History of the architecture of the Australian Museum from the first permanent building, the Lewis Wing, to the present day.

Point building

The wall of the Point Building
The wall of the Point Building which also forms the Australian Museum Yurong St boundary, includes some of the Palladium building infrastructure. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

The colourful and varied history of occupation of the south-east (Yurong Street) end of the Australian Museum stands in direct contrast to the remainder of the government owned site. Initially granted in 1793 to John Palmer as part of his 100 acre cattle and orchard Woolloomooloo Farm established to feed the fledging colony the section close to Yurong Creek is unlikely to have been intensively cultivated. Experiencing financial and other difficulties Palmer sold the land to Edward Riley in 1822 who suffered from poor health and committed suicide in 1825.

Following the 1840s subdivision of the Riley Estate the triangular portion of land transferred to Thomas Burdekin, a merchant. The design of Yurong Street did not mimic the land’s previous use and so the corner of Yurong and William Streets remained in Government hands and Burdekin’s land lay just to the south of the intersection. The land was undeveloped for years probably because the low-lying site was poorly drained. As Sydney’s residences encroached upon this area Yurong Street became, by the early 1900s, a developing hub of rented houses and light industrial workshops.

The Burdekin family retained ownership of the land until 1948 although the lessees were encouraged to replace the brick, iron and wooden buildings.

These buildings were demolished to create Sydney’s first skating rink which opened in April 1912 under the management of James Charles Bendrodt, a Canadian trick-skater. The Imperial Hyde Park Roller Rink’s efficient use of this odd triangular space included a not quite oval skating rink with ‘rows of comfortable chairs, a reading room, a dainty tea-room, and a soda buffet’(1), the latter occupying the narrower end of the building towards the corner of Yurong and William Streets.

Despite its popularity and management considering an extension of the building to Stanley Street the owners, foreseeing the popularity of moving pictures, closed the venue and reopened as the Imperial Picture Theatre in October 1913. Again, using the oddly shaped space to advantage, the cinema boasted the longest distance from the lantern to the screen, being 200 feet (61 meters), in the Southern Hemisphere. (2) Initially managed by Sir Joseph Carruthers it was intended to show ‘scenic and education films. [as] He was a firm believer in moving pictures as a medium of educating the people’ (3).

Again, under the management of James Bendrodt who, seizing the popularity of the American dance crazes, reopened the venue in April 1914 as the Imperial Salon de Luxe, a dance academy ‘supplying Sydney’s youth and beauty with an ever-ready opportunity of chasing the weary hours with flying feet.'(4) Even after Bendrodt enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces, films continued to be shown and dances held, presumably on different nights, until mid-1916.

On 27 May 1916 the Palladium, formerly known as the Imperial Salon de Luxe, opened as 'a smart dance hall'. Designed 'on Continental and American models' mural scenes of the Mediterranean were painted on the walls by Lionel Lindsay.(5) By 1918 Paige Motor Group was operating one of the city’s biggest motor garage and workshops on the site. Not only was it badly damaged by a fire in 1924 but ‘several motor cars were lost, and two firemen who were standing inside a rear door … were injured by a falling beam’.(6) During the 1930s the Palladium reverted to an amusement centre and seems to have lurched from one venture to another, probably due to its location on the edge of the city. (7) In March and April 1932 Wirth’s Circus entertained the public where ‘the crowd gasps when he [Aloys Peters] falls 75 feet through a hangman’s noose’(8); it staged the 1938 Caravan and Camping Exhibition; along with skating and ‘old time’ dancing.

During WWII, the Palladium was occupied by American troops as a depot and infirmary.(9) Initially rented by and then later purchased by the Commonwealth Government, it was primarily used as office space. The building’s demolition was proposed in 1954 for the erection of a high-rise office block. This proposal was not met with universal acclaim and opposition included the Australian Museum’s projected growth and foreseeable need of additional space.

Purchasing the Palladium in 1959 from the Commonwealth Government, Sydney Grammar School embarked upon adapting the building for use by students until 1975 when the southern end of the building was demolished to be replaced by a purpose built educational facility. Meanwhile the Australian Museum entered negotiations with Sydney Grammar School to acquire the northern end of the Palladium building. In 1977, the NSW Government finalized the purchase. The building was split in two. In a tribute to its physical shape the Australian Museum building was named the Point Building.

