By design: revealing the architectural gems of Customs House
Sydney’s Customs House is the oldest surviving customs building in Australia. Continuously occupied for 145 years, it’s a physical record of the history of the customs service and one of the most important remaining buildings at Circular Quay, along with Cadman’s Cottage.
Customs House is significant for its direct connection with 3 distinguished government architects, Mortimer Lewis, James Barnet and Walter Liberty Vernon.
Although Barnet and Vernon altered the work of their predecessors, they did so to create a unified construction. Their cohesive approach, separated by over half a century, is a wonderful design achievement.
While many interior features have been removed or concealed, the basic fabric of the building remains.
The lack of documentary evidence detailing the early stages of construction means the surviving building has become a valuable archaeological resource.
The head of Sydney Cove/Warrane was originally triangular with its tidal flats extending all the way to Macquarie Place and Bridge Street.
Before Semi-Circular Quay was built, this area was largely swampy mangroves and mudflats.
Convicts reclaimed the land from 1837 to 1847 covering the mudflats with rubble carved out of the Argyle Cut. It was the last major public work to use convict labour.
The name Semi-Circular Quay remained popular until the mid-1850s when the gap in the semi-circle caused by the Tank Stream was closed.
Standing in The Square in front of Customs House you’ll notice jagged lines of light coloured stone cutting across the ground. These lines mark the original high water line of Sydney Cove.
Until recently, the site of Customs House was thought to be the place where Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Flag to mark the birth of New South Wales.
It was said to be just within the west wall of Customs House, which is why the old-style flag flies at the kerb. The flag was erected in 1963 to acknowledge what is for some the birthplace of Australia and for others the site of invasion.
Documents have recently been uncovered that state Captain Phillip’s flag raising actually occurred among rocks that are buried behind the Overseas Passenger Terminal on the western side of Circular Quay.1
1 Michael Flynn and Gary Sturgess, ‘New Evidence on Arthur Phillip’s First Landing Place – 26 January 1788’, History: Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society, (December 2014) no 122, 3–5
Standing in the historic marble entrance of Customs House you’ll see what looks like Nazi swastikas scattered across the floor.
These motifs are fylfots – ancient decorative motifs symbolising good luck. A fylfot is an even cross with vertical extensions. All 4 ‘arms’ run in the same direction either clockwise (as in the symbol of the Third Reich) or anti-clockwise.
‘Swastika’ comes from the Sanskrit word svastika. While the German Nazi Party didn’t invent the swastika, they gave it a bad name. Today ‘fylfot’ is widely used to describe the symbol’s decorative use.
One of the oldest symbols of mankind, the fylfot is found in Neolithic cultures in Iran and Europe. It’s also a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. You can find the motif in Swedish cave paintings, on archaic Greek pottery and even in a third century synagogue in Israel.
Before World War II, the decorative fylfot featured in many Australian classical revival interiors. They were added to Customs House as part of a neoclassical upgrade in 1916 as ‘splashes of Hellenic Art’ to create a fitting entrance.
During recent renovations there was debate about whether the fylfot should be removed. The City’s architects and historians felt it had a place in the narrative of the building.
It was originally intended as a symbolic welcome for those entering the ‘front door’ of Sydney. We recognise these symbols may offend some visitors, but hope they will be read in the context of their original intention.