Museum of Contemporary Art | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Museum of Contemporary Art

Item details

Name of item: Museum of Contemporary Art
Other name/s: Maritime Services Board (MSB) Building, MCA
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Recreation and Entertainment
Category: Art Gallery/ Museum
Location: Lat: 33'50S Long: 151'12E
Primary address: 136-140 George Street, The Rocks, NSW 2000
Parish: St Philip
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Sydney


All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
136-140 George StreetThe RocksSydneySt PhilipCumberlandPrimary Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Sydney Harbour Foreshore AuthorityState Government 

Statement of significance:

The Museum of Contemporary Art building and site are of heritage significance for their historical, aesthetic and scientific cultural values. The site and building are also of heritage significance for their contribution to The Rocks area which is of State Heritage significance in its own right .

Occupying an important position on the western foreshore of Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art is a well-known landmark. Designed in 1939 to accommodate the Maritime Services Board (MSB), but constructed in 1946-52, the building was part of the State government's vision for the redevelopment of the Quay in conjunction with the construction of the new city railway. The building's location reflected the importance of the MSB as the government body controlling the principal form of international trade and travel. The building contrasts strongly with the character of the adjacent Rocks area.

The free-standing monumental Inter-War Stripped Classical building demonstrates a high standard of workmanship in its detailed construction and the fine Art Deco details and finishes. The grand Wharfage Hall, decorative details and artworks emphasise Sydney's relationship with the sea and maritime transport.

Site: archaeology - The site has significant research potential. The archaeological remains of the first dockyard c1796 and the Commissariat Store lay in the footprint of the MCA and site.
Date significance updated: 05 Aug 09
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: MSB Engineering Design Office, William Henry Whithers and W. D. H. Baxter
Builder/Maker: F. C. N. Powell & Sons
Construction years: 1940-1952
Physical description: The MCA ( former Maritime Services Board (MSB)) building has a six storey central tower with lower cross-wings. The central tower houses plant and a former caretaker's flat, and gives access to roof terraces over the cross wings. The principal entrance is centrally located on the eastern side of the ground floor leading into the entry foyer, with a mezzanine level. To the south of the foyer is the former Wharfage Hall, a major two storey public space. The staff cafeteria was originally located at the northern end of the ground floor. The Board's offices were located on the first floor, with general office accommodation on the floors above. (PWD 1985: Description)

The building is clad with smooth dressed sandstone on a rusticated based of polished Rob Roy granite. The pink granite extends to frame each of the major entrances. Wombeyan marble and other NSW stones were used internally, in conjunction with terrazzo and scagliola tiles. The carved sandstone decoration includes 'a ships propeller, wheel and anchor signifying respectively the driving force, guiding force and stability of the board' (BEL 24 January 1953). Architectural metalwork includes bronze (sliding) doors, metal windows, aluminium grilles incorporating the anchor and wheel motif, and aluminium handrails featuring a wave pattern. The decorative doors with fanlights to the Wharfage Hall, paving and associated light fittings survive.

Internally, the building exhibits fine examples of scagiola (a plaster imitation of marble) and terrazzo, decorative techniques fashionable in the 1930s. The building also contains a war memorial and artwork commissioned by the MSB, undertaken by Lyndon Dadswell, Emerson Curtis and Norman Carter.

The curtilage of the site includes the harbour foreshore and First Fleet Park. The symmetrical layout of the eastern forecourt, steps to the water, and sea wall railing steps, and garden bed to the south of Wharfage Hall, were all part of the original composition. (Boyd, N: NT listing 2000).

Style: Inter-War Stripped Classicism, with Art Deco details; Storeys: 5 -6; Side Rear Walls: Massive brickwork with stone cladding; Roof Cladding: Concrete; Floor Frame: Concrete; Roof Frame: Steel; Fire Stairs: Two (in the south-west & north-west corners)

