“It’s nice to be back” smiles Margaret Monger as she starts her Fullerton Hotel heritage tour.
The GPO, No.1 Martin Place
We’re standing in the large light filled courtyard of No. 1 Martin Place. Previously Sydney’s General Post Office, this ‘Grand Dame’ has many stories to tell and I’m looking forward to hearing some of them.
Margaret says these tours are the first step in the hotel owners “giving back the building’s history to the people”. In time, a history area will be developed near the small Tank Stream museum one level down.
That she loves her job is immediately apparent. Referring affectionately to the building as “the old girl”, her voice becomes animated describes the history of this heritage building.
Brief History of the GPO
There’s been a post office here since 1829. Architect James Barnet designed the building. It was constructed in two stages between 1866 and 1891 and is considered the finest example of Victorian Italian Renaissance Style in New South Wales.
Stretching 114 metres along Martin Place, the northern façade colonnades reflect the Italian architectural style reminding Margaret of buildings in Milan. Huge granite columns support sandstone arches. Detailed carvings of faces representing various states and countries look out from the arches onto Martin Place. A bearded Aboriginal man represents Australia.
The carvings on Pitt Street were probably ahead of their time and caused much consternation. Many demanded they be removed deeming them too risqué. Sculptor Tommaso Sani depicted everyday Australians at work.
A maid appears to be flirting with the postman who has the likeness of the post-master general of the day. The architect looks like Barnet himself. Today people would wonder what the fuss was about.
The GPO Clock Tower
More controversy arose over the clock tower, completed in 1891. Standing 73 metres above the pavement, at first tubular bells were installed in the tower. Barnet objected and was proved right when tests proved their sound inferior to the traditional bells ended up replacing them.
Margaret marvels at Henry Daly who installed the five bells. Every day for 40 years, he walked up 240 stairs to crank the chimes. The electric motor which drove the mechanism since 1989 will soon be replaced with a mechanical system as part of remediation work.
Looking up at the tower, many wouldn’t realise that it was dismantled piece by numbered piece in 1942, to prevent it being targeted during air raids. I’m fascinated to learn that when the tower was rebuilt in 1964, the word