. The following month a garden party for 500 guests was held at Rosemont, Woollahra, the home of merchant and politician Alexander Campbell. Guests entered the estate to the strains of a Highland piper.

A German band played between two revolving fountains and refreshments were served at the upper end of the garden where it was possible to look across to the city where the dome of the Garden Palace glinted in the afternoon sunlight. Although the exhibition did not officially close until late April 1880, by March many of the principal exhibits had been dismantled for shipment to Victoria and the Melbourne International Exhibition. By the time of the closing ceremonies, approximately1.1 million visitors had passed through the gates. There had been14,000 exhibits in the Garden Palace alone and a total of 7 500awards were made, the result of deliberations by 220 judges who had worked for several months evaluating the merits of the exhibits.

The Sydney International Exhibition had been a success and although the Garden Palace had started life as a temporary structure, the fame it had brought New South Wales was not repaid with demolition. The only question was how best to use the building, a problem that attracted considerable attention. The Illustrated Sydney News suggested that the "basement of the Exhibition building could be easily converted into what would be the largest aquarium in the world ... The manner in which the whole of the basement is lighted suggests its suitability for the formation of a collection of marine life".

The Garden Palace, far from having bass and bream in the basement, became a warren of government offices and archives for the next two and a half years. The Linnean Society had offices on the ground floor and parts of their enclave became a museum. Also in the building was the Technological and Sanitary Museum, forerunner of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Government bodies included the Trial Surveys Branch of the Railway Department, branch offices of the Department of Mines, the Fisheries Commission, the Census Office and the Harbours and Rivers Department. Some areas were also hired out for concerts and balls. Its destruction, when it came, was sudden and spectacular.

As the Sydney Morning Herald reported, "To describe the progress of the fire is to analyse the events of a few minutes". The fire, on bursting through the dome, swept along the nave and transepts. Then, with a great roar of expelled air, the dome fell inwards. The updraft swept pieces of iron and clouds of burning material for' miles . Cinders ignited the roof of a house in Potts Point. Sheets 0f iron fell in the grounds of William Macleay's Elizabeth Bay House. The Herald commented that"the sun was seen behind the ·burning Palace through the haze of smoke raising above the horizon its crimson disc".

For those living in Macquarie Street opposite the Garden Palace, the scene presented a spectacle that many would find difficult to forget. Miss Ethel Pockley was fourteen years old and a student of Miss Flowers' Sydney Ladies College at 161Macquarie Street. In a letter to her brother, Frank, dated 22September 1882, she gave a vivid account of the fire, of the windows of their school cracking with the heat and the paint blistering from the exterior walls and doors .You could hear crash after crash and the flames seemed to reach enormous heights. The sun rose and was of course quite blood colour with the fire and seemed to be' spinning round and round . Every now and then through all the smoke and dust and flames we could seethe reflection on the sea beyond and it was lovely.

Tower after tower fell and when the glass was all burnt and broken we could see the flames inside and the statue of the Queen on the fountain stood such a long time with the flames all round and above it. It blazed for about an hour and a half and now all that remains are skeletons of the four towers (north, south, east and west) and a huge heap of smouldering, smoking black rubbish. Inquiries proceeded, vainly as it turned out, to find the cause of the blaze. Everything in the Palace had been destroyed. The Technological and Sanitary Museum and the collections of the Linnean Society were lost, as were over 300 paintings and various objets d'art for the annual exhibition of the Art Society of New South Wales. All documents relating to the colony's census of 1881 were burnt, as were irreplaceable papers belonging to the various government departments.

In addition, the curator of the Botanic Gardens estimated that between 20,000and 30,000 plants had been destroyed .An official inquiry could find no explanation for the fire, although it was noted that "the authorities are deserving of censure in not having provided more efficient supervision over such a valuable property". There was conflicting testimony from witnesses as to where the fire was first sighted. The evidence was inconclusive. Rumours circulated that the fire had been deliberately lit, although this remained unproved.

Today, apart from the ornate commemorative gates fronting Macquarie Street, there is little to suggest that the Garden Palace ever existed . Further into the Royal Botanic Gardens is the Pioneer's Memorial Garden. Opened in 1938 to commemorate Australia's earliest settlers, it stands on the spot where the statue of Queen Victoria once towered over her subjects. A simple bronze plaque, inconspicuously placed, marks the site of the Garden Palace.


Lost Glories: A Memorial to Forgotten Australian Buildings
David Latta, Angus & Robertson, 1986

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)