Facade of sandstone building.

Chief Secretary's Building. Photo © Brett Boardman for Sydney Living Museums

Chief Secretary’s Building

Sunday 3 November 2019

121 Macquarie Street, Sydney

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James Barnet

Additional architects

James Barnet (1890, Phillip St wing addition)

Walter Liberty Vernon (1894 - c1895, additions & extra floors added)

From its imposing position facing Government House in Macquarie Street to the exquisite detail of its sandstone colonnaded facade, the Chief Secretary’s Building is, by design, a symbol of power and politics. Completed in 1881, it was designed in the Victorian Free Classical Style by Colonial Architect James Barnet for the Colonial Secretary – the most senior official in the colony after the Governor and Chief Magistrate. Within a decade it was expanded by Barnet’s successor, Walter Liberty Vernon, who added an elaborate attic and dome in French Renaissance style and a six-storey wing along Phillip Street – much to Barnet’s horror.

Advising on the building’s statuary, paintings, decorative arts and furnishings was Henry Parkes, an early Colonial Secretary, keen to ensure they were of a calibre befitting the aspirations of the colony. Indeed they were. The Colonial Secretary’s offices and Executive Council Chamber played a pivotal role in Australia’s formation as the main Sydney venues for the political congresses leading to Federation in 1901.

The Chief Secretary’s Building served as the seat of government administration for 120 years, and following a refurbishment, today houses a variety of tenants including the Justice Department of NSW and the NSW Industrial Relations Commission. Heritage-listed as a building of both state and national cultural significance, it falls within the group of early buildings on Macquarie Street collectively called ‘a poem in stone’.

Among its treasures are the heraldic crest above the main entry, and the regal figures placed (in 1884) in each of the three foyers. Parkes had commissioned Italian sculptor Giovanni Fontana to carve three imposing statues in marble, representing Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, and an allegorical figure called New South Wales – crowned with a wreath of waratah, nature’s bounty at her feet, symbolising (in Parkes’s view) NSW as the ‘mother of the Australian colonies’.

During Sydney Open you will be able to see one of the heritage jewels of Sydney - Parkes’ office with some of the only surviving treasures from the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition building that burnt to the ground in 1882.

On Sunday 3 November

What’s open?

Foyer & Level 3

Please note, access to this site is staggered, with groups of 15 participants entering at one time.

Talks, tours & more

to know

  • Photography allowed

  • Lines expected

Opening hours


Last entry



121 Macquarie Street, Sydney

Entry via

Bridge Street