Chief Secretary's Building | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Chief Secretary's Building

Item details

Name of item: Chief Secretary's Building
Other name/s: Colonial Secretary's Building
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Government and Administration
Category: Other - Government & Administration
Location: Lat: -33.8635735253 Long: 151.2121768730
Primary address: 121 Macquarie Street, Sydney, NSW 2000
Local govt. area: Sydney
Local Aboriginal Land Council: Metropolitan
Property description
Lot/Volume CodeLot/Volume NumberSection NumberPlan/Folio CodePlan/Folio Number
LOT631 DP1149543
LOT632 DP1149543
LOT31 DP984186
LOT32 DP984186
LOT33 DP984186
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
121 Macquarie StreetSydneySydney  Primary Address
Phillip StreetSydneySydney  Alternate Address
Bridge StreetSydneySydney  Alternate Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
TreasuryState Government 

Statement of significance:

The Chief Secretary's building is of national significance by reason of its historic, social, architectural, aesthetic and scientific values. It embodies, by its construction for and association with, pre-eminently important office and department of the Colonial, later Chief Secretary. This most enduring of political and administrative institutions achieved, through its expansion and growing politicisation, the most far reaching powers of any of the administrative departments of the Colonial bureaucracy. The decisions made in this department affected every level of society in the colony.

After the institution of responsible government in 1856 the office of the Chief Secretary was almost continuously held until the twentieth century by the Premier of NSW further underlining its important role. Several outstanding figures in NSW political life held this office and through it, and the role of the Premier, were able to campaign for the most important political agendas of the time, including, but not exclusively, economic and land reform and Federation.

The locations, size and lavish treatment graphically demonstrate the importance of the departments that were housed there, the social hierarchy of its occupants as well as the practical workings of the fully developed late nineteenth century bureaucracy. The interior finish demonstrates refinement of public taste. Its continual occupation as government offices through to the twentieth century make it possible to demonstrate, through changes made to the fabric, changing community practices such as greater opportunities for women in the workforce.

The building is one of the most significant late nineteenth century architectural works in Sydney. It embodies two of the most significant projects of Barnet and Vernon and was ranked, by contemporary accounts, with pre-eminent public works of the time such as the GPO. It remains a dominant element in the Victorian streetscapes of this part of Sydney.

Its placement in relation to Government House, Parliament House, the Treasury Building and other major departmental offices symbolises the relationship to the office to both political and public offices. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:65)
Note: There are incomplete details for a number of items listed in NSW. The Heritage Division intends to develop or upgrade statements of significance and other information for these items as resources become available.


Designer/Maker: Barnet and Vernon
Builder/Maker: Various
Construction years: 1873-1893
Physical description: In its existing configuration the Chief Secretary's Building consists of 2 major directly linked components. At Macquarie, Bridge and Phillip Streets - a four storey sandstone building, with a copper and slate roof mansard and a copper clad dome. At Phillip Street - a five storey sandstone building with copper roofed mansards.

The original building was designed by Barnet in what is now called the Victorian Free Classical style; characteristics of this style are the massive basement wall with superimposed classical orders and circular arched openings, wide arcaded balconies and balustraded parapets behind which are the barely visible low pitched hipped roofs. When Vernon added to and extended this building he chose the somewhat different, though related, Victorian Second Empire style, the chief characteristics of which can be seen in the iron crested mansard roofs and the pavilion dome.

Barnet adopted a scheme of decoration that involved variations from floor to floor and a further variation within each floor. The most ornate decoration was given to all corridors and entrances, principal room located at the four corners of the building on levels 2 and 3, large rooms at the centre of the bridge Street elevation on levels 2 and 3. Decreasing ornateness was given to the spaces along the Bridge Street elevation, between principal rooms on levels 2 and 3. Austere, simple decoration was given to the range of rooms facing south into the Phillip Lane courtyard. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:34 & 51)
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Physical condition is good. Archaeological evidence of the most eastern extension of First Government House may be located under the street and footpath to the west of the Chief Secretary's building. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:33)
Date condition updated:30 Oct 97
Modifications and dates: The original building comprises levels 1 to 4 was constructed between 1873 and 1881. In 1894-96 the mansard at level 5 and the dome were added.

