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Sydney’s Department of Lands building

Located on Bridge Street in the Sydney CBD, this stately building was constructed in 1877 for the New South Wales Department of Lands, and was used as the organisation’s administrative head office. The Department played an especially significant role during the rapid expansion of settlement during the late 1800s. The three-storey building was designed by colonial architect James Barnet and built in two stages – the first between 1876 and 1881, and the second between 1888 and 1892 under colonial architect Walter Vernon’s supervision. The builder, John Young, was the first person in Sydney to build with ferrocement – concrete slabs reinforced with metal mesh or rods.

At the time of its construction, the Department of Lands building boasted the latest office technology and features, including spiral stairs, speaking tubes, pneumatic bells, and a special room for storing city plans and maps, complete with a fireproof metal door.

On the Bridge Street facade of the building, there was the Lands Department Datum Bench Mark Plug, which marked the mean sea level and mean high-tide levels. It was set into position on the front of the building sometime between 1887 and 1894, and provided the origin of all levels in New South Wales under the Survey Co-ordination Act. The clock on the tower, and a clock system that operated throughout the building, were driven electronically by a pendulum master clock – an Australian-made system that was installed by Prouds in 1938.

Sydneysiders would be well familiar with the 23 sculpted figures occupying some of the 48 niches on the building’s exterior – all of explorers and politicians who contributed to the development of Australia. Architect Barnet originally proposed 48 men for commemoration in statue, but only 25 were accepted, the remainder being rejected as ‘hunters or excursionists’. The men who made it into stone include Matthew Flinders, Sir Joseph Banks, and explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell.

Only one new statue has been added to the façade since the original figures were installed – that of colonial surveyor James Meehan who has occupied a niche on the corner of Loftus and Bent streets since 2010. After being transported to New South Wales, Meehan was pardoned for his involvement in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and he went on to explore and measure out the towns of Sydney, Bathurst and Hobart, among others.

The Department of Lands building was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register in 1999 after it narrowly escaped being converted into a casino in the late 1980s. The Heritage Council of New South Wales passed a permanent conservation order that protects the building from ‘unsympathetic development’.

In 2016, the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage moved out of the building, and Singapore-based Pontiac Land Group purchased the site for $35 million, with plans to turn it into a world-leading hotel.

Featured image: Public Lands Department building, Sydney, circa 1900–1920. Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

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