Sydney Observatory Group Including Buildings & Their Interiors and Grounds | NSW Environment & Heritage

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Sydney Observatory Group Including Buildings & Their Interiors and Grounds

Item details

Name of item: Sydney Observatory Group Including Buildings & Their Interiors and Grounds
Other name/s: Windmill Hill, Fort Phillip, Citadel Hill, Flagstaff Hill
Type of item: Complex / Group
Group/Collection: Scientific Facilities
Category: Observatory
Primary address: 1003 Upper Fort Street, Millers Point, NSW 2000
Local govt. area: Sydney
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
1003 Upper Fort StreetMillers PointSydney  Primary Address

Statement of significance:

The Observatory is a fine and rare example of a purpose built observatory structure and is of exceptional significance for its dominant location in the City of Sydney. The site has a long history of changing uses, all of which reflected important stages in the development of the colony including milling (the first windmill); defence (the first, and still extant, fort fabric); communications (the flagstaffs, first semaphore and first electric telegraph connection); astronomy, meteorology and time keeping. The surviving structures, both above and below ground, are physical evidence of 195 years of social and technical development. The place has an association with an extensive array of historical figures most of whom have helped shape its fabric including colonial Governors, military officers and engineers, architects, signallers and telegraphists and astronomers. The building is amongst the few surviving examples of the work of Alexander Dawson, Colonial Architect.

The siting, with its harbour and city views and vistas framed by mature Moreton Bay fig trees of the surrounding park, make it one of the most pleasant and spectacular locations in Sydney. The picturesque Italianate character and stylistic interest of the Observatory and residence building, together with the exceptional craftsmanship evident in the fabric of all major structures on the site, combine to create a precinct of unusual quality.
Date significance updated: 14 Nov 06
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.

Description

Designer/Maker: Alexander Dawson, James Barnet
Builder/Maker: Charles Bingemann & Ebenezer Dewer; Goddard & Pitman
Construction years: 1857-1859
Physical description: The Observatory is a sandstone, two storey building with two domed observatories on octagonal towers and a four storey tower containing offices and an astronomer's residence. The building is of Florentine Renaissance style and the storeys are divided by string courses with articulated quoins at corners, stone bracketted eaves and entablature to openings. A single storey wing to the north has a timber balcony verandah built above. The building has Georgian twelve pane windows and six panel doors.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
Generally the buildings and gardens are in good condition. Some of the stonework of the Observatory building requires attention as it is fretting and spalling. Additions to the external walls facing the northern courtyard have now been removed.
Date condition updated:14 Nov 06
Modifications and dates: West wing built 1876-78.

c1907 - Most of the residence lath and plaster ceilings replaced by decorative pressed metal ceilings and matching cornices.

1907 - New staircase constructed in residence.

20th century - Most observatory ceilings replaced by asbestos cement sheeting - Addition of picture rails.

1982 - Wran Government decision to cease scientific work on site, Powerhouse Museum takes responsibility for management.

1984-7 DPWS - Major works to provide a museum of astronomy, exhibitions etc .

1980s - Observatory ceilings replaced with plaster-board. - Some floors replaced with particle board sheeting. - Some basement floors quarry tiled.

1985 - New staircase constructed in south west tower.

1987 garden re-landscaping/reinstatement to conform with Russell's plan of 1893,
Current use: Museum of Astronomy; functions
Former use: Observatory; Time Ball Station; Semaphore; Meteorology; defence fort; windmills

History

Historical notes: The "Eora people" was the name given to the coastal Aborigines around Sydney. Central Sydney is therefore often referred to as "Eora Country". Within the City of Sydney local government area, the traditional owners are the Cadigal and Wangal bands of the Eora. There is no written record of the name of the language spoken and currently there are debates as whether the coastal peoples spoke a separate language "Eora" or whether this was actually a dialect of the Dharug language. Remnant bushland in places like Blackwattle Bay retain elements of traditional plant, bird and animal life, including fish and rock oysters.

With the invasion of the Sydney region, the Cadigal and Wangal people were decimated but there are descendants still living in Sydney today. All cities include many immigrants in their population. Aboriginal people from across the state have been attracted to suburbs such as Pyrmont, Balmain, Rozelle, Glebe and Redfern since the 1930s. Changes in government legislation in the 1960s provided freedom of movement enabling more Aboriginal people to choose to live in Sydney.

(Information sourced from Anita Heiss, "Aboriginal People and Place", Barani: Indigenous History of Sydney City http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani )

The site of the Sydney Observatory has long been a significant place in Sydney and has undergone a number of name changes. It was known as Windmill Hill in the 1790s when it was the site of the first windmill. After 1804 references are made to it as Fort Phillip or Citadel Hill, referring to plans to build a citadel on the site at Governor King's instruction for use in the case of an insurrection in Sydney. This was prompted by an influx of 'Death or Liberty' Boys after the abortive 1798 uprising in Ireland, some of whom he believed to be of the most desperate character and cause for constant suspicion. Construction began but the citadel was not completed when Bligh took office. There were further discussions about a citadel during the Macquarie period but nothing eventuated beyond a half built powder magazine, Francis Greenway's first work after his appointment as civil architect in 1815.