The Phillip Street additions were built in four major stages over the period 1890-1893.
Stage 1 : 3 bay width, levels 1-6.
Stage 2 : Infill over Phillip Lane, Levels 2-5.
Stage 3 : 2 bay width, Levels 1-6.
Stage 4 : Mansard increased in height, Level 6.

Other alterations included:
Before 1897 - Room added on level 2 & 3 of original building.
1914 - formation of Governor's Suite, Level 2 of original building.
1920 - Insertion of timber stair, level 1 to level 2, north-east corner of original building.
1942 - conversion of Bridge Street lift from hydraulic to electric operation.
Between 1896 and 1970 - refer to conservation plan for detailed analysis.
April 1967 - the Department of Public Works relocated from the Chief Secretary's Buildoing to their new headquarters in the State Office Block. Major alterations to interiors occurred on all levels and safety aspects improved.
After 1970 - the original latrine block in the middle of the courtyard was demolished and the pre-1897 additional rooms on levels 2 & 3 of the original building were demolished. The building was entirely re-roofed and the sandstone facaed cleaned. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:37-39)
Current use: Offices
Former use: Offices


Historical notes: In 1856 New South Wales was a granted responsible government. This important step in self government brought with it a number of new portfolios requiring new office space as well as a greater need for the departmental head and his staff to be located in approximately the same space. At this time the several departments were located in a number of buildings some hired and some still housed in the domestic buildings constructed in the earliest days of the colony.

During the later years of the nineteenth century, while some former responsibilities were removed from the authority of the Colonial Secretary, it remained a pre-eminently prestigious and important political position. The Premier and the Colonial Secretary were usually one or, in coalition governments where the Premier chose another portfolio, such as Lands, the post of Colonial Secretary usually was held by the head of the coalition party.

It was against this high profile role of the Colonial Secretary as well as the expansion of that and several other departments and the escalating costs of rental properties such as those in Phillip and Young Streets and that the construction proposal and plans were formed for the new building for the Chief Secretary. The site of the building was highly symbolic of the elevation in status of the office. Further up Bridge Street, it formed a significant element of the most important political and administrative offices. In close proximity to Government House, the gates to that residence being across the road, it was in close to Parliament House and overlooked the Treasury Building. Its position halfway between Parliament and Government House, was both practical and illustrative of the respective relationships of those offices.

By 1869 sufficient finance had been raised to construct a new and worthy building for the office of the Chief Secretary of the colony as well as providing offices for the Works Department. James Barnet, the Colonial Architect, designed an impressive multi-storied building to occupy the six lots in an 'L' shaped portion of the block fronting bridge Street in the period. The drawings were prepared in the period of July 1869 to mid 1870. For this work Barnet was paid nineteen pounds and ten shillings.

The first tender for the work, excavation and masonry, was let in 1873 to the McCredie Brothers. However by mid 1874, only a little over three thousand pounds had been spent out of an estimated sixty thousand pounds expenditure.

By mid 1875 over fifteen and a half thousand pounds had been spent on the new building. By this time tenders had been let for marble and timber floors. By mid 1876 the expenditure on the building had risen to 33,128 pounds and by mid 1877 to 52,424 pounds. By 1878 it was obvious that the building was going to considerably exceed the original estimates for its construction costs. By June of that year over seventy-six thousand pounds had been spent, sixteen thousand pounds above the original estimate. This figure did not encompass the thirty-five thousand pounds it was estimated would be required for the finishing trades.

The last works on the buildings included the commissioning and erection of statues by Giovanni Fontana and the completion of the finishing trades. In 1880 it was reported that work on the Colonial Secretary's building was completed at a final cost of 81,558 pounds, nineteen shillings and one penny. It was noted, though, that the finishing trades were still ongoing at that time, having spent over 42,620 pounds upon them. These works were completed the following year.

As early as 1882 alterations, their extant and nature unknown, were carried out in the building to a cost of 992 pounds. It is clear that, as the various officials and their departments took possession of their new quarters, a period of settling in and adjustment was required for the building. More alterations were required in 1883 at a cost of 11037 pounds and in 1884 for 760 pounds. From 1885 to 1888 repairs of apparently a minor nature were required.

