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In February 1878 the Colonial Secretary’s Office announced that ‘it is intended to hold under the supervision of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales an international Exhibition in Sydney in August 1879’. By December the same year it had become clear that the Agricultural Society lacked the resources to complete the project and control passed to the state government. Government Architect James Barnet was directed to prepare ‘plans for a building suitable for an international exhibition, proposed to be built in the Inner Domain’. Within three days he had submitted a set of drawings for approval. From this point on there was a great sense of urgency to complete the building in less than 10 months.
The successful contractor was John Young, a highly experienced building contractor who had worked on the Crystal Palace for the 1851 London International Exhibition and locally on the General Post Office and Exhibition Building at Prince Alfred Park. Young was confident he could deliver the building in time, and electric lights were procured from London so that work could be carried out 24 hours a day.
The structure was built using over a million metres of timber, 2.5 million bricks and 220 tonnes of galvanised corrugated iron. It was an architectural and engineering wonder set in a cathedral-like cruciform design, showcasing a stained-glass skylight in the largest dome in the southern hemisphere (64 metres high and 30 metres in diameter). The total floor space of the exhibition building was three and half hectares, and the area occupied by the Garden Palace and related buildings — including the Fine Arts Gallery, Agricultural Hall, Machinery Hall and 10 restaurants and places of refreshment — was an astounding 14 hectares.
A number of innovative features set the building apart. The rainwater downpipes were enclosed in hollow columns of pine along the aisles, and Sydney’s first hydraulic lift enabled visitors to ascend the north tower and take in the harbour views.
Garden palace cross section by James Barnet
Albumen photoprint ; 15.7 x 20.7 cm
Presented January 1987
Photographer's stamp at lower left
"160" at lower left
The dome of the Garden Palace was directly above the intersection of the nave and transcept and rested on a drum, approximately 30 metres in diameter which was supported on four hollow peers of wood. The drum featured 36 oval windows which flooded the space below with light. The dome was made of wood covered with corrugated galvanised iron featuring twelve large lattice ribs and 24 smaller ribs bound together with purins of wood strengthened with iron. At the top of the dome was a lantern and stained glass skylight designed by Messrs. Lyon and Cottier. It was light blue, powdered with golden stars with wooden ribs in red, buff and gold.
Ascent of the Dome
During the construction of the Lantern which surmounts the Dome of the Exhibition, visitors have been permitted, through the courtesy of Mr. Young , to ascend in the cage conveying materials for work. This cage is lifted by a single cable, which was constructed specially of picked Manilla hemp, for hoisting into position the heavy timbers used in the constuction. The sensation whilst ascending is a most novel one, and must resemble that experienced in ballooning. To see the building sinking slowly beneath you as you successively reach the levels of the galleries, and the roofs of the transept and aisles is an experience never to be forgotten, and it seems a pity that no provision can be made for visitors, on paying a small fee, going up to the dome. If however the captive balloon, which created such a sensation in Paris, is to be shown in the Exhibition Grounds, visitors will have ample opportunity of 'looking round'
Ilustrated Sydney News, 9 August 1879, p. 8