The site was known as Flagstaff Hill during and after the Macquarie era. A flagstaff had been erected on the site by 1811. Flag signalling was a cumbersome process and Commissioner Bigge advised Macquarie that it was expedient to erect a semaphore at South Head and Fort Phillip. The flag and semaphore were used for signalling in a variety of combinations.

In November 1821 Governor Brisbane arrived with a set of astronomical instruments, a plan for an observatory and two personal employees with astronomical expertise - Christian Rumker and James Dunlop. He set up an observatory at the Governor's residence in Parramatta. Problems developed between Brisbane and Rumker. Rumker lost his position and it was not until Brisbane had been recalled to England that Rumker was reinstated by the Colonial Secretary. The following year Governor Darling, the new Governor, appointed Rumker as astronomer, the first to hold the title in Australia. In 1831 Dunlop was appointed Superintendent at the observatory, Rumker again losing his position because of Brisbane.

Brisbane's instruments remained at Parramatta when he left and they were used in that observatory until it was closed in 1847.The recommendation for the closure came from a commission appointed by Governor Fitzroy instigated in London. Dunlop had become increasingly frail and negligent and the Parramatta observatory had fallen into decay. The instruments were placed in ordnance storage at the urge of Phillip Parker King, a leading astronomer in Australia. King argued that a government observatory should be set up, and not just a time ball as was the suggested policy. King's preference for siting an observatory at Fort Phillip was eventually accepted. In 1850 Colonial Architect Edmund Blacket prepared a modest plan for a time ball and observatory, but in the eight years it took to get underway plans underwent progressive enlargement. The initial plan was a 13 x 14 foot (3.95m x 4.25m) room for a transit telescope and timekeeping apparatus with a small ante-room. In 1851 an enlarged version was presented to the Colonial Secretary but it had no time ball tower, because neither King nor Blacket knew how it worked. By the time Blacket resigned in 1854 plans were underway for an observatory that would be both functional and of architectural quality. Little more was done until the arrival of Sir William Denison as Governor in January 1855. Denison saw an observatory as an important addition to the colony. As a result the 600 pounds allocated to the time ball and building was augmented by an additional vote of 7000 pounds for a complete observatory and Denison wrote to the Astronomer Royal asking him to find a competent astronomer. Plans by William Weaver and estimates were submitted in August 1855 but Denison decided to defer the final decision on the site and design until the arrival of the astronomer. These documents have not survived. Alexander Dawson replaced Weaver as Colonial Architect in April 1856 and the new Government Astronomer, Reverend William Scott, M.A., arrived with his family in October that year.

Tenders for the construction were advertised in February 1857. The successful tenderers were Charles Bingemann and Ebenezer Dewar. Scott and Dawson worked together on the planning and design and it is clear that little of the previous designs was retained. The design was a combination of the Italian High Renaissance Palazzo with the picturesque asymmetrical Italian Villa form. The building combined the functions of the maritime time ball, the observatory and the astronomers residence.

Extra work was approved after Bingemann and Dewar won their tender. This included the addition of equatorial facilities and an increase in the height of the time ball. This increased height caused some dismay for Scott as it blocked out an increased area of the eastern sky.

Scott occupied the residence in 1858 and commenced a trial operation of the time ball in June. His initial equipment was modest, mostly the instruments from Parramatta. He did however, obtain the money for an equatorial telescope. In 1862 Scott resigned and his suggested replacement declined the position. In the meantime, his assistant Henry Russell was left in charge of the observatory. In January 1864 George Robarts Smalley was appointed with Russell retained as assistant.

In 1870 Smalley died and was replaced by Russell whose talent, entrepreneurial flair, initimate knowledge of how to work the political and bureaucratic system of NSW and longevity gave him a 35 year tenure as Government Astronomer and made him the Grand Old Man of physical science in the colonies.

It was during Russell's period that the Sydney Observatory reached its professional zenith, particularly from the 1870s through to the 1890s. Russell wasted no time in pressing the government for the necessary physical and instrumental resources to carry out his astronomical programs at the Observatory. In 1875 Russell succeeded in securing an extension of the Observatory enclosure. Like his predecessors, he had been concerned with the restrictive nature of the Observatory grounds which made siting of meteorological and auxiliary astronomical instruments difficult, if not impossible. This extension, together with the adjacent signal station give the site its present symmetrical perimeter. James Barnet designed the west wing extension to the building. It provided for a major ground floor room for Russell, a library and a second equatorial dome on a tower at its northern extremity which removed the blind spot imposed by the time ball tower. An enlarged Muntz metal dome was also placed on the old equatorial tower to accommodate a new Schroeder telescope. The telescope remains a prized and functional possession today. Russell also turned his attention to improving the residence, claiming it was not large enough to accommodate his family.