The modifications made to the building in the first years of its existence suggest that the original plan was not comprehensive in addressing the needs of the various departments that were to occupy it. By the end of the 1880s space within the building was at a premium. several of the occupants complained to the effect that, despite the construction of the building, they were in little better situation than had been the case prior to its existence. The Commissioner for Roads complained that he was inconvenience having so many officers so far away. The Engineer-in -Chief for the Harbours and River complained that he had insufficient office accommodation and the Acting Engineer-in-Chief for Railways complained that he lost time because his staff were so widely distributed in various offices. The only option was to extend the ten year old building.

In November 1889 the Acting Engineer-in-Chief prepared a sketch of a proposed extension to the existing Chief Secretary's building. It encompassed a building of six storeys fronting Phillip Street to sixty feet with a depth of 102 feet and a lane at the back. The building was designed to house the Railway Commissioners and the clerical staff of the public Works Department on the ground and first floors. The principal consideration for the new building was economy. The Acting Engineer-in-Chief pointed out that the work was to be done quickly, the tenders let as soon as possible and the project to be kept under twenty thousand pounds.

By February 1890 an estimate of just over 18,000 pounds had been prepared for the work. Tenders were called in March of the same year for the resumption of the terrace houses and yards that occupied the site of the proposed extension to the building. The tender for what became known as the first contract, the six storey building, was let in April 1890.

By mid 1890 the expenditure on the new building amounted to 15,603 pounds while alterations and repairs in the existing structure came to over 877 pounds. In July 1890, while work continued on the first extension to the Chief Secretary's building, approval was given for the construction of an extension to this only partially constructed building.

This extension was considered necessary largely because of the needs of the Public Works Department. The new building generally was designed to house that department and would free the Board room of the office which was then occupied by the Public Works Committee. The extensions comprised a new range that was to connect to the southern line of the new building having a frontage of forty-four feet to Phillip Street and an eastern extension to the lane of 32 x 20 feet. The cost of this new work was estimated to be 14,136 pounds and it involved the resumption and demolition of more terraces along Phillip Street. The tender for the second contract was let in September 1890.

A further modification to the work was the decision to link the new (and extended) building to the existing building by means of a more substantial link than the originally designed iron footbridges. Eventually it would be a five storey addition. By mid 1891 the land required to be resumed for the new work had been bought at a cost of 25,725 pounds and expenditure on the additions under construction amounted to 14,869 pounds. As well, over a thousand pounds had been spent on alterations and repairs in the existing building.

Despite this massive outlay consideration was given to yet a third extension to the south of the new wing or, more precisely, what measures could be taken to avoid this additional project. This was investigated by Vernon because even with the additional work the Public Works Department could not be accommodated in the building.

To avoid a costly solution, Vernon proposed raising the height of the existing building to create virtually two new floors. Vernon was concerned that the vertical addition to the building would imbalance it in relation to the Bridge Street elevation. Vernon estimated would cost approximately 12,000 pounds although savings were to be made by substituting a less expensive timber and slate roof for the concrete dome roof then in the contract. Fallick and Murgatroyd were contracted to carry out the new stage of work.

By mid 1892 45,097 pounds had been spent on the various works which were finally completed in 1893 for a total cost of 54,926 pounds two shillings and ninepence.

Fire had always been a constant worry and therefore an extensive Mansard roof and central dome was added providing additional accommodation and adding to the architectural completeness of the building.

For the few final years of the nineteenth century and for most of the following twentieth century work within the Chief Secretary's Building was confined to altering and adding as the need arose. There were no planned programs of extension or renovation. The interiors of the building began to reflect this ad hoc approach to office accommodation which in turn illustrate the changing roles of the various departments housed within the building. Minor alterations, particularly the provision of ladies lavatories, demonstrate a changing pattern with the workforce that serviced the departments.

The period of the 1920s was the most active in terms of work carried out on the building. Plans were prepared for a private stair for the minister for Health in 1920, for a roof over the bridge connecting the old and new buildings in 1924, extensions to the ladies room on the ground floor in 1927 as well as several other minor conversions and alterations.

After World War II improvements were made to the building to bring it in line with modern standards and requirements.

The construction of the State Office Block in the 1960s and the subsequent relocation of the Public Works Departments there allowed the Chief Secretary's building to be renovated and re-used for several new purposes.

