Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

The University of Sydney

Before the University of Sydney was established by an act of Parliament in 1850, anyone wishing to obtain a university education had to travel overseas.

The first buildings of the fledging university were constructed in the mid 1850s on a ridge looking towards Sydney. Edmund Blacket, the Colonial Architect, resigned his post in order to devote his attention to the new buildings.

Inspired by the medieval colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, Blacket designed a traditional English collegiate grassed quadrangle. After the construction of Blacket's original building, the Main Quadrangle was completed in stages, with the construction of another wing and further additions over the next 100 years.

Gargoyle on building at the University of Sydney

Gargoyle on building at the University of Sydney

Gargoyle on building at the University of Sydney

Gargoyle on building at the University of Sydney

How then do you look after a large complex of aging sandstone buildings of exceptional heritage significance? The University of Sydney's main campus includes a number of important heritage buildings, especially in the Main Quadrangle. In August 1998 a Heritage Fabric Survey was commissioned by the University to identify what repair is needed and give the University a strategy to conserve its significant buildings.

The study, undertaken by Otto Cserhalmi & Partners in conjunction with DPWS Heritage Group, took 15 months and looked at all the buildings in detail.

Its findings were reported to the University's Heritage Management Committee, chaired by Professor Ken Eltis, Deputy Vice Chancellor, and were endorsed for a program to deal with much needed repair work.

University Architect, Colin McGilvray, explains, "We needed a comprehensive condition survey of the fabric; to study, identify and record it. Once you understand what is significant, you can then conserve what is significant, deciding which works have priority and how funding should be allocated".

The Main Quadrangle is described by Dr James Kerr as "Australia's grandest secular exercise in the Gothic Revival". It is just one of the heritage building groups on the university campus which is of exceptional cultural significance, and forms the heart of the campus.

The Heritage Fabric Survey confirmed that some of the features such as the parapets, towers, gargoyles, pinnacles and chimneys are in poor condition and some are even in a potentially dangerous state. It identified the need for urgent work on the Main Quadrangle and the Anderson Stuart building. These buildings are sandstone and Sydney sandstone has a limited lifespan of 100-125 years in exposed areas.

The University is establishing a Heritage Fabric Maintenance Program to ensure the survival of its culturally significant buildings. The program will include the recording of deteriorated stonework, removal of any potentially dangerous stone, repair and replacement of damaged stones and detailed documentation of any conservation work. The 10-year program will involve the replacement of over 250 cubic metres of stone, at a cost of $25 million dollars.

Carved stonework at the University of Sydney

Carved stonework at the University of Sydney

Gargoyle on building at the University of Sydney

Gargoyle on building at the University of Sydney

The University's distinctive carved stonework requires specialist care. Over time the decorative detail of these elements will be lost, including the anatomical detail of the bosses and gargoyles. With the aid of the Fabric Survey, the University is recording and monitoring these special decorative carvings.

How a carving is conserved for future generations depends on its significance. "Once recorded, you have a number of choices," says McGilvray. "It can be replaced with a replica, or a modern carving which is sympathetic with the heritage building, or if highly significant, it may be housed in a museum."

The maintenance program is already underway and visitors to the University in January will see craftsmen undertaking further investigation of the Clock Tower. Information gathered during the Survey, as well as during further recording and monitoring work, will be included in the University's Heritage and Conservation Register which is part of the requirements of the Heritage Act.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012