In a big win for heritage, the NSW state government has denied an unsolicited proposal for 50 Phillip Street Sydney; a great outcome for this historically significant public building.
The Chief Secretary’s Building at 50-52 Phillip Street Sydney is one of the most historically, socially, and architecturally important public buildings in Australia, described as a “poem in stone.” Recently, it was in grave danger of being permanently disfigured from an unsolicited proposal for a hotel to take over part of this public building, including a 200m tower that would overhang it.
The National Trust (NSW), along with many other organisations including Sydney City Council and Australia ICOMOS, vehemently opposed the Stage 1 Concept DA, stating “This proposal is an insult to one of the most historically, socially, and architecturally important public buildings in Australia. It must not proceed.”
The Chief Secretary’s Building was built in several stages built between 1873 and 1893 and was designed by Colonial Architect James Barnet and Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon. The building has always been listed on the National, State, Local and National Trust heritage lists as a whole, but this proposal sought to argue that the later Phillip Street section was not part of the original building – an outrageous claim.
What was the issue?
Whilst the National Trust (NSW) consistently advocates the importance of adaptively reusing heritage places to ensure their care and protection, the proposed development was not supported due to the negative impact it would have on:
- The original sandstone building
- The character of the nationally-significant historic area it is within
- Important sightlines to and from the historic building
- Precedents for other Government-owned historic public buildings within the city.
In addition, the Trust stated that this development for one of our most important buildings would set a precedent that could have disastrous consequences for other items listed on the State Heritage Register throughout the NSW – which the public rightly assume should be protected by their heritage listing.
The National Trust (NSW) considered that the Chief Secretary’s Building is a public asset, and one of the most important buildings in Australia. Built in several stages, it warrants, and deserves, the highest level of protection. The National Trust (NSW) expressed its strong objections to the Concept Design and recommended that it should be withdrawn.
What was the outcome?
Following our campaign which included a submission, direct letters to the NSW Premier and providing technical assistance to other advocacy organisations and individuals, last month the National Trust (NSW) was delighted to learn that the NSW Government have refused the unsolicited proposal.
The Australian newspaper reported that “Industry players suggested the Premier held concerns about the heritage considerations in the district as the hotel and residences would border the Chief Secretary’s Building.”
What comes next?
In the recent Macquarie Street East Precinct Review, prepared by Lucy Turnbull and Paul Keating, it was noted that the Chief Secretary’s Building is “by design, a symbol of power and politics… the seat of government administration for 120 years… a poem in stone.” The report stated that the repurposing of the Chief Secretary’s Building to accommodate government and/or administrative uses will provide a proper and appropriate use for one of Sydney’s most important historic buildings.
The National Trust (NSW) agrees that ensuring that the building remains in public hands is of central importance given its historical role as a centre of public administration. We have written to the Premier and met with his representatives to encourage the consideration of continued public use of this important public heritage asset.
The National Trust (NSW) wishes to see NSW’s significant heritage places revived and cared for, however this should not come at the cost of losing the very elements that contribute to that significance. The conservation of an historic building should not be a trade-off for visual impact and encroachment on the place’s fabric and setting.
We applaud the decision to knock back the unsolicited proposal and we thank the community members and organisations who advocated alongside the National Trust (NSW) for the protection of this remarkably significant building.
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