The commission to design Government House was awarded to Edward Blore, architect to King William IV. By late 1834 a full set of 97 working drawings, plans and specifications were dispatched to New South Wales. The final sitting of the house on Bennelong Point was determined by Colonial Engineer, Captain George Barney and Colonial Architect, Mortimer Lewis. Construction on the house began in September 1836, using local quarried sandstone. When the house was near completion in 1845 it had cost £46,000. Government House was the most sophisticated example of Gothic Revival architecture in the colony. Changes in fashion and the differing tastes of Governors and their wives resulted in regular refurbishment of the grand interiors and their contents. By 1858 a wash house and laundry had been added to the house and the servants’ hall had been enlarged. During Governor Young’s term the gardens were further developed and the eastern terrace and fountain were constructed in 1861.
In the period between the arrival and departure of the Governors, the colony and the house were administered by the Lieutenant-Governor. In 1872 the Lieutenant-Governor Sir Alfred Stephen directed Colonial Architect James Barnet to construct a porte cochère at the entrance of the house. In 1879, in anticipation of the opening of the Sydney International Exhibition, Barnet commissioned the firm of Lyon, Cottier & Co., to redecorate all of the state rooms in the fashionable ‘Aesthetic Movement’ style and the work constructing the eastern arcade or verandah was commenced in 1879. Prior to the arrival of the Earl of Jersey in 1891, a separate two-storey timber and shingle cottage, the Chalet, was constructed on the western terrace.
Federation, and the role of the Governors-General, raised questions as to the significance of State Governors. New South Wales proposed to move the State Governor from the house to make way for the Governor-General, in the belief that ‘the seat of Government must be in New South Wales’. In preparation for occupancy by the Governor-General in 1901, changes were made to the building’s fabric. A major stone replacement program using ‘yellow block’ sandstone had begun in the 1890s and this included extensions to the Ballroom and the Billiards Room. At the rear of the house, a new kitchen and scullery were provided, the servants’ hall enlarged, and a range of outbuildings constructed. Between 1898 and 1901 electricity was introduced to replace the gas lighting system.
The State Government offered Government House rent free to the Commonwealth and the New South Wales Governors were relocated to Cranbrook, Rose Bay. This arrangement continued until 1911, when the newly elected Labour Government refused to renew the Commonwealth’s lease and in December 1912 took formal possession of the house.
In 1915 the then Governor, Sir Gerald Strickland, was requested to resume occupancy of the house. In January 1996 the then Premier The Hon. Bob Carr announced that Government House would no longer be the private residence of the Governor and that both the house and grounds would be open to the public. Since March 1996 Government House has been managed by the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
On the 7th October 2011, the Premier, The Hon. Barry O'Farrell annouced that the Governor, and the Office of the Governor, would return back to Government House.
Government House continues to be used by the Governor for official Vice Regal ceremonies, receptions, luncheons and dinners, and the weekly meeting of the Executive Council. With the Governor’s support, the house continues to be a centre for a diverse program of cultural and community events and is open to the public for tours four days a week.
For further information on Government House and tours, please contact the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales:
Sydney NSW 2000
02 9931 5222
Ref. Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 2007. Government House Sydney. Glebe, NSW, pp 4-13.
Photos supplied by Rob Tuckwell and Margaret Verity