The Garden Palace: Building an Early Sydney Icon




International Exhibitions, fire,

How to Cite

Morley, S. (2017). The Garden Palace: Building an Early Sydney Icon. M/C Journal, 20(2).
Vol. 20 No. 2 (2017): build
Published 2017-04-26


Sydney’s Garden Palace was a magnificent building with a grandeur that dominated the skyline, stretching from the site of the current State Library of New South Wales to the building that now houses the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The Palace captivated society from its opening in 1879. This article outlines the building of one of Sydney’s early structural icons and how, despite being destroyed by fire after three short years in 1882, it had an enormous impact on the burgeoning colonial community of New South Wales, thus building a physical structure, pride and a suite of memories.

Design and Construction

In February 1878, the Colonial Secretary’s Office announced that it is intended to hold under the supervision of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales an international Exhibition in Sydney in August 1879 (Official Record ix). By December the same year it had become clear that the Agricultural Society lacked the resources to complete the project and control passed to the state government. Colonial Architect James Barnet was directed to prepare plans for a building suitable for an international exhibition, proposed to be built in the Inner Domain (Official Record xx). Within three days he had submitted a set of drawings for approval. From this point on there was a great sense of urgency to complete the building in less than 10 months for the exhibition opening the following September.

The successful contractor was John Young, a highly experienced building contractor who had worked on the Crystal Palace for the 1851 London International Exhibition and locally on the General Post Office and Exhibition Building at Prince Alfred Park (Kent 6). Young was confident, procuring electric lights from London so that work could be carried out 24 hours a day, to ensure that the building was delivered on time. 

The structure was built, as detailed in the Colonial Record (1881), using over 1 million metres of timber, 2.5 million bricks and 220 tonnes of galvanised corrugated iron. Remarkably the building was designed as a temporary structure to house the Exhibition. At the end of the Exhibition the building was not dismantled as originally planned and was instead repurposed for government office space and served to house, among other things, records and objects of historical significance. Ultimately the provisional building materials used for the Garden Palace were more suited to a temporary structure, in contrast with those used for the more permanent structures built at the same time which are still standing today.

The  building was an architectural and engineering wonder set in a cathedral-like cruciform design, showcasing a stained-glass skylight in the largest dome in the southern hemisphere (64 metres high and 30 metres in diameter). The total floor space of the exhibition building was three and half hectares, and the area occupied by the Garden Palace and related buildingsincluding the Fine Arts Gallery, Agricultural Hall, Machinery Hall and 10 restaurants and places of refreshmentwas an astounding 14 hectares (Official Record xxxvi). To put the scale of the Garden Palace into contemporary perspective it was approximately twice the size of the Queen Victoria Building that stands on Sydney’s George Street today.

Several innovative features set the building apart from other Sydney structures of the day. The rainwater downpipes were enclosed in hollow columns of pine along the aisles, ventilation was provided through the floors and louvered windows (Official Record xxi) while a Whittier’s Steam Elevator enabled visitors to ascend the north tower and take in the harbour views (Among the Machinery 70-71). The building dominated the Sydney skyline, serving as a visual anchor point that welcomed visitors arriving in the city by boat:

one of the first objects that met our view as, after 12 oclock, we proceeded up Port Jackson, was the shell of the Exhibition Building which is so rapidly rising on the Domain, and which next September, is to dazzle the eyes of the world with its splendours. (A ‘Bohemians Holiday Notes 2)

The Dome

The dome of the Garden Palace was directly above the intersection of the nave and transept and rested on a drum, approximately 30 metres in diameter. The drum featured 36 oval windows which flooded the space below with light. The dome was made of wood covered with corrugated galvanised iron featuring 12 large lattice ribs and 24 smaller ribs bound together with purlins of wood strengthened with iron. At the top of the dome was a lantern and stained glass skylight designed by Messrs. Lyon and Cottier. It was light blue, powdered with golden stars with wooden ribs in red, buff and gold (Notes 6). The painting and decorating of the dome commenced just one month before the exhibition was due to open. The dome was the sixth largest dome in the world at the time. During construction, contractor Mr Young allowed visitors be lifted in a cage to view the building’s progress.