The Astrographic Catalogue was Russell's greatest commitment and would affect programs at the observatory for 80 years. His interest in the application of photography to astronomy and a visit to Paris in 1887 prompted Russell to compile a 'great star catalogue'. It was a massive logistical enterprise and was not practically completed until 1971.

Russell died in 1907 after an extended absence due to ill health. His assistant Alfred Lenehan was appointed acting Government Astronomer during this period and later Government Astronomer in 1907. However, in 1906 a premier's conference resolved that the Commonwealth Government would take over meteorological work, leaving astronomy to the states. Thus, the meteorological section of the Observatory became a Commonwealth agency under the direction of Hunt, a former officer of the Observatory. Lenehan and Hunt continuously quarrelled and did not develop a good working relationship.

In January 1908 Lenehan had a stroke and never returned to work. At the same time the Commonwealth agency was installed in the Observatory residence. William Edward Raymond, the officer responsible for transit work, became officer in charge for four years, until the appointment of William Ernest Cooke in 1912.

Cooke was lured to Sydney with promises of a site free of city lights and traffic, the purchase of modern instruments and a world trip to investigate the latest developments. None of these eventuated during Cooke's fourteen years at the observatory.

In 1916 the board of visitors to the Observatory was reconstituted. Russell had allowed it to lapse during his term of office. In 1917 the residence was again inhabited by the Astronomer.

All government astronomers from Scott to Cooke were worried about increasing levels of city light, vibration from traffic and magnetic disturbance which rendered the Flagstaff Hill site increasingly unsuitable. Recommendations had been made by Smalley in 1864 and others in the first quarter of the twentieth century. While Russell had managed to have the astrographic telescope relocated, there was general worry over the reaction to the cost of relocation. In July 1925 Cooke wrote to his minister pointing out the problems at the site and with the equipment. The State Cabinet took his word and in October decided to close the Observatory rather than expend the cost of removal and re-equipment. However, protests from the board of visitors, the Royal Society of NSW, the NSW Branch of the British Astronomical Association, the University of Sydney and interested members of the public caused the Government to change its mind and allow the observatory to continue - but with a heavily reduced staff and program. Most of the staff were removed to other departments and Cooke was retired the following year. Only the time ball and a scaled down astrographic program survived. This experience inhibited later Government Astronomers in their arguments for a new site.

Two World Wars, a great depression and a commitment to a logistically exacting astrographic program helped reduce the vitality of the establishment in the twentieth century. The deployment of major resources to the astrographic program became something of a nightmare as the twentieth century progressed. The Government Astronomers could not suspend or abort the program because fulfilment of international obligations under the program had always been advanced as a major reason for not abolishing the Observatory.

The completion of the program in 1964 and publication of the final volume in 1971 meant the Observatory's days were numbered. Other fundamental reasons also contributed to the notion that the Observatory was no longer a viable proposition. The transfer of meteorology to the Commonwealth in 1908 removed the Observatory's most high profile public service, while electric telegraphy and radio had reduced and in time eliminated the need for local navigational and time services. Ambient city light so restricted astronomical observation that the place was becoming more useful as an astronomical educational centre, club rooms and defacto museum.

The Post War period was an exciting time for Australian astronomical development, particularly in radio astronomy. These developments bypassed Sydney. Without major capital funds to develop its own specialisations in the west, Sydney observatory remained tied to its traditional role. Despite this there was some positive activity at the Observatory. During the 1950s and 1960s under Harley Wood, the Observatory enjoyed a modern renaissance. Staff numbers were built up and new equipment acquired. A new survey of the southern sky was commenced and by 1982 his successor William Robertson had completed the photography, and measurement was underway. Education was another aspect of the observatory's work that Wood began to develop and increasing numbers of visitors, including students attended the Observatory. These activities commanded respect for Sydney Observatory in astronomical circles, but its image in the NSW Parliament remained forgettable.

The disestablishment of the Observatory echoed that of fifty years earlier when Cooke stressed the need for a new location. The Chairman of the Board of Visitors wrote a letter not unlike Cooke's in its terms. The result was a letter from the Premier in June 1982 announcing his decision to transfer ownership of the Observatory to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and discontinue scientific work. This time, despite letters from international astronomers, the Government did not rescind its decision.