Through the later 1960s and to 1971 the Chief Secretary's Building underwent major changes to accommodate new occupants principally the Divorce Courts, including accommodation for judges, the Opera House Trust, the Commissioner for Western Lands and the Valuer General's Department.

By the 1980s the value of the building had come to be appreciated as a significant item of the city's environmental and historic landscape. To this end, as a bicentennial project, a million dollar project was set in motion to restore the stonework of the building. This work was completed in 1990 at a cost of approximately two million dollars. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:26)

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
7. Governing-Governing Government and Administration-Activities associated with the governance of local areas, regions, the State and the nation, and the administration of public programs - includes both principled and corrupt activities. (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The building embodies, by its construction for and association with, pre-eminently important office and department of the Colonial, later Chief Secretary. The position of Chief Secretary was one of the most enduring political and administrative institutions in the country. The earliest incumbent of the office, or the position that would evolve into that office, was appointed in 1788.

Through its expansion and growing politicisation during the first half of the nineteenth century, it achieved the most far reaching powers of any of the administrative departments of the colonial bureaucracy. The decisions made in this department affected every level of society in this colony.

The importance of the office is emphasised by the almost continuous responsibility for this portfolio taken by successive Premiers of NSW after the institution of responsible government in 1856. This link between the chief political office and administrative department was not to be broken until the middle years of the twentieth century. The office space afforded for ministerial occupation illustrates this link as does the Executive Council Chamber.

Because of the dual political/administrative connections of this office it was associated with several outstanding and prominent figures in both the social and political life of NSW and, because of the significance of that state, Australia. Henry Parkes, Charles Cowper and Hohn Robertson were some of the prominent incumbents of the office.

Through the association of the office with these figures it has come to be associated with dominant political and social agendas of the nineteenth century. Federation, economic and land reforms may be counted amongst those. The position provided its occupant a prominent platform from which he could campaign for these and other issues although the office should not be misinterpreted as providing a focus for specific agendas. Each, including Federation, was achieved through the work of several key individuals and work, forums and conventions in several places throughout Australia. It was the workings of this office and its connections that made those agendas possible.

This building is historically significance because it demonstrates through its location, size and lavish treatment the evolution in importance of this particular department and that of the Public Works Department. It replaced a two storey essentially domestic structure which had housed those two departments since 1813. The magnitude of the building, particularly in comparison to its predecessor, illustrates not only the growth of the department but also the prestige attached to it.

The location of the building is historically significant. It forms a particularly important component in an area that, since its election for the site of First Government House, has been associated with the upper echelons of political and administrative life in the country. It has close physical proximity to (second) Government House, the NSW Parliamentary buildings and the principal offices of the main departments, Treasury, Lands and Education.

The building is of historical importance because of its demonstration of the fully developed nineteenth century public service and the practical workings of that bureaucracy. The internal plan layout, individual spaces and degree of elaboration of finishes demonstrate the dual hierarchy of its users as well as the specific departmental organisation. It is a rare, though not unique, example of such offices on this scale.

The additions made to the building in the 1890s for Public Works not only demonstrate the increasing needs and specialisation of that department after its reorganisation, and the inadequacy of the original design to meet theses needs, but the increasing expansion and prominence of the public service.

The continuous association of the building with government uses and the changes made to the building during the twentieth century, even in minor ways, have the ability to demonstrate important new conditions in the wider community such as increased employment opportunities for women. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:62-63)
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The Chief Secretary's building is of aesthetic significance because its primary contribution to the surviving Victorian era streetscapes in Phillip Street, Macquarie Street and, in particular Bridge Street. It remains a dominant building in the pre-eminent administrative and political quarter of Sydney.

The finishes and artworks purposely bought for the building, many from the Sydney International Exhibition and some commissioned in London, are of the highest quality and lavishness. They not only demonstrate the prestige of the department but are exemplars of late nineteenth century public taste and refinement.

