QUA05-03.jpg (58665 bytes) Sydney Architecture Images- Circular Quay and area

Customs House (former)


1845 Mortimer Lewis
1887 James Barnet (CA) (major rebuilding and upper floors)
1903 Walter Liberty Vernon (NSWGA) (top floor)
1995-97 Tonkin Zulaikha and Jackson, Teece, Chesterman & Willis


45 Alfred Street, Circular Quay, Sydney, NSW 2000  (cnr Alfred, Loftus and Young Streets)


1885-1887: James Barnet  architect. Original building partially dismantled and rebuilt to three storeys with side wings, to form a U-shape in plan. 1896-1903: Walter Liberty Vernon  architect. Two phases of alterations resulting in the addition of two new floors and a wing in the rear courtyard, forming a E-shape in plan. 1915-17: George Oakeshott architect. All building enclosed by the former U-shape was replaced by a framed structure. This opened the ground floor as a large space with a lightwell. A sixth storey comprising caetakers quarters was added. 1925-1990: various additions by the Commonwealth Department of Works. 1996-7: Conservation and Refurbishment Project - open June 1997.


Victorian Academic Classical


Sandstone Builder: Government under Sir George Gipps 


The Sydney Customs House occupies a unique symbolic and physical position on the site of the First Fleet Landing. Its location is a physical reminder of the importance of Circular Quay as the original maritime centre for the colony. 

The Customs House contains parts of the oldest surviving building of its type in Australia, used continuously for 145 years. It is a physical record of the history of the Customs Service and its importance in the history of Australia. 

The Customs House embodies the work of three successive and individually distinguished government architects: Mortimer Lewis, James Barnet and Walter Liberty Vernon. 

Because of the scarcity of documentary evidence about the early stages of construction, the surviving building fabric from these stages constitutes the principal source of additional evidence about the early history of the building and its occupants. (Phillips 1993: 5-6)


The building is a composite load-bearing and framed structure.The external masonry walls range from 680mm to 750mm thick, with internal walls about 200mm. Internal beams vary in fabric from wood to steel. The load-bearing masonry on the perimeter of the building and the steel-framed structure in the core are fairly readily separable in the upper reaches of the building, though the edges of concrete floors do bear on the earlier masonry at the perimeter of the framed structure of the core. The panel walls contained in the 1917 frame are of brick. Floors in the perimeter building are generally suspended timber, joisted with added steel beams, while the framed core has reinforced concrete two-way slabs. Lift shafts exist on the central axis of the building. 

The roof is a pitched roof on king-post trusses finished with Marseilles tiles of Australian make. Extensive box-gutters run around the perimeter of the 1903 roofs. 

Internal walls are finished with lime plaster, repaired with cement render. Some areas have significant plaster mouldings. Ceiling types are mixed. Window joinery, doors and architraves are generally french polished or varnished. Windows are timber, of french door and vertical sliding sash types, where overlooking the street. (Hansford and Maclaren 1991: 51-62)


The site of the Customs House is the presumed spot of the landing and official flagraising on the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. This event marked the foundation of the colony of New South Wales. The site has been occupied by buildings since 1843 (Hansford and McLaren 1993: 5-20). 

The site at Circular Quay was chosen in 1843 to house the Customs Service for the rapidly growing colony. They were responsible for all imports and exports, exise on locally manufactured goods, immigration control, control of narcotic substances and morally corrupt goods such as books and films. During the war years this included items of enemy origin, or having socialistic or communistic tendancies (Phillips 1993: x - xiii). Accordingly, areas for storage, administration and public business were included in the original design of the building. As trade increased, so did pressures on space within the Customs House and two new wings were constructed between 1883 and 1889. These wings provided accomodation for the Shipping Office and Maritime Board (Hansford and McLaren 1993: 5-20). 

These demands increased again with the approach of Federation. Custom's roles of immigration control and administration of trariffs were major reasons for Federation. They became, at this time, the major revenue raiser for the Commonwealth Government. Extensions were timed to co-incide with the change in government . More floors were added to cope with new and expanding duties brought about by the massive political change. More revisions were made between 1915 and 1917 to further accomodate these changes and pressures brought about by the war. (Phillips 1993: v-vii) 

Few major sturctural changes have occured between 1917 and 1995. This reflects the movement of international shipping away from Circular Quay to other areas of the City and the State. 

In June 1990 operations of the Customs Service were relocated. The site is currently undergoing refurbishment and is due to be reopened in June 1997 as a combined commercial, performance, tourism and museum space.

Special thanks to http://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/
The present Customs House represents a complete redesign and enlargement of an earlier 1844 building by Mortimer Lewis (1796-1879) by James Barnet (1827-1904). The earlier building had become too small and overcrowded for the expanding customs work in Sydney, and it took six years before the problem was addressed.

The original client department occupied the building until 1990, after which the Federal Government made a gift of it to Sydney City Council together with funds for its refurbishment. There was, however, a proviso that the building be put to majority public use.

Tonkin Zulaikha and Jackson, Teece, Chesterman & Willis were commissioned to convert the building into a culture and information centre with restaurants and a large central atrium space. The future of the building had been hotly contested by various interests including music organisations that wished to convert it to a recital hall.

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.




Customs House