During the construction of the Lantern which surmounts the Dome of the Exhibition, visitors have been permitted, through the courtesy of Mr. Young, to ascend in the cage conveying materials for work. This cage is lifted by a single cable, which was constructed specially of picked Manilla hemp, for hoisting into position the heavy timbers used in the construction. The sensation whilst ascending is a most novel one, and must resemble that experienced in ballooning. To see the building sinking slowly beneath you as you successively reach the levels of the galleries, and the roofs of the transept and aisles is an experience never to be forgotten, and it seems a pity that no provision can be made for visitors, on paying a small fee, going up to the dome. (View from the Lantern of the Dome Exhibition 8)

The Exhibition

International Exhibitions presented the opportunity for countries to express their national identities and demonstrate their economic and technological achievements. They allowed countries to showcase the very best examples of contemporary art, handicrafts and the latest technologies particularly in manufacturing (Pont and Proudfoot 231).

The Sydney International Exhibition was the ninth International Exhibition and the colony’s first, and was responsible for bringing the world to Sydney at a time when the colony was prosperous and full of potential. The Exhibitionopening on 17 September 1879 and closing on 20 April 1880had an enormous impact on the community, it boosted the economy and was the catalyst for improving the city’s infrastructure. It was a great source of civic pride.

The International Exhibition Sydney, 1879-1880, supplement to the Illustrated Sydney News for January 1880

Image 1: The International Exhibition Sydney, 1879-1880, supplement to the Illustrated Sydney News Jan. 1880. Image credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (call no.: DL X8/3)

This bird’s eye view of the Garden Palace shows how impressive the main structure was and how much of the Gardens and Domain were occupied by ancillary buildings for the Exhibition. Based on an original drawing by John Thomas Richardson, chief engraver at the Illustrated Sydney News, this lithograph features a key identifying buildings including the Art Gallery, Machinery Hall, and Agricultural Hall. Pens and sheds for livestock can also be seen. The parade ground was used throughout the Exhibition for displays of animals. The first notable display was the International Show of Sheep featuring Australian, French and English sheep; not surprisingly the shearing demonstrations proved to be particularly popular with the community.

Approximately 34 countries and their colonies participated in the Exhibition, displaying the very best examples of technology, industry and art laid out in densely packed courts (Barnet n.p.). There were approximately 14,000 exhibits (Official Record c) which included displays of Bohemian glass, tapestries, fine porcelain, fabrics, pyramids of gold, metals, minerals, wood carvings, watches, ethnographic specimens, and heavy machinery.  

“Meet me Under the Dome” Illustrated Sydney News, 1 November 1879

Image 2: Meet Me under the Dome. Illustrated Sydney News 1 Nov. 1879: 4. 

Official records cite that between 19,853 and 24,000 visitors attended the Exhibition on the opening day of 17 September 1879, and over 1.1 million people visited during its seven months of operation. Sizeable numbers considering the population of the colony, at the time, was just over 700,000 (New South Wales Census).

The Exhibition helped to create a sense of place and community and was a popular destination for visitors. On crowded days the base of the dome became a favourite meeting place for visitors, so much so that meet me under the dome became a common expression in Sydney during the Exhibition (Official Record lxxxiii).

Attendance was steady and continuous throughout the course of the Exhibition and, despite exceeding the predicted cost by almost four times, the Exhibition was deemed a resounding success. The Executive Commissioner Mr P.A. Jennings remarked at the closing ceremony:

this great undertaking […] marks perhaps the most important epoch that has occurred in our history. In holding this exhibition we have entered into a new arena and a race of progress among the nations of the earth, and have placed ourselves in kindly competition with the most ancient States of the old and new world. (Official Record  ciii)

Initially the cost of admission was set at 5 shillings and later dropped to 1 shilling. Season tickets for the Exhibition were also available for £3 3s which entitled the holder to unlimited entry during all hours of general admission. Throughout the Exhibition, season ticket holders accounted for 76,278 admissions. The Exhibition boosted the economy and encouraged authorities to improve the city’s services and facilities which helped to build a sense of community as well as pride in the achievement of such a fantastic structure. A steam-powered tramway was installed to transport exhibition-goers around the city, after the Exhibition, the tramway network was expanded and by 1905–1906 the trams were converted to electric traction (Freestone 32).

After the exhibition closed, the imposing Garden Palace building was used as office space and storage for various government departments.

An Icon Destroyed

In the early hours of 22 September 1882 tragedy struck when the Palace was engulfed by fire (Destruction of the Garden Palace 7). The building – and all its contents – destroyed.

