|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.]