Archaeology notes: 1940-1952: Former MSB Building (See also: AM067; AR017; AR054).;
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Archaeology Assessment Condition: Significant Archaeological Resource dating to first decade of European settlement in the dockyard and to the first decade of the 19th Century in the remains of the Commissariat Store. Assessment Basis: Current work indicates that there is disturbance to the depth of bedrock the whole length of the building between it and George Street. Between the building and Circular Quay, archaeological remains are better preserved, since the level of ground is now higher than the original quayside. Former roadway (ex-quay), Circular Quay West approx. 1 metre below current ground level. Well preserved remains of former dockyard uncovered in 1997. Investigation: Watching Brief
Date condition updated:27 Apr 01
Modifications and dates: In the late 1980s work started on the adaptive re-use of the building for the Museum of Contemporary of Art, which was opened in 1991. The adaptation was designed by Peddle Thorp and Walker. Although the Wharfage Hall and other decorative and memorial elements were retained, other interiors such as the curved veneered panelling were removed. The landscaping to the forecourt of the building and the earlier form of railing was reinstated to Circular Quay for the Bicentennial in 1988 (Architecture Australia September 1988 p80). The building was extended circa 1990 to provide shop fronts to George Street. When the conversion was underway the upper two levels were retained as Government offices. A Café was located on the ground floor, adjacent to the Wharfage Hall. Both George Street and the Circular Quay entrances are used. Emergency exits have been added (SCC Heritage Database: Inventory No. 1044, also Boyd, N: NT Listing 2000 p5).
Further information: The building has been modified, therefore the significant heritage fabric of the building has been identified in the forthcoming Conservation Management Plan and this should be referred to before undertaking any works to the building.
Current use: Gallery / Museum
Former use: Former Maritime Services Board office building, Government offices


Historical notes: The Museum of Contemporary Art (former Maritime Services Board) building on the western side of Sydney Cove is thought to be sited close to the first landing of the First Fleet (assumed to be just to the north of the present building). Sydney's first hospital was built to the south-west of this site and by 1802, the Hospital Wharf was constructed in front of the present building (Hospital Wharf was renamed twice: as King's Wharf after the hospital moved to Macquarie Street c1816, and as Queen's Wharf with the accession of Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837. (PWD 1985: Background).

In 1797 Governor Hunter ordered a Government Dockyard to be built in order to repair shipping. By 1822 four docks, with probably three capable of dry-dock usage were operationg. The dockyard and its workshops and sheds were surrounded by a stone wall. To the north was a stone house constructed for the Master Boat Builder, later to be joined by a watchman's hut, blacksmiths and during Macquarie's period a stone barrack building. The dockyards were filled in with the construction of what was called 'Semi-Circular Quay' in the 1850s. The remains of part of the dockyard still exist in the archaeological record under the northern end of the MCA building.

The Commissariat Stores, which were demolished to make way for the MSB building, were built in two stages, 1809 and 1813. The first Commissariat Store was built in 1809 facing Sydney Cove, to a design by Lieutenant-Colonel Foveaux during the Military Administration after the Rum Rebellion. The second Commissariat Store facing George Street North was completed in 1813 by Govenor Macquarie. Both buildings were constructed using convict labour. Convict masons who worked on construction of the Commissariat Stores carved their initials into each of the sandstone blocks used in the buildings. The Commissariat Stores provided secure and vermin proof storage for provisions such as food, blankets and shoes, that were distributed to the convict and military establishment until circa 1840s. The use of the former Commissariat Stores from this time until the close of the 19th century is currently unknown and requires further research.

The Commissariat Stores, later known as the Mercantile Free Stores and the Naval Stores, were transferred to the control of the State Government, under the auspices of the Sydney Harbour Trust, in 1901. At this time, the Sydney Harbour Trust leased the stores to a number of commercial tenants including James Hardie & Co from 1908 and the Mercantile Trading Company. The building later housed the State Taxation Department.

In 1937, the Circular Quay Planning Committee, known as the Butter's Committee, was appointed to advise the State Government as to the most suitable treatment of the Circular Quay Area including the location and architectural treatment of the new offices required for the Maritime Services Board (MSB), because their existing offices were to be demolished to make way for the Circular Quay Railway.

The Butter's Committee initially recommended that the new MSB offices be sited on the block bounded by George, Alfred and Pitt Streets. The Committee then recommended the site of the Commissariat Stores, which they had initially designated for parkland. The Circular Quay Advisory Committee approved the construction of the new offices on this site 'in accordance with the report of the Butter's Committee' and the tenants of the buildings on the site were advised to vacate it within three months (PWD 1985: Background).

In late 1938, the MSB considered various methods for the design of their new building including holding a competition or employing consultant architects. By 1939, however, they had resolved to use the MSB's own architects who by this stage had prepared preliminary designs for the building. William Henry Withers was the architect in charge and was assisted by temporary staff.

In early 1939, the Board sought advice from architects Budden and Mackay, who designed the Circular Quay railway, they replied that the 'character of the design and its architectural lines' would harmonise with the proposed station building, but were critical of the height of the design and its tower. It seems that few of these recommendations were acted upon, although the height of the building may have been reduced (PWD 1985: Background).

