After all, the Inter-colonial Exhibition of 1867 in Melbourne had been such a great stimulus that the NSW government bought many of the exhibits to place in the brand new Technological, Industrial and Sanitary Museum (later the Powerhouse Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences). Industrial development was a hot topic.
Furthermore the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879 would be the first World Exhibition in the southern hemisphere, far from the cultural and commercial centres of Europe. So there may have been a bit of national showing off involved.
In 1879, architect James Barnet was put in charge of the Sydney International Exhibition building. It was to be in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens because the harbour frontage was so attractive, but in the end it occupied land that was just outside the Gardens.
The Colonial Architect’s Office completed this huge task in nine months, including preparing the drawings, management of the project accounts and payments, and supervision of the building. The Exhibition Building used the first electric light in Sydney, imported from Britain, to get through the project with around-the-clock shifts. To show you how early in electricity’s history this was, it would be another 25 years before a Lady Mayoress turned on the switch to illuminate Sydney streets, using power from Pyrmont Power Station 1904.
Sydney’s Exhibition Building was similar in design to Crystal Palace in London and similar also to the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. And it was set in gorgeous garden settings, like these two other cities, thus inspiring the NSW Premier Sir Henry Parkes to call it the Garden Palace.
The Italianate building consisted of 3 double storey, turreted wings meeting beneath a central dome which dominated Sydney's harbour skyline. Sydney's first hydraulic lift was contained in the north tower. Directly under its 64m high central dome was a fountain, and a huge statue of Queen Victoria. Inside there were excellent facilities including restaurants, an oyster bar and tea rooms. There was only one structural problem - there had been no time to use permanent and fire-retardant materials. Aside from the brick used in the foundations and the entrance towers, the majority of this vastly enormous building was wood and corrugated iron.
Garden Palace had an impressive opening ceremony, in Sep 1879. Paolo Giorza (1832-1914) from Milano moved to Australia in late 1871. Politician Sir Patrick Jennings, a passionate music-lover, chose Giorza as director of music for the exhibition. Giorza was commissioned to compose the grand celebratory opening cantata which was scored for a large chorus and children's choir, soloists and a full orchestra. During the exhibition, Giorza also provided daily concerts, some of them grand orchestral and choral occasions, with Handel's oratorios prominent as well as band and chamber music and piano recitals.
Spectacular pieces from the Sèvres porcelain factory, established in 1738 at Chateau de Vincennes, were among the many decorative art items sent by France for the 1879 Exhibition, to demonstrate France’s rich cultural heritage. One label said: “this vase was a gift from the French commissioner which acknowledged "proof of the lively and sincere sympathy of my Government for your flourishing colony but above all a token of the full appreciation my countrymen have of the energy and freedom of the inhabitants of Australia, freedom extended to all, whatever may be their origin."
By the time the Sydney Exhibition closed in April 1880, a million visitors had paid to go through the turnstiles. Architect James Barnet might have been criticised in Parliament because the project greatly overran its budget and the Exhibition lost money. Yet the exhibition was judged a determining landmark in the history of the NSW Colony, marking that state's sense of achievement, progress and aspirations on the world stage.
Some collections, put together for the 1879 Exhibition, lasted. The paintings in the fine arts display, for example, became the nucleus of the government’s art collection. The first purpose-built art gallery building was opened in 1884, only 5 years later.
According to Scratching Sydney's Surface, the Garden Palace was originally intended as a temporary structure, but as it had proved such a success, the authorities decided to keep it. So when the timber Palace was completely engulfed by fire in Sep 1882 and destroyed, it was a total disaster. The newspapers suggested three possible reasons for the blaze. One theory was that wealthy Macquarie St residents, upset their harbour views had been stolen by the giant building, lit the blaze. Another was that it was burnt to destroy the 1881 census. Stored in the Garden Palace, the records apparently exposed embarrassing secrets about the convict origins of many leading families. Or possibly the fire was just an accident.
Garden Palace gates.
What remains of the Garden Palace today? Nothing, really. Even the beautifully carved sandstone gateposts and wrought iron gates, located on the Macquarie Street entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens, were built as an entrance to the new gardens in 1888. And the one artefact from the 1879 Exhibition that did survive the fire - a carved graphite statue of an elephant, from Ceylon - is displayed elsewhere (at the Powerhouse Museum). A 1940s-era sunken garden, and fountain featuring a statue of Cupid, merely mark the location of the Palace's once impressive dome.