Under this surrounding of Government buildings, the construction of the Education building was initiated in two stages: Firstly, George McRae started the construction of the northern half of the Department of Public Instruction, now the Department of Education building using the Edwardian Baroque design. In 1901 when the Royal Australian Historical Society was founded met in a number of different venues and was eventually provided with rooms in the Department of Education building in Bridge Street.
McRae, whom was named a City Architect in 1887 and later became government architect, had already worked finalising the Sydney Town Hall. McRae also added to his curriculum two Sydney monumental buildings: the Romanesque style of the QBV façade (c.1898) and the Edwardian Baroque style (also known as Federation Freestyle or Neo Baroque) of Central Railway Station or Sydney Terminal (c.1924).
McRae latter style is characterised by sandstone structures that looked back to the 17th- and early 18th-century which developed the classical architecture of the Renaissance towards greater extravagance and drama. Its innovations included greater freedom from the conventions of the orders, much interplay of concave and convex forms, and a preference for the single visual sweep. This style was highly in vogue in Britain for government buildings at the time.
The second stage happened between 1928 and 1930. This time the southern half was designed to match the previous construction. Although, at first it was built to house the Department of Agriculture (the engraved marble over the Farrer Place entrance still reads the words “Department of Agriculture”).
Later on, it was partly occupied by the Department of Technical Education but a continued growth in the Education Department squeezed in the early 1970s both these occupants: Department of Technical Education and Department of Agriculture out.
The Department of Education building clearly demonstrates Edwardian architectural style and planning concepts; its historic features reveal Edwardian taste and customs - for example, the grand sequence from entry porch to ministerial board room. the building, especially where it remains in original condition, a particularly fine example of an early 20th century government office building, featuring an innovative internal steel frame that allowed for future re-use. Also, some people find an influence of the Federation Warehouse style.
It is a significant example of the Edwardian architecture of the period 1915 --1930. While the original design determined the overall external effect, it is interesting to see purer Beaux Arts neo-classical details occurring in the 1929 Farrer Place porch and foyer, and simplified stonework details in this portion of the building. How much they reflect taste rather than economy is unclear. Although, The scale and composition of the building was based on the need to accommodate the Department in a government building, and the size and design of the building was acceptable to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) at the time and funding had been made available by the Treasury.
The importance of education to NSW in 1915 is evident in the number of schools the Department was able to build. Department of Public Instruction was the original name of the NSW Department of Education and Training organisation. Its name was changed to "Department of Education" by an Act of the NSW Parliament in 1957.
The Bridge Street building was the seat of various important figures such as:
Peter Board (1905-1922) who was an Inspector of Schools before he was appointed “Director of Education” (equivalent to the Director-General). Peter Board drafted the new syllabus modelled on a child centered approach with two other inspectors and was appointed Director of Education to implement the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry into Education (1902-1905.
Sir Harold Wyndham (1952-1968) that, in the 1950s, carried out the last wide-ranging independent inquiry into public education in NSW. His findings were presented to the then education minister, and resulted in a major redirection of public education including the establishment of comprehensive high schools and changes to the Higher School Certificate (HSC). His educational scheme was introduced in NSW in 1962.
The building as conceived and built has a considerable degree of unity in its use of materials, form and scale. The external design is highly disciplined and uses a limited palette of materials such as the yellow block sandstone which originally came from quarries in Pyrmont, Ultimo, the Sydney CBD, Paddington, Bondi and Maroubra, metal framed windows, copper-clad skylights. The Education building made a major contribution to this part of Sydney, visually linking with other imposing sandstone government buildings and enhancing a number of important city vistas.
Note: William Wilkins was the person who implemented the government plans for a Public School system in New South Wales and in fact, because New South Wales was the first state in Australia to adopt a public school system, the other states originally copied his model. That is why the gallery on level 7 is named The William Wilkins Gallery and there is a portrait of him. The government of the day brought Wilkins out from England specifically to assist with the development of the public school system as he was really well known in England for his expertise and innovation in the education of young people. A few years ago, DET in collaboration with the family of William Wilkins, arranged for a head stone to be made by Miller TAFE College who provides the only stonemasonry course to students which was placed on the grave of Mr Wilkins in Rookwood Necropolis and Mr Justice Kirby of the High Court of Australia and a former student of Fort Street High School, gave the celebratory speech for the ceremony at the Wilkins gravesite during the sesquicenterary year of Public Education in New South Wales.
Building Management and tenants should be aware of the building's heritage significance in that no alterations are permitted which will compromise that status. Nowadays, some repairs and maintenance are allowed by the State Heritage Regulations, 2005.
The Education building is owned by the NSW Treasury and managed by State Property, Department of Commerce and any alterations to the building have to be approved by the Heritage Council of NSW – the Heritage Council has replaced the Heritage Branch of the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning as the consent authority.
Many of the accepted conservation policies have already been addressed. The last refurbishment of the building was done in mid 1990’s although still retaining a number of features of heritage significance.
However, there is a need for ongoing conservation work to be carried out, particularly relating to the sandstone facades and to certain designated interiors.
The building has a number of elements of major heritage significance, including:
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