We assume that iconic buildings were always in the site they currently grace. We cannot imagine Pisa without its leaning tower or Paris without its Eiffel Tower. Yet each structure, however iconic now, was once the subject of vigorous council debates, contradictory community input, contested tenders, budgetary problems, technical concerns and finally uncertain public use.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge was no different. This week is the 80th anniversary of its opening in March 1932.
Sydney Harbour Bridge today. Note the Art Deco pylons.
Virtually since the beginning of European settlement in Sydney, transportation links between the north and south shores of Sydney Harbour had been problematic. I am very proud to see that my favourite architect from the colonial period, Francis Greenway, recommended to Governor Macquarie that the North Shore should be linked to Sydney by a bridge. In letters to The Australian in 1825 ex-convict Greenway wrote that such a bridge would 'give an idea of strength and magnificence that would reflect credit and glory on the colony and the Mother Country'.
Over the next few decades, engineers proposed every possible design type eg truss bridges, arch bridges or floating bridges.
But it wasn’t until governmental engineer John C Bradfield (1867-1943) took hold of the project that Sydney could make this long-held fantasy a reality. He favoured building a cantilever overpass, without piers, between Dawes Point and McMahons Point.
In 1916 the Legislative Assembly (lower state house) passed the Bill for the construction of a cantilever bridge. It was going to happen, at last.
Of course we know that projects don't necessarily run smoothly. In this case, the Legislative Council (upper state house) rejected the legislation on the grounds that money would be better used for the war effort. This setback did not deter Bradfield who developed the full specifications and scheme to finance the construction of a cantilever bridge. In 1921 he went on a research tour overseas which convinced him that tenders should be called for both cantilever and arch designs.
Finally, in the post-war period, the necessary Act for the construction of a high-level cantilever or arch bridge across Sydney Harbour was passed; it was to connect Dawes Point with Milson's Point. The 1922 Act provided for both the construction of the bridge and the construction of electric railway lines.
In 1923 tenders were called for a cantilever or arch bridge. Twenty tenders were received from local companies and from abroad. In March 1924 the contract was given to the English firm Dorman Long & Co of Middlesbrough with a design for an arch bridge at a tender price of £4.2 million. The arch design was not only cheaper than the cantilever and suspension proposals, but had the advantage of greater rigidity. This would be important for the heavy traffic that the bridge was going to be carrying.
Thomas Tait was the consulting architect to Dorman Long with responsibility for the design of the purely decorative pylons. Tait drew on the Roman cenotaph form and on the iconography of Egyptian monuments to add a war memorial symbol after the Great War.
Under construction. Photo credit: National Library of Australia
Construction began in 1923 and of course there was great pain for the location population. The first thing that happened was the demolition of 800 solid homes. The owners of these homes received compensation, but their tenant occupants did not. And eventually there was also considerable morbidity and mortality amongst the workers.
The contractors set up two workshops at Milson's Point on the North Shore where the girders were made from steel. Abutments, which supported the ends of the bridge, were contained at the base of the very Art Deco pylons. They prevented the bridge from stretching or compressing due to temperature variations. The steel used for the bridge was largely imported. 80% came from Redcar in the North East of Britain while the rest was locally made. The granite used was quarried in the south coast town of Moruya, and the concrete used was also Australian made. The total weight of the bridge was 52,800 tonnes, and six million hand-driven rivets held the bridge together.
The two arches met at the centre of the span in August 1930. The road, and the two sets of tram and railway tracks, were completed in 1931. Power, lines telephone lines, water, gas and drainage pipes were all added to the bridge in that year. In January 1932, the first test steam locomotive crossed the bridge without incident.
Bradfield on test-train on Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1932. State Records NSW
Premier Jack Lang opened the Harbour Bridge on 19th March 1932. One moment of ugliness occurred with Francis Edward de Groot, a member of a nasty rightwing organisation called the New Guard, disrupted the opening ceremony by slashing the ceremonial ribbon before the Premier was able to officially open the bridge. But in typical Australian fashion, the ribbon was simply stuck back together and the Premier completed his task.
I am amazed that the opening celebrations were an all-singing all-dancing roadshow since we know that Sydney, like most of the world, was suffering terribly from Great Depression in 1932. Yet half a million people participated in the Venetian-type carnival with floats, bands and a procession of passenger ships under the Bridge. It was a very big party!
poster, opening celebrations, 1932
The total financial cost of the bridge was £10 million which was not paid off in full for another 55 years. But the money was well spent. Sydney had a symbol that, from 1932 on, would be instantly recognised around the world.