Burning of the Garden Palace from Eaglesfield, Darlinghurst, sketched at 5.55am, Sep 22/82

Image 3: Burning of the Garden Palace from Eaglesfield, Darlinghurst, sketched at 5.55am, Sep 22/82. Image credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (call no.: SSV/137) 

Many accounts and illustrations of the Garden Palace fire can be found in contemporary newspapers and artworks. A rudimentary drawing by an unknown artist held by the State Library of New South Wales appears to have been created as the Palace was burning. The precise time and location is recorded on the painting, suggesting it was painted from Eaglesfield, a school on Darlinghurst Road. It purveys a sense of immediacy giving some insight into the chaos and heat of the tragedy. A French artist living in Sydney, Lucien Henry, was among those who attempted to capture the fire. His assistant, G.H. Aurousseau, described the event in the Technical Gazette in 1912:

Mister Henry went out onto the balcony and watched until the Great Dome toppled in; it was then early morning; he went back to his studio procured a canvas, sat down and painted the whole scene in a most realistic manner, showing the fig trees in the Domain, the flames rising through the towers, the dome falling in and the reflected light of the flames all around. (Technical Gazette 33-35)

The painting Henry produced is not the watercolour held by the State Library of New South Wales, however it is interesting to see how people were moved to document the destruction of such an iconic building in the city’s history.

What Was Destroyed?

The NSW Legislative Assembly debate of 26 September 1882, together with newspapers of the day, documented what was lost in the fire. The Garden Palace housed the foundation collection of the Technological and Sanitary Museum (the precursor to the Powerhouse Museum, now the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences), due to open on 1 December 1882. This collection included significant ethnological specimens such as Australian Indigenous artefacts, many of which were acquired from the Sydney International Exhibition. The Art Society of New South Wales had hung 300 paintings in preparation for their annual art exhibition due to open on 2 October of that year, all of these paintings consumed by fire.

The Records of the Crown Lands Occupation Office were lost along with the 1881 Census (though the summary survived). Numerous railway surveys were lost, as were: £7,000 worth of statues, between 20,000 and 30,000 plants and the holdings of the Linnean Society offices and museum housed on the ground floor. The Eastern Suburbs Brass Band performed the day before at the opening of the Eastern Suburbs Horticultural Society Flower show; all the instruments were stored in the Garden Palace and were destroyed. Several Government Departments also lost significant records, including the: Fisheries Office; Mining Department; Harbour and Rivers Department; and, as mentioned, the Census Department.

The fire was so ferocious that the windows in the terraces along Macquarie Street cracked with the heat and sheets of corrugated iron were blown as far away as Elizabeth Bay. 

How Did The Fire Start?

No one knows how the fire started on that fateful September morning, and despite an official enquiry no explanation was ever delivered. One theory blamed the wealthy residents of Macquarie Street, disgruntled at losing their harbour views. Another was that it was burnt to destroy records stored in the basement of the building that contained embarrassing details about the convict heritage of many distinguished families.  

Margaret Lyon, daughter of the Garden Palace decorator John Lyon, wrote in her diary:

a gentleman who says a boy told him when he was putting out the domain lights, that he saw a man jump out of the window and immediately after observed smoke, they are advertising for the boy […]. Everyone seems to agree on his point that it has been done on purpose – Today a safe has been found with diamonds, sapphires and emeralds, there were also some papers in it but they were considerably charred. The statue of her majesty or at least what remains of it, for it is completely ruined – the census papers were also ruined, they were ready almost to be sent to the printers, the work of 30 men for 14 months. Valuable government documents, railway and other plans all gone. (MLMSS 1381/Box 1/Item 2) 

There are many eyewitness accounts of the fire that day. From nightwatchman Mr Frederick Kirchen and his replacement Mr John McKnight, to an emotional description by 14-year-old student Ethel Pockley. Although there were conflicting accounts as to where the fire may have started, it seems likely that the fire started in the basement with flames rising around the statue of Queen Victoria, situated directly under the dome. The coroner did not make a conclusive finding on the cause of the fire but was scathing of the lack of diligence by the authorities in housing such important items in a building that was not well-secured a was a potential fire hazard.

Building a Reputation

A number of safes were known to have been in the building storing valuables and records. One such safe, a fireproof safe manufactured by Milner and Son of Liverpool, was in the southern corner of the building near the southern tower. The contents of this safe were unscathed in contrast with the contents of other safes, the contents of which were destroyed. The Milner safe was a little discoloured and blistered on the outside but otherwise intact. The contents included three ledgers, or journals, a few memoranda and a plan of the exhibition—the glue was slightly meltedthe plan was a little discoloured and a few loose papers were a little charred but overall the contents were sound and unhurtwhat better advertising could one ask for! (The Garden Palace Fire 5).

barrangal dyara (skin and bones): Rebuilding Community

The positive developments for Sydney and the colony that stemmed from the building and its exhibition, such as public transport and community spirit, grew and took new forms. Yet, in the years since 1882 the memory of the Garden Palace and its disaster faded from the consciousness of the Sydney community. The great loss felt by Indigenous communities went unresolved.

barrangal dyara (skin and bones)

Image 4: barrangal dyara (skin and bones). Image credit: Sarah Morley.