The demolition of the Commissariat Stores in late 1939, and the concurrent threats to other Macquarie-era buildings in Sydney, such as the Hyde Park Barracks, provoked considerable public debate, and was instrumental in the formation of the heritage movement in Australia and, in particular, the establishment of the National Trust in 1949 (SMH: 11 Oct 1938 p12,17 Oct 1938 p9, 30 Nov 1939 p10, 20 Jan 1939 p6, 04 Feb 1939 p17, 4 Mar 1939 p10, 06 Jul 1939 pp8 &10, 02 Nov 1939 p7, 10 Nov 1939 p6, 29 Nov 1939 p12, 02 Dec 1939 p9).

Work on the design of the new MSB offices ceased in July 1940, due to war restrictions, however the historic buildings on the site had already been demolished in late 1939 (SMH 6Jul 1939 p10). At the request of the Circular Quay Committee, design work resumed in late 1944. Tenders for building construction were called on 11 September 1946, and F. C. N. Powell & Sons' tender for 345,555 pounds was accepted. Withers retired in 1947, and the detailed design and execution of the building, which cost 500,00 pounds to construct, was completed by Mr David H. Baxter, who drew and checked both the 1940 and 1945 plans (Boyd, N: NT Listing 2000).

The MSB offices were officially opened by Premier John J. Cahill on the 10 December 1952. The foundation stone of the Commissariat Store survives as a memorial in front of the former MSB office (PWD 1985: Background). The MSB operated from this building from 15 December 1952 until the late 1980s, when the headquarters were moved to new premises in the city centre.

In 1984, the Premier of NSW, Neville Wran, announced that the MSB building would become an art gallery, to house the collection of the Power Institute of Fine Art (Port of NSW, December 1984, pp.3-4; Ports of NSW, March 1985, p.17). Following a major adaptation of the building, designed by Peddle Thorp and Walker and overseen by the Property Services, the building reopened in November 1991 as the Museum of Contemporary Art. (PWD 1985: Background). The work included: creation of gallery spaces, adaptation of the Wharfage Hall to a reception hall, establishment of a café on the ground floor, and an extension along the George Street façade to provide shops.

Ownership of the building was transferred to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority in late 2001.

[Archaeological History - This was the site of wharfage from 1788, the Commissariat Store being constructed between 1809 and 1813, and subsequently, warehouse development. The Commissariat Store itself was demolished in 1939, replaced by the present structure, the MSB building, currently Museum of Contemporary Art. Vacant area to north site of former Dockyard, 1797-1857.]

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
2. Peopling-Peopling the continent Convict-Activities relating to incarceration, transport, reform, accommodation and working during the convict period in NSW (1788-1850) - does not include activities associated with the conviction of persons in NSW that are unrelated to the imperial 'convict system': use the theme of Law & Order for such activities (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Commerce-Activities relating to buying, selling and exchanging goods and services (none)-
4. Settlement-Building settlements, towns and cities Towns, suburbs and villages-Activities associated with creating, planning and managing urban functions, landscapes and lifestyles in towns, suburbs and villages (none)-
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)-
8. Culture-Developing cultural institutions and ways of life Creative endeavour-Activities associated with the production and performance of literary, artistic, architectural and other imaginative, interpretive or inventive works; and/or associated with the production and expression of cultural phenomena; and/or environments that have inspired such creative activities. (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The building has historic significance for its association with the activities of the Sydney Harbour Trust, later the Maritime Services Board (MSB), in the upgrading of the wharfage facilities in Sydney Harbour. The location of the building functionally and administratively at the heart of Port Jackson fronting Circular Quay, on the site of the first government wharf and Commissariat Stores, reflects the important role of the MSB in the management of the harbour. The disuse of the Wharfage Hall indicates changing patters of use and the allocation of wharfage at the port of Sydney in the late twentieth century, with decentralisation and containerisation. (NT listing)
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
A prominent Circular Quay building, designed in 1938 by the Board's design office, and constructed after World War 2, the Museum of Contemporary Art (former MSB building) has aesthetic significance as a fine example of a stripped neoclassical government office building. Its strongly massed use of sandstone and bronze windows and doors and its harbourfront position indicate its original role as headquarters of the important Maritime Services Board. The Museum of Contemporary Art (former MSB building) is a landmark building, currently used for cultural purposes, designed as part of a wider scheme for beautification of, and to increase the public access to, Circular Quay.