In the mid-1980s the Point Building was partly demolished and adapted as a tank storage facility, workshops and loading dock. It is speculated the building’s walls hold archaeological secrets of the 19th century house and workshops that once occupied numbers 1, 3 and 5 Yurong St.(10)

The construction of the AMRI building in 2008 with a new climate-controlled wet specimen storage area allowed the tanks to be moved out of the Point Building. The Exhibitions Production Team then returned to the Museum site from Doody Street, Alexandria and now occupy the Point Building.

  1. The Sun 24 May 1912
  2. Barrier Miner, 10 November 1913
  3. ibid
  4. Sydney Morning Herald 11 July 1914
  5. Sydney Morning Herald 29 May 1916
  6. Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative 8 May 1924
  7. Jaffas in the suburbs - the cinemas of Sydney’s eastern fringe, John Walter Ross
  8. The Sun 28 March 1932
  9. 'The Supper was Champagne, Oysters and Brown Bread’ The Sydneian No 367 Nov 1971 pp43-44
  10. The Conservation Management Plan – The Australian Museum, College St Sydney February 2015. Volume 1

Crystal Hall

Interior Crystal Hall

Exterior Crystal Hall - 2015

2015 - After 125 years of its entrance on College Street, The Australian Museum, Australia’s first museum and one of the nation’s most important scientific research, educational and cultural institutions, built a new entry on William Street.

The $5.5 million transformation project comprised a special grant of $2.5 million from the NSW Government, along with funds from the museum’s capital and partnership budgets. The project was also supported by the NSW State Government Architects Office.

The project included:

  • Crystal Hall, a new purpose-built glass entry hall featuring a bespoke crystalline curtain of coloured glass diamonds in the soft tones of refracted light to welcome visitors and accommodate ticketing and out-of-hours events
  • Museum Walk, a 4.5-metre-wide floating ramp to provide full accessibility from the corner of College and William streets to the new entry hall
  • Removal of the empty substation on William Street to create a street-level sheltered garden under the Crystal Hall
  • Closure of the current College Street entrance and reinstatement and restoration of exhibition space in the heritage-listed Barnett Wing (built in 1870)
  • Improved public access to the museum as well as improved visitor flow and wayfinding.

Collections and Research Building 2006-2008

Collections and Research Building

Australian Museum Collection and Research Building, old meets new

William Street

In the 2004 state budget, the NSW government announced it would allocate $40.9 million over five years to the Australian Museum for its Revitalisation Program. Stage One of the project included the building of a new Collections and Research Building adjacent to the Parkes Farmer wing facing William Street. It was aimed primarily at alleviating the critical accommodation issues which had been affecting the Museum for decades. It provides a purpose-built facility for over 10 million zoology specimens, and contemporary offices and laboratories to house the Museums science staff and the leading-edge scientific research being conducted at the Museum.

In late 2006 construction began on the new building and by 30 September 2008 many science staff and their collections had moved into the $32 million dollar addition. The luminous colourful (energy saving) façade lights were publicly turned on for the first time, highlighting the Museums bright new presence on William Street. On 19 November the building was officially opened by the Minister Assisting the Premier on the Arts, The Hon Virginia Judge and the Minister for Science and Medical Research, The Hon Jodi McKay.

The Collections & Research Building (2008) stands next to the "National School Building" (1892). The Collections & Research Building's futuristic facade design incorporates an artwork that shows elements inspired by the scale pattern and iridescence of a butterfly’s wing.

Museum Building, College St

AM Exterior with 200T Street Flags
General shots of the AM exterior with 200 Treasures street signage. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Statement of significance

The Australian Museum buildings house the first public museum inaugurated in Australia, one of Australia's oldest scientific and cultural institutions. Conceived and developed initially along the contemporary European model of an encyclopaedic warehouse of cultural and natural history, the Museum buildings evolved as the institution evolved, partly in response to its visiting public, to pursue and expand knowledge of the natural history of Australia and the nearby Pacific region.
The Museum continues to occupy the site provided, and the building constructed, as its first permanent home, commenced in 1846 and opened to the public in 1857. The extended and enlarged complex of buildings which now provide its principal exhibition, administrative and research accommodation reflect the growth of the institution and its prestige, as well as the evolving attitudes of Australian Government and society to science and research.
Throughout its development, the Museum complex has assumed a prominent stature in the townscape of Sydney. With its frontages to William and College Street, the Museum commands the eastern reaches of Hyde Park and forms an extension of the principal civic and religious precincts adjoining the northern boundaries of the Park in Macquarie and College Streets.

