The first Postal Act had been passed in November 1825, empowering the NSW Governor to establish a GPO in Sydney and other places. There had been a Post Office building occupying the site in George Street since 1830s, beginning with one room of the two-storeyed former police office. By 1845 the Post Office occupied the whole building, and the population of Sydney and NSW was rapidly growing. The demand for improved postal service, larger premises and expanded responsibilities of the service saw the need for larger and more improved premises.
In 1862, the Colonial Architect, James Barnet, was appointed in charge of building this new post office. The existing building was demolished in 1863 and the postal service relocated to Wynyard Square, where it was housed in a ‘temporary’ building for the next 10 years. The project required the resumption of St Martins Lane for a block between Pitt and George Streets.
Built at huge expense over the Tank Stream, the General Post Office was constructed in stages from 1866 to 1891. It could be described as Sydney’s Opera House of the 19th century since the relative cost, the time taken in construction and the rejection, then belated recognition of the architect are all parallels.
Designed in the Italian Renaissance Palazzo style, with Florentine and Venetian elements, it was built of Pyrmont sandstone, with granite quarried at Moruya on the south coast of NSW used in the foundations and columns. Controversial relief figures in the stonework were created by Tomaso Sani, and were intended to represent Australians. The building straddled the Tank Stream, which ran south into Circular Quay, between the present alignment of George and Pitt streets.
The keystone block for the main arch in George Street, hewn from the Paradise Quarry on the Pyrmont peninsula by master quarryman Charles Saunders, was the largest single lump of sandstone ever removed from the Pyrmont quarries. It weighed more than 25 tonnes and was delivered on a specially constructed wagon pulled by 26 Clydesdale horses in 1856. When the foundation stone was brought to the site, HRH the Prince of Wales, son of Queen Victoria, who was in Sydney on a goodwill tour, laid the stone.
The Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, formally declared the Martin Place section of Sydney’s General Post Office open at a ceremony on September 1, 1874. The Pitt Street section was added between 1881 and 1885.
Built on a grand scale and at huge expense, it dominated the streetscape and skyline for decades and symbolised the prosperity Australia was enjoying in the wake of the gold rush and the economic boom it had fostered. For Sydneysiders, it symbolised their city in the same way that the Houses of Parliament symbolise London and the Eiffel Tower, Paris, and remained its most well-known landmark until the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932) and the Sydney Opera House (1971) stole the limelight. When the tower was completed in the 1870s it became Sydney’s tallest structure (73 metres) and remained so until 1939 when the AWA tower, at 111 metres, took over the honour.
The main façade facing Martin Place is quite symmetrical with nine bays to each section of the arcading with end pavilions, and a massive central block surmounted by a fine clock and bell tower rising to 73 metres. The Postmaster General’s Department opened the tower’s small viewing platform above Martin Place from 2-4pm most days back in early 20th century. The spiral stairs took you to a height of 60 metres above street level.
The clock tower was removed in 1942 to reduce the visibility of the GPO in the event of an air attack on Sydney. It was rebuilt in 1964 but the viewing platform was never re-opened to the public.
With constant extensions and renovations the GPO building functioned as the centre of the New South Wales postal system until 1996.
The GPO Carvings and controversy
Sydneysiders today walk past the many intricate carvings on our precious old buildings without so much as giving them a second look. Such was not the case when these building were being erected. There was a great degree of civic pride shown by the residents towards the city that was being created around them and the inclusion of contemporary figures on the Pitt Street section of the GPO building invoked a similar community revolt as did the addition of the “Toaster” into the panorama of Circular Quay East in the 1990s.
Government Architect James Barnet and Italian sculptor Signor Sani raised the ire of the populace by creating a series of sculptures above the Pitt Street archways which depicted contemporary people at work. These included a fishmonger, a sailor, a postman delivering a letter to a barmaid, a printer and an architect (who looked remarkably like Barnet himself).
The Pitt Street sculptures were so controversial there was a parliamentary enquiry that looked into removing them. The scandalous sculptures, rough-hewn compared with the elaborate heads on the Martin Place façade represented working-class men and women wearing ordinary fashions of the day. They weren’t seen to be appropriate because they were of working people, not gods and goddesses.
A large section of the community viewed these sculptures as sacrilegious and totally inappropriate for the adornment of such a classically designed building; the fact that the building also featured bas-reliefs of Commerce, Science, Literature and the Arts as well as a giant statue of Britannia resting on a lion had little bearing on their argument.
So vehement was the opposition to them, questions were asked in Parliament and a Select Committee was set up to decide whether they should be removed. The controversy raged for eight years but the Government stood fast and refused to remove the sculptures. Today it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about.
Among these allegorical and allusive carvings on the George Street façade is this representation which is part badge, part coat of arms. It can be seen as a turning point in the colony’s symbolism. Carved on the eve of the 1888 Centennial celebrations, the illustration shows the badge of NSW on a shield with a crown as a crest, and emu and kangaroo supporters above the ribbon bearing the motto “Sic fortis Etruria crevit”.
The George Street façade is one of very few representations that combine elements of the Royal Arms, the official badge of NSW and the unofficial Advance Australia Arms. It heralds Gullick’s approach to designing the NSW coat of arms nearly 20 years later.
A second point to note is the use of several blind, or blank, shields and motto ribbons behind the supporters. Blind shields are occasionally used to allow additional Arms to be added to a feature in the future, but they can also be an allusion to the future as such, implying that there remains history still be be enacted and written about, and to be added to “history’s page”.
The arches lining Martin Place are capped with large sculpted heads representing the states of Australia and nations of the world, including Russia, the United States, Canada, India and Germany, fitting the building’s status as the city’s international communications hub. There’s a North American Indian head that’s right on the corner near George Street – people walk or drive past it every day and don’t know it’s there.