The Chief Secretary's building is of architectural significance because of the high quality of its architectural composition and execution, both externally and internally. It represents two works of great importance in the professionals careers of two outstanding nineteenth century architects. Barnet as Colonial Architect, considered it second only to his work at the GPO. The additions by Vernon represent one of the first and major works by the newly appointed Government Architect. That they were completed in a style and quality matching that of the original building (at least outwardly) in a time of sever economic recession is a further testament to the contemporary importance attached to this building. The Chief Secretary's Building remains one of the pre-eminent public buildings of the nineteenth century, comparing equally with the GPO and Sydney University. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:64)
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The Chief Secretary's building has social significance because it was the workplace of departments including Public Works which, more than other, had overwhelming influence on all aspects of life at every level of society. The size and finish of the building and its various artworks demonstrate the importance and esteem afforded to the office necessary for the workings of government.

The Executive Council Chamber derives significance from its lengthy association with the key decision-making apparatus of State government. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:63)
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The building has scientific/technical significance by the use of corrugated aluminium roofing on the dome, one of the earliest uses of this cladding material in Australia. (Jackson Teece Chesterman Willis 1994:64).

The building may have some archaeological potential to yield information about the use of the site as the Government Domain and the grounds of the first Government House. The fabric has the potential to demonstrate significant, but unrecorded aspects of past use and occupancy, eg. The lift and the flag cupboard on level six.

The building has the potential for the recovery of original decorative schemes, the recording restoration and reinstatement of which can inform and enhance the interpretation of the building and an understanding of Victorian public buildings generally.
SHR Criteria f)
The Chief Secretary's Building is a rare example of a 19th century government office of this scale and quality. The building contains a unique collection of objects acquired from the 1879 International Exhibition, the choice of which was representative of the historical, artistic, and literary tastes of Sir Henry Parkes. The building contains a rare example of a highly significant, in-situ collection of artefacts that have been in continuous use. The choice of aluminium to cover dome in 1895-1896 is believed to have been the earliest such use of this metal in the world. It is a rare, though not unique, example of such offices on this scale.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementCMP for 50 Phillip Street Sydney Chief Secretarys Annex  
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementMovable Heritage Management Plan - Chief Secretary's Building, by DPWS Heritage Design Services, November 2002 CMP Movable HMP received for review 28 November 2002.  
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementConservation Plan CMP endorsed by Heritage Council 3 November 1994 for a period of five years, expires 3 November 1999.. Nov 3 1994
57(2)Exemption to allow workHeritage Act

Order Under Section 57(2) to exempt the following activities from Section 57(1):
1. The maintenance of the components of the place, where "Maintenance" means the continuous protective care of the fabric, contents and setting of the place.
2. In respect only of those internal floor areas designated in the October 1994 Conservation Plan endorsed by the Heritage Council of New South Wales as being of "Lesser Significance" pages 68 to 73 inclusive:-
* The installation of lightweight demountable partitions, suspended ceiling systems, floor coverings, in a manner that is reversible without damage to fabric of the item, and the repainting of the internal fabric of those areas.
* The repair and upgrading of services and fittings where this does not involve alterations to or opening up of early fabric, or appear on the facade of the building.
3. Repair or reconstruction of roadways, footpaths, re-kerbing and guttering and associated drainage works and utility installations by authorised instrumentalities provided that such works are superficial and do not disturb potential archaeological resource sites.
Apr 18 1997
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementChief Secretary's Building CMP, by DPWS Heritage Design Services, November 2002 CMP endorsed by Heritage Council 27 June 2003 for a period of five years, expires 27 June 2008. Jun 27 2003
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for endorsementChief Secretarys Building Phillip Street Addition, by Govt Architects Office for Attorney Generals Dept, dated April 2005 CMP conditionally endorsed by Heritage Council on 25 July 2005. Jul 25 2005
21(1)(b)Conservation Plan submitted for commentInterpretation Strategy - Chief Secretary's Building, by DPWS Heritage Design Services, November 2002 CMP Interpretation Strategy withdrawn from further review 5 October 2005. Oct 5 2005
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0076602 Apr 99 271546
Heritage Act - Permanent Conservation Order - former 0076610 Apr 97 402054
Local Environmental PlanCSH LEP 4 07 Apr 00   
Register of the National Estate  21 Mar 78   

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Tourism 2007Colony Walking Tour View detail
TourismAttraction Homepage2007Colony Walking Tour View detail

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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(Click on thumbnail for full size image and image details)

Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5045423
File number: S94/01067

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