Customs House, Sydney

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Customs House
Old Customs House in Circular Quay, Sydney.jpg
The former Customs House in Circular Quay, Sydney
Former Customs House is located in Sydney
Former Customs House
Former Customs House
Location in Greater Sydney
General information
Status Complete
Type Government administration:
Address 45 Alfred Street, Circular Quay, Sydney CBD, New South Wales
Country Australia
Coordinates 33°51′44″S 151°12′39″E / 33.862195°S 151.210885°E / -33.862195; 151.210885Coordinates: 33°51′44″S 151°12′39″E / 33.862195°S 151.210885°E / -33.862195; 151.210885
Construction started 1844
Completed 1845; 1887
Opened 1845
Owner Council of the City of Sydney
Technical details
Floor count 6
Design and construction
Architecture firm New South Wales Government Architect
Official name Sydney Customs House (former)
Criteria A.4, D.2, E.1, F.1 and H.1
Designated 22 June 2004
Reference no. 105436
Official name Customs House (former)
Criteria a., c., d., e., f.
Designated 2 April 1999
Reference no. 00727

The Customs House is an historic Sydney landmark located in the city's Circular Quay area. Constructed in 1844-1845, the building hence the name served as the headquarters of the Government of Australia departmental agency Australian Customs and Border Protection Service until 1990. Ownership was then transferred to the City of Sydney Council in 1994, when it became a venue for exhibitions and private functions. After being refurbished in 2003, it has also become the new home of the City of Sydney Library.

The ground floor of the building houses a 4.2m x 9.5m scale model of Sydney's city centre viewed through a glass floor. The model was built by Modelcraft in 1998 and weighs one tonne. Images of the various versions of the building across its history are also displayed on the ground floor.


People of the Eora tribe are said to have witnessed from the site, in 1788, the landing of the First Fleet. Convict David O'Connor was hanged on the site in 1790 and it is said that his ghost haunts the Customs House to this day, offering people rum.[citation needed]

The driving force behind the construction of the original sandstone edifice on Circular Quay was Colonel John George Nathaniel Gibbes, the Collector of Customs for New South Wales for a record term of 25 years from 1834 to 1859. Colonel Gibbes persuaded the Governor of New South Wales, Sir George Gipps, to begin construction of the Customs House in 1844 in response to Sydney's growing volume of maritime trade. The building project also doubled as an unemployment relief measure for stonemasons and laborers during an economic depression which was afflicting the colony at the time.

The two-storey Georgian structure was designed by Mortimer Lewis and featured thirteen large and expensive windows in the facade to afford a clear view of shipping activity in Sydney Cove. Colonel Gibbes, who dwelt opposite Circular Quay on Kirribilli Point, was able to watch progress on the Customs House's construction from the verandah of his private residence, Wotonga House (now Admiralty House).

The Customs House opened for business in 1845 and replaced cramped premises at The Rocks. It was partially dismantled and expanded to three levels under the supervision of the then Colonial Architect, James Barnet, in 1887. Various additions were made over the next century, particularly during the period of the First World War, but some significant vestiges of the original Gibbes-Lewis building remain.

The building ceased to be the headquarters of the Customs Service in 1990. Ownership was then transferred from the Commonwealth Government of Australia to the City of Sydney Council in 1994. The building underwent several rounds of refurbishment. It was refurbished in 1996-7 to become a venue for exhibitions and private functions. A further round of refurbishment was completed in 1999,[3] converting the building into the "tourism gateway" to Sydney ahead of the 2000 Summer Olympics. The building contained galleries, a museum, bars, cafes and a restaurant, as well as performance and exhibition space. The City of Sydney's planning scale model of the City was also moved here from the Town Hall offices. After the Olympics, the building was further refurbished in 2003 to house the main City of Sydney Library, moved here from Town Hall.


On 2 April 1999, the building was listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register with the following statement of significance:[1]

The Sydney Customs House occupies a unique symbolic and physical position on the site of the First Fleet Landing. Its location is a physical reminder of the importance of Circular Quay as the original maritime centre for the colony. The Customs House contains parts of the oldest surviving building of its type in Australia, used continuously for 145 years. It is a physical record of the history of the Customs Service and its importance in the history of Australia. The Customs House embodies the work of three successive and individually distinguished government architects: Mortimer Lewis, James Barnet and Walter Liberty Vernon. Because of the scarcity of documentary evidence about the early stages of construction, the surviving building fabric from these stages constitutes the principal source of additional evidence about the early history of the building and its occupants.

— Statement of significance, New South Wales State Heritage Register.

On 22 June 2004, the building was added to the Commonwealth Heritage List.[2]




 This article incorporates text by New South Wales State Heritage Register available under the CC BY 3.0 AU licence.

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