Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

Government House

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Government House

The completion of Sydney's Government House in 1845 was the culmination of years of planning to replace the first Government House, which stood on the corner of Bridge and Phillip streets.

First Government House, built under instruction from Governor Arthur Phillip and completed in 1789, was a modest, two-storey cottage overlooking Sydney Cove. The building developed a number of structural faults, requiring repairs. It was modified and enlarged by the nine successive Governors who lived there, and plans for its replacement dated at least from 1817. In that year, Governor Lachlan Macquarie instructed Francis Greenway to prepare plans for a new Government House and stables within the Governor's Domain, which had been proclaimed in 1812. By 1821, only the stables building, now the Conservatorium of Music, had been completed, following criticisms of Macquarie's extravagant program of public building works aired during the Bigge Commission of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of NSW.

In 1832, Governor Richard Bourke decided to move Government House further north-east within the Domain on the advice provided three years earlier by Thomas Mitchell, the surveyor-general. Mitchell's proposal, which involved the demolition of First Government House, was a result of demands for greater wharfage for the burgeoning Sydney settlement, which required land occupied by the government gardens adjacent to Sydney Cove.

Construction began on the new Government House in 1837, to plans of Edward Blore, a noted British architect who also designed parts of Buckingham Palace. The new Government House was built in the Gothic Revival style of which Blore was a leading proponent. Works to construct the elaborate sandstone structure were carried out under the instruction of the government architect, Mortimer Lewis, along with the colonial engineer, George Barney. The new Government House was ready for occupation in 1845 but was not completed until two years later.

The first occupant was George Gipps, governor from 1838 to 1846. Twenty-four governors and their families lived at Government House between 1845 and 1996. Following Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth was given use of Government House for accommodation for governors-general when Parliament was not sitting in Melbourne. Five governors-general lived at Government House between 1901 and 1915: Hopetoun, Tennyson, Northcote, Dudley and Denman. In the interim, two governors of NSW (Rawson and Chelmsford) lived at Cranbrook, at Rose Bay.

Government House was added to and repaired by successive governors from the 1870s onwards. In 1873 the colonial architect James Barnet oversaw construction of a porte-cochere to provide cover for coaches in bad weather, as well as an arcaded colonnade on the eastern façade of the building. The colonnade, facing the harbour, completed in 1880, protected the east-facing rooms from the weather, and provided additional outdoor entertaining space. In the 1870s, elaborate interior finishes were carried out by Lyon and Cottier. The government architect Walter Liberty Vernon oversaw further additions to the building, as well as a significant program from 1896 to 1901 to replace the façade of the building, using locally quarried Pyrmont sandstone.

Although a residence for the governors and their families, Government House also contained offices and hosted official functions. While the ground floor was used for public receptions and the governor's offices, the upstairs rooms were used for residential purposes.

In 1996, Bob Carr's Labor Government announced that Government House would no longer be used as the governor's official residence and offices. The governor continues to use it for vice-regal functions, but at other times it is open to the public. It is managed by the Historic Houses Trust for the display of its collection of furnishings and for functions.


Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Government House Sydney, Historic Houses Trust of NSW, Glebe, c1997

Rosemary Harmar, Growing Up at Government House, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1989