Government House in Sydney

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Government House is located in Sydney, Australia alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens, overlooking Sydney Harbour, just south of the Sydney Opera House. The property has been the official residence of the Governor of New South Wales, except for two brief periods between 1901 to 1914, when the property was leased to the Commonwealth of Australia as the residence of the Governor-General of Australia, and 1996 to 2011. The property was returned as the Governor's residence in October 2011 and is presently managed by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales..

Early Government Houses in Sydney

Town house

The abode of the first Governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, was a structure made of canvas and timber brought from England with the First Fleet and erected in January 1788. After establishing the site of the settlement, a substantial "temporary" government house was located on the corner of what is now Bridge St and Phillip Street, Sydney. It was built under the direction of James Bloodsworth, a convict builder responsible for the construction of most of the colony's buildings between 1788 and 1800. This building, the first 'permanent' building in Sydney, was completed by 1789 using English bricks, native stone and a quantity of convict baked sandstock bricks from the Sydney region.

This first government house was extended and repaired by the following eight Governors, but was generally in poor condition and was vacated when the Governor relocated to the new building in 1845, and was demolished in 1846. The house suffered as a result of the poor mortar (made from the lime of crushed sea shells), white ant infestations, and what appeared to be rising damp in later years. Despite these problems, the house was an architectural milestone for Australia, and the first proportionately classical building in the continent. It even included Australia's first staircase.

The building was adapted quickly to the Australian climate. A verandah was added by Governor King circa 1800, and a drawing room was added in a side wing in the same year. By 1816 Francis Greenway was commissioned to construct a substantial extension and ballroom by Governor Macquarie, transforming Phillip's house into an Italianate cottage.

The house was finally demolished in 1845/46, and the site remained virtually untouched until the 1980’s, when a proposal to build a new high rise office tower on the site was made. Following representations to the NSW Government by concerned members of the newly formed Friends of the First Government House Site, construction was deferred to allow archaeologists to explore the area. The well-preserved foundations of First Government House were located in 1983 and excavated over the following months; providing a priceless insight into the early years of our nation. The tower was redesigned to preserve the historic foundations and incorporate them into the design of a new museum - to be named the First Government House Museum - which would display the archaeological finds and celebrate the unique heritage of the Site. The Historic Houses Trust of NSW was commissioned to administer the Museum but, amid controversy, the then administration of the Trust chose to change the name to the present title of the Museum of Sydney on the Site of First Government House.

Major General Lachlan Macquarie (Governor 1810-1821) was responsible for prompting the construction of many of the colony's first permanent public buildings, and he attempted to build a replacement for the original Sydney Government House. Work on this was started by the convict architect Francis Greenway, but the project was not approved by the British government, and only the castle-like stables, commissioned in 1816, were ever finished. These stables still stand in the Royal Botanic Gardens and form a facade for the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The building is best described as a small castle and retains many of its original features and nostalgic battlements and towers. Much of the "Governor's Domain" to the east of the original house has survived today as the adjacent areas of parkland known as The Domain, the Botanic Gardens, and also the gardens of today's Government House, adjacent to the Sydney Opera House. being demolished by 1799. However, a precedent for a "country residence" for the Governor had been set.

Other country residences of the Governor included a cottage constructed at Windsor overlooking the Hawkesbury River (circa 1790) and a residence at Port Macquarie (circa 1821) of which the ruins are still visible.

Old Government House (Parramatta)

The poor quality of the original Sydney Government House, as well as crime and unsanitary conditions in the growing Sydney settlement convinced successive Governors of the desirability of a rural residence. In 1799 the second Governor, John Hunter, had the remains of Arthur Phillip's cottage cleared away, and a more permanent building erected on the same site.

Later, starting in 1815, Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Mrs Macquarie added extensively to Hunter's structure and by 1818 their principal residence had acquired the appearance which it retains today (the building's Palladian style extensions were designed by Macquarie's aide, Lieutenant John Watts). On 16 January 1996, Carr announced that the next Governor, Gordon Samuels, would not live or work at Government House, and that he would retain his appointment as Chairman of the New South Wales Law Reform Commission. On these changes, Carr said "The Office of the Governor should be less associated with pomp and ceremony, less encumbered by anachronistic protocol, more in tune with the character of the people." Carr later quipped that his decision had been "for Jack Lang," referring to the Premier of a former State Labor Government that was dismissed by a Governor, Philip Game, in 1932 during a constitutional crisis.

The state's longest serving Governor, Sir Roden Cutler, was also reported as saying: "It's a political push to make way in New South Wales to lead the push for a republic. If they decide not to have a Governor and the public agrees with that, and Parliament agrees, and the Queen agrees to it, that is a different matter, but while there is a Governor you have got to give him some respectability and credibility, because he is the host for the whole of New South Wales. For the life of me I cannot understand the logic of having a Governor who is part-time and doesn’t live at Government House. It is such a degrading of the office and of the Governor."<ref name=smh/>

This move generated further controversy, as the proclaimed cost savings of over $2 million never materialised. The Auditor-General found it cost $600,000 more to maintain the building without a resident Governor; and public attendance decreased (resident Governors had maintained public access during their tenures). This led the group Australians for Constitutional Monarchy to organise a protest, resulting in one of the largest marches in Sydney history: a crowd of 15,000 protested outside Parliament House, Sydney, blocking Macquarie Street. On the day before Gordon Samuels' swearing-in, a petition bearing 55,000 signatures was handed in, calling on the Premier to reconsider.

Government House was returned as the Governor's official residence and reception space in October 2011 by the Government of Premier Barry O' Farrell and remains open to the public. Despite the lapse in resident Governor, Government House has consistently been used for vice regal purposes. Government House was a key meeting venue of APEC Australia 2007 in September, 2007 at which time the political leaders of the 21 member states of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation met.

See also

  • Government Houses of Australia
  • Government Houses in the Commonwealth
  • Governors of New South Wales
  • Old Government House, Parramatta

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