In July 1984 the Minister for Public Works, Ports and Roads announced an $800 000 project to restore the Sydney Observatory and convert it to a Museum of Astronomy. While the importance of the exterior was recognised, the interior was less fortunate. Work inside the building in the creation of the museum involved the staged removal of almost all instruments, equipment, furniture and furnishings. Deterioration since its disestablishment is likely to have contributed to a more extensive replacement of early materials than originally envisaged (SHI listing - revised).
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Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Agriculture-Activities relating to the cultivation and rearing of plant and animal species, usually for commercial purposes, can include aquaculture windmills to grind wheat into flour-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Communication-Activities relating to the creation and conveyance of information communication by telegraph-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Communication-Activities relating to the creation and conveyance of information communication by semaphore-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Communication-Activities relating to the creation and conveyance of information communication by signals-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena astronomy-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena meteorology-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Science-Activities associated with systematic observations, experiments and processes for the explanation of observable phenomena researching astronomy-
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 Creating landmark structures and places in urban settings-
7. Governing-Governing Defence-Activities associated with defending places from hostile takeover and occupation Building colonial forts-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Association with Governor Lachlan Macquarie, 1810-1821-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Associations with Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane 1821-1825-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Associations with Governor John Hunter 1795-1800-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Associations with Governor William Bligh 1806-1810-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Associations with Henry Russell, Government Astronomer 1870- 1905 and eminent Physical Scientist-
9. Phases of Life-Marking the phases of life Persons-Activities of, and associations with, identifiable individuals, families and communal groups Associations with Governor General Sir William Denison, 1855-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The Observatory's dominant location beside and above the port town, and later, City of Sydney, made it the site for a range of changing uses. All of these were important to, and reflected changes in the development of the colony including milling (the first windmill); defence (the first, and still extant, fort fabric); communications (the flagstaffs, first semaphore and first electric telegraph connection); astronomy, meteorology and time keeping.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
Sydney Observatory is significant for its association with a number of colonial Governors who contributed to the shape and development of the complex. The primary associations are with Governor Brisbane whose instruments were used for many years and who instigated the observatory at Parramatta, and Governor Denison who greatly expanded the budget and expectation for the building. It was Denison who was most responsible for instigating the building as it stands. Of the Colonial Architects the building is primarily associated with Alexander Dawson, with Barnet contributing an addition. The astronomer Scott is also a primary association as he was involved in setting out the requirements for the building and the design is a result of his expertise. Henry Russell had the longest and most significant association as an astronomer. Other occupant astronomers and signallers include Jones, Moffitt, King, Smalley, Cooke and Wood.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The elevation of the site with its harbour and city views and vistas framed by the mature fig trees of the surrounding park, make it one of the most pleasant and spectacular locations.

The picturesque Italian Villa character mixed with High Renaissance Palazzo gives the building stylistic interest and together with the high level of craftsmanship of all major structures on the site combine to create a precinct of unusual quality.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The Observatory provided an essentially scientific establishment but also an educational facility, associated with Sydney University. Its establishment connected the colony with the scientific societies of Britain and Europe.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The surviving structures, both above and below ground, are themselves physical evidence of 195 years of changes of use, technical development and ways of living. As such they are a continuing resource for investigation and public interpretation. The site yielded the first astronomical recordings of the colony. The Observatory contains the remains of the time ball apparatus and retains original astronomical equipment used from the early years of the colony.
SHR Criteria f)
[Rarity]
The building is among the few surviving buildings designed by Alexander Dawson. It is a fine and rare example of the only colonial building constructed as an Observatory. The combination of a time ball with an observatory may be unique and contribute to the inevitable redundancy of its primary function.
SHR Criteria g)
[Representativeness]
The Observatory is representative of Colonial progress, and in particular, educational and scientific pursuits.
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.

Listings

Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental PlanSydney LEP 2012I93414 Dec 12   
Heritage study     

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
Millers Point & Walsh Bay Heritage Review2006 Paul Davies Pty Ltd  No
National Federation Heritage Project1999 Michael Pearson et al  No
Sydney City Heritage Study0 Sydney City Council  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Written James Semple Kerr2002 Sydney Observatory - a conservation plan for the site & its structures
Written Clive Lucas, Stapleton & Partners1997 Alterations and Additions to the Signal Master's Cottage
Written Godden Mackay P/L1998 Observatory Hill, Sydney : archaeological monitoring report
WrittenD Sheedy1974Fort Street School and Observatory Precinct - The Observatory. National Trust Listing Card.
WrittenJames Semple Kerr1991 Sydney Observatory
WrittenNSW Dept of Public Works & Services1996 Development Plan for Sydney Observatory
WrittenNSW Government Architects's Office Sydney Observatory, Observatory Hill, Sydeny. Proposed new Function Centre. Historical Archaeological Testing Report To Inform a Design Competition Brief Persuant to S139(2) of the NSW Heritage Act
WrittenRossi, Mafalda2000Sydney Observatory site : archaeological watching brief, 20 September-2nd October 1994

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

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(Click on thumbnail for full size image and image details)

Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 2426298


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