In September 2016 artist Jonathan Jones presented barrangal dyara (skin and bones), a large scale sculptural installation on the site of the Garden Palace Building in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. The installation was Jones’s response to the immense loss felt throughout Australia with the destruction of countless Aboriginal objects in the fire. The installation featured thousands of bleached white shields made of gypsum that were laid out to show the footprint of the Garden Palace and represent the rubble left after the fire.

Based on four typical designs from Aboriginal nations of the south-east, these shields not only raise the chalky bones of the building, but speak to the thousands of shields that would have had cultural presence in this landscape over generations. (Pike 33)


Sydney’s Garden Palace was a stunning addition to the skyline of colonial Sydney. A massive undertaking, the Palace opened, to great acclaim, in 1879 and its effect on the community of Sydney and indeed the colony of New South Wales was sizeable. There were brief discussions, just after the fire, about rebuilding this great structure in a more permanent fashion for the centenary Exhibition in 1888 ([From Our Own Correspondents] New South Wales 5). Ultimately, it was decided that this achievement of the colony of New South Wales would be recorded in history, gifting a legacy of national pride and positivity on the one hand, but on the other an example of the destructive colonial impact on Indigenous communities. For many Sydney-siders today this history is as obscured as the original foundations of the physical building. What we buildiconic structures, civic pride, a sense of community—require maintenance and remembering.  


Among the Machinery. The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser 10 Jan. 1880: 70-71.

Aurousseau, G.H. Lucien Henry: First Lecturer in Art at the Sydney Technical College. Technical Gazette 2.III (1912): 33-35.

Barnet, James. International Exhibition, Sydney, 1880: References to the Plans Showing the Space and Position Occupied by the Various Exhibits in the Garden Palace. Sydney: Colonial Architects Office, 1880.

A ‘Bohemians Holiday Notes. The Singleton Argus and Upper Hunter General Advocate 23 Apr. 1879: 2.

Census Department. New South Wales Census. 1881. 3 Mar. 2017 <>. 

Destruction of the Garden Palace. Sydney Morning Herald 23 Sep. 1882: 7.

Freestone, Robert. “Space Society and Urban Reform. Colonial City, Global City, Sydney’s International Exhibition 1879. Eds. Peter Proudfoot, Roslyn Maguire, and Robert Freestone. Darlinghurst, NSW: Crossing P, 2000. 15-33.

“[From Our Own Correspondents] New South Wales. The Age (Melbourne, Vic.) 30 Sep. 1882: 5.

“The Garden Palace Fire. Sydney Morning Herald 25 Sep. 1882: 5.

Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier 1 Nov. 1879: 4.

International Exhibition. Australian Town and Country Journal 15 Feb. 1879: 11.

Kent, H.C. Reminiscences of Building Methods in the Seventies under John Young. Lecture. Architecture: An Australian Magazine of Architecture and the Arts Nov. (1924): 5-13.

Lyon, Margaret. Unpublished Manuscript Diary. MLMSS 1381/Box 1/Item 2.

New South Wales, Legislative Assembly. Debates 22 Sep. 1882: 542-56.

Notes on the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. Melbourne: Government Printer, 1881.

Official Record of the Sydney International Exhibition 1879. Sydney: Government Printer, 1881.

Pike, Emma. barrangal dyara (skin and bones). Jonathan Jones: barrangal dyara (skin and bones). Eds. Ross Gibson, Jonathan Jones, and Genevieve O’Callaghan. Balmain: Kaldor Public Arts Project, 2016.

Pont, Graham, and Peter Proudfoot. The Technological Movement and the Garden Palace. Colonial City, Global City, Sydney’s International Exhibition 1879. Eds. Peter Proudfoot, Roslyn Maguire, and Robert Freestone. Darlinghurst, NSW: Crossing Press, 2000. 239-249.

View from the Lantern of the Dome of the Exhibition. Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturalist and Grazier 9 Aug. 1879: 8.

Author Biography

Sarah Morley, State Library of New South Wales

Sarah Morley is a curator at the State Library of NSW. She works closely with Manuscript and Rare Book collections drawing on her experience in collection acquisition, arrangement and description.

To coincide with Jonathan Jones’ barrangal dyara installation in 2016, Sarah curated a display on the Garden Palace in the Library’s Amaze Gallery. She also writes for the Library’s SL Magazine.

Sarah has a passion for libraries, the history of the book, and interpretations of Australia from the earliest records to the present day.