One of the grandest surviving buildings in Australia, the 19th century Sydney Town Hall contains the Council Chamber, reception rooms, the Centennial Hall and offices for the Lord Mayor and elected councillors. Sydney Town Hall is a great example of the Victorian/Beaux-Arts from the Second Empire design concepts.
Sydney Town Hall has long hosted major civic, community and cultural celebrations. It is also thought to be the only non-religious city building to retain its original function and interiors since it was built more than 130 years ago. The building is listed on the state heritage register.
The building’s history is a turbulent one. After decades of unsuccessful negotiations, the city fathers finally secured a land grant from the Crown in the commercial centre of the city – as far away from colonial Government House in Macquarie Street as possible. The site was the old cemetery next to St Andrew’s Cathedral, which required careful exhumation of bodies that were moved to other cemeteries.
A competition for Sydney Town Hall’s design was held and won by JH Willson, an unknown architect from Tasmania. After Willson’s sudden death, a parade of architects appear to have suffered through their involvement with the project.
When complete the building had a large porte-cochere, a covered area for horse-drawn carriages, which is over where the famous steps now stand. The building also had its own ring road inside a stone and iron palisade. Unfortunately, this area was destabilised in 1934 during tunnelling for the underground railway and the formal entry had to be demolished.
Albert Bond designed the chamber now known as the vestibule, which is now open to the public and served as the meeting hall until the larger Centennial Hall was built. The vestibule has elaborately decorated surfaces in plasterwork with stained-glass lanterns and cast metal plaques commemorating royal visits to the city.
The Great Hall by Thomas Sapsford, officially named the Centennial Hall but referred to in its day as the Place of Democracy, was an engineering triumph, involving a highly structured roof system to meet the span. The ceilings are lined with an early use of the Wunderlich metal panel system, chosen to overcome the fear of plaster panels falling on patrons from vibration caused by the immense grand organ, which still functions.
The venue is still a popular function spot.
When it was installed in 1890, Sydney Town Hall’s grand organ was the largest in the world.
Throughout the 19th century British Empire, it was customary for civic halls to be provided with grand organs as imposing symbols of a city’s pride and its aspirations. When Sydney Town Hall was designed, it featured plans for an organ of very grand dimensions, drawn up in 1879 under the direction of William Hill and Son of London.
Their design provided for an instrument of 59 speaking stops, at a cost of £5,000. But even this was considered too modest for the city. Instead, a committee recommended an instrument with 5 manuals and pedals and 150 stops.
English company William Hill and Son made the successful tender for the manufacture of the organ, its freight and installation and 12 months’ maintenance, at a cost of £14,241. Their design included a new feature of a full-length 64-foot pedal stop, never previously attempted. A number of prominent organists were invited to test it, including the organist of Westminster Abbey, Dr Bridge, who considered it to be “the finest organ ever built by an English organ builder”. The organ was then dismantled and sent by ship to Sydney.
The organ case was also designed by William Hill and Son to complement Sydney Town Hall’s architectural character, despite opposition from the city architect who believed the case should be modern in design.
The opening of the grand organ was held on Saturday 9 August 1890 before 4,000 prominent guests. Mr WT Best, the city organist of Liverpool and considered to be the finest concert organist in the world, was invited to play. Best stayed on to play at 11 further public recitals, performing classical and operatic pieces, selections from Bach’s organ works and his own compositions.
The concerts were a resounding success and the organ hailed by the Sydney Morning Herald as “the special attraction of the city right now”. A city organist, Auguste Wiegand, from Belgium was appointed.
His successor, Arthur Mason, was appointed in 1901, beginning a long tradition of Australian organists to hold the post. The current city organist, Mr Robert Ampt, has held the position since 1978.
In 1973, the City of Sydney undertook a major restoration program to restore the grand organ, which had begun to experience mechanical problems. The firm of RH Pogson Pty Ltd was appointed to manage the project and their craftsmen worked tirelessly for almost a decade to return the organ to its former splendour and tone.
The grand organ was transformed following another restoration worth $1.2 million, completed in early 2015. The extensive conservation works saw its nearly 9,000 pipes delicately cleaned, tuned, repaired and carefully documented for future generations to enjoy.
Today, free organ recitals are held throughout the year.
You can buy books about Sydney’s history from the City of Sydney, including Sydney Town Hall: The Building and its Collection. Written by Sydney Town Hall’s curator, Margaret Betteridge, this book presents a lavishly illustrated architectural tour of the building and its glorious interiors. It also showcases the our collection of artworks, historical items and civic traditions.