From 'The Australian Museum A Conservation Analysis of the Complex and its Site with a Statement of its Significance' prepared by Helen Proudfoot and Otto Cserhalmi & Associates 1984.

Former National School Building

William Street façade - FNSB
This building (on left) housed the former William Street National School and its successors. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Often overlooked is the small Gothic fronted building on William St just down from the main section of the Australian Museum. In the mid 1850’s a section of the Museum site was transferred to the Board of National Education to build a National School for local students. Opening in 1851, its historical significance now lies in it being the oldest surviving National School building in the Sydney region.

The single storey school initially compromised two classrooms and a central room with an eastern entrance. In 1892 a second storey and the impressive William St entrance were added. Over the year further additions and alterations, including other buildings on the site, were made to meet changing educational needs. Similarly, the school underwent various name changes though always remained a public school. Whilst the current ungainly entrance is adjacent to the footpath it was not always so. Resuming 35 feet of the William Street frontage in 1916, the City Council literally moved the footpath to the front door.

The building continued to be used as a school until 1950 when it was closed. The Child Welfare Department took over the site and renovated the internal space making it more suitable for administrative offices. In 1971 it was handed back to the Australian Museum and by 1975 the northern end was converted to a specialised storage area for the extensive Melanesian Collection. Again internal changes were made to reflect this change in function; in particular air conditioning and a lift were installed and the windows were bricked up. Following a number of further alterations in 2012 the ground floor of the building was reopened as a venue space, called The Night Parrot with Museum administrative office space remaining on the first floor.

The naming of the venue space was an acknowledgment of the discovery of the extremely rare Night Parrot, thought to be extinct, in South West Queensland by Australian Museum Ornithologist Walter Boles and his colleagues in 1990.

The southern end of the building which is not visible to the public, has undergone a number of changes to accommodate various staff requirements whilst also keeping much of its early fabric.

In December 2016, the Night Parrot was refurbished and launched as ‘1892’ reflecting the building’s late 18th century striking alterations.

The Museum has paid homage to its original purpose as an educational facility by naming this small, yet dignified building the Former National School Building.

Museum Site Plan

Museum Site Plan 2009
A plan of the Australian Museum site in 2009 showing architectural wings and their dates of construction. 2009 Image: Australian Museum Design Unit
© Australian Museum

A plan of the Australian Museum site in 2009 showing architectural wings and their dates of construction.

Museum entrance foyer c.1961

Museum entrance foyer c.1961
The main entrance from College Street on the ground floor of the Barnet Wing in 1961. Image: Howard Hughes
© Australian Museum

The main entrance from College Street on the ground floor of the Barnet Wing in 1961.

Exterior of the Museum c.1924

Exterior of the Museum c.1924
Exterior view of the Barnet and Lewis Wings taken from the corner of College Street and Park Street c.1924. Image: S. C. Clutton
© Australian Museum

1890-1892: Third Storey Added to Lewis Wing

William Street

In 1890 funds were voted for a third storey to be put to the Lewis Wing. The recessed entrance was filled in, and the rooms used by the Curator and his family were converted to the Board Room and offices. This addition made the original wing better complement the Barnet wing, and the building appeared cohesive from the street.

Barnet Wing 1870s

Barnet Wing 1870s
Barnet Wing of the Australian Museum on College Street, 1873 - 1877. Photo from the Small Picture File, Mitchell Library Copy held Australian Museum Archives AMS391/M897_5 Image: TBC
© Mitchell Library

1861-1866: James Barnet Wing

College Street

Neo Classicism

Alexander Dawson, Colonial Architect, prepared a plan for major additions to the Australian Museum only four months after the building's opening. His conception of a long neo-classical façade to William Street was developed by James Barnet, his clerk of works. In 1861 the Trustees adopted this design.

'Barnet had developed Dawson's design into a grand neo-classical composition with the main entrance behind a columned portico approached by an impressive flight of steps, a tympanum carved in relief, the pediment backed by a dome.' [Proudfoot 16]

The main part of the building was not built. Only the College Street section was constructed, which was intended to be a noble side entrance to a domed palace housing museum, art gallery and library. The stone carving was done by Walter McGill, a local sculptor.