A sandstone sculpture by L Dadswell, various metal-work elements enchance the entry area. Inside the foyer and former Long Room (now Amex Hall) are of architectural interest.

Designed to be approached from the water, the building largely retains its symbolic decoration, both internally and externally, specifically commissioned Australian art works, landscaped setting and relationship with Circular Quay and the water. The building has one of the last major interiors to be constructed in Sydney using Art Deco style materials and techniques such as scagliola, marble and decorative metalwork. (NT listing)
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The site has the potential to reveal the pattern of use of the site in the early nineteenth century, providing evidence of wharfage in the colony, and the supply of stores and provisions for the military and convicts by the commissariat. (Boyd, N: NT Listing 2000)

An archaeological monitoring program was carried out on the site in 1991 with four areas excavated. The results of these test trenches revealed that there are archaeological remains extant on the site that date to the very earliest days of the settlement. There is archaeological evidence of building constructed before the Commissariat store of 1809. Therefore the site has significant research potential. The archaeological remains, comprising remnants of the original Sydney Cove topography and physical evidence of the historical development and use of the area from 1788 have been assessed as having outstanding cultural significance.
Integrity/Intactness: Archaeology partly disturbed.
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.

Recommended management:

The 1985 Conservation Study which has been used as the basis of this listing is out of date, however it does nat appear that another has been compilied . It does not address the work undertaken to enable its change of use to a gallery circa 1990, nor does it conform to current guidelines for the preparation of a conservation plan according to the NSW Heritage Office Heritage Manual as would befit a building of the MCA's position and stature. Any work to the building which may impact on its heritage significance should only be proposed following the preparation of a full Conservation Plan. 1985 Recommendations: The building is suitable for adaptation to a number of uses. Elements of interest are the buildings external silhouette, form and design, window and door treatments and details and the use of high quality materials; the wharfage hall and the foyer and some of the works of art in these spaces; the Board's offices and items of original furniture. Of the works of art, Dadwell's bas relief over the main entrance is the most significant. Emmerson Curtis's mural in the wharfage hall and Dadswell's war memorial sculpture in the foyer are of lesser significance but are well-related to the building enhancing the spaces in which they are located. Carter's mural in the foyer is of least significance (PWD 1985). The exterior is in good condition requiring little remedial work. New works should be designed in a manner compatible with the character of the building and should enhance its significance, not detract from it. Any significant fabric unavoidably removed should be recorded and/or relocated if possible. Above ground archaeological remains: Significant Below Ground Archaeological Remains: An historical and archaeological assessment prior to any excavation including archaeological is recommended. (See also: AR054)


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - s.170 NSW State agency heritage registerSydney Harbour Foreshore Authority 20 Mar 02   

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
SCA Register 1979-19981998AR055Sydney Cove Authority (SCA)  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Written  Concise Guide to the State Archives (1. Ordnance Storekeeper, Commissariat Storekeeper, Government Stores; 2. Sydney Harbour Trust; 3. Maritime Services Board
WrittenBuilding, Lighting and Engineering (BEL)1953'The Maritime Services Board Building: Imposing New Headquarters at Circular Quay, Sydney' and 'Applied Art in the New Maritime Services Biulding' (January 24)
WrittenCasey & Lowe2000Results of Archaeological Testing, Report to City of Sydney
WrittenCasey & Lowe1998Stage II Results of Excavations at Possible Pier Locations
WrittenCasey & Lowe1998Stage II Results of Testing at Northeastern Pier Point
WrittenCasey & Lowe1997Stage II Results of Additional Testing
WrittenCasey & Lowe1997Archaeological Assessment, Stage II
WrittenCasey & Lowe1997Stage II Results of Testing for Northern Dock Wall
WrittenCasey & Lowe Associates1987Heritage Assessment & Results of Testing Museum of Contemporary Art Stage II.
WrittenCasey, M.1991Museum of Contemporary Art and First Fleet Park Archaeological Monitoring. For John Holland Interiors and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
WrittenNoni Boyd Museum of Contemporary Art [The Former Maritime Services Board (MSB)]
WrittenPublic Works Department1989Former Maritime Services Board Building Circular Quay West: Photographs of Levels 5, 6,7 (August)
WrittenTanner & Associates2000Heritage and Urban Design Report, Museum of Contemporary Art

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

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: State Government
Database number: 4500056

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