The Barnet wing was opened to the public in January 1868.

Lewis Wing c. 1870s

Lewis Wing c. 1870s
The original Lewis Wing of the Australian Museum on William Street c.1870s. The recessed entrance was remodeled with the addition of a third storey in 1890. Image from the Australian Museum Archives. Image: H. Barnes
© Australian Museum

1846-1852: Mortimer Lewis Wing

William Street

Greek Revival Style

In 1844, the Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis, was directed by the Governor to prepare plans and estimates for a building to house the Australian Museum. Two acres of land on the eastern side of Hyde Park at the corner of William and College streets, adjacent to the grant to Sydney College, had been chosen as the site.

'Lewis ... built a competent, solid, dignified structure in the Greek Revival Style. It was quite impressive in scale when compared with other contemporary Sydney buildings. Its recessed entrance was flanked by two fluted Corinthian columns. It possessed a Long Gallery behind the curatorial rooms at the font, which rose to the full height of the building, with a balcony at first floor level.' [Proudfoot 9]

A scandal about the mismanagement of public funds allocated to the building led to Lewis' resignation in August 1849. The building stood unroofed until work resumed in 1850: an intended dome was discarded for skylights. On 14 November 1854 the Long Gallery was used for the first time to display the exhibits intended for the Paris Exhibition of 1855, recorded in a lithograph by FC Terry published in the 'Illustrated Sydney News'.

The building was eventually opened to the public in May 1857. With only one hall for displays, it was immediately inadequate.

Subsequent alterations to the Lewis Wing involved a staircase at the western end to access the Barnet wing in 1866, and the addition of a third storey in 1890-1892, at which time the central recess (housing an aviary in 1888) was eliminated, moving the front door forward. In 1888 the Curator and his family stopped living in the Museum and the front rooms became available for museum purposes.

Lewis Wing Third Storey

Lewis Wing Third Storey
The original Lewis Wing on William Street c. 1924. The third storey addition was constructed from 1890 to 1892. Image: G. C. Clutton
© Australian Museum

1890-1892: Third Storey Added to Lewis Wing

William Street

In 1890 funds were voted for a third storey to be put to the Lewis Wing. The recessed entrance was filled in, and the rooms used by the Curator and his family were converted to the Board Room and offices. This addition made the original wing better complement the Barnet wing, and the building appeared cohesive from the street.

South Wing

South Wing
The South Wing of the Australian Museum can be seen rising above the new extension along William Street c.1960. Image from the Australian Museum Archives. Image: Howard Hughes
© Australian Museum

1896-1899: W.L. Vernon South Wings

In 1896 the first stage of the south wing was commenced to the plan of Walter Vernon, Government Architect. A separate two storey spirit store was built in the rear courtyard over 1896-1897. (A third storey was added in 1927, and it was renovated in 1974 as the Education Centre.)

The superstructure of the eastern end of the new South Wing got underway in August 1899, completed by April 1901. It was linked to Barnet Wing in 1908, completed by June 1909, and together with the Lecture Hall, officially opened on 11 April 1910. Vernon's halls had 'interiors [that] were fine examples of their period, with tiled floors, distinguished staircases, very tall, slender cast-iron columns which did not interrupt the space unduly, and carefully detailed pressed metal ceilings'. [Proudfoot p28]

In 1912, Barnet's Corinthian columns were removed.

Parkes-Farmer Eastern Wing

Parkes-Farmer Eastern Wing
The Parkes/Farmer Eastern Wing demonstrating the international style of the William Street extension. Image: G.Millen
© Australian Museum

1959-1963: Parkes/Farmer Eastern Wing

William Street Extension

International Style

In 1957 plans were made to extend the Museum down William street, and Joseph Van der Steen under Government Architect, Edward Farmer, designed a six storey extension, linked to the Lewis building by a glazed entrance & stairwell.

The two basement floors providing workspace for scientific staff were built 1959-1960, and the superstructure was finished in 1963. This wing presents a blank windowless façade to the street. In 1977, to mark the Museum's 150th anniversary, bronze lower case letters were added to the façade identifying the building as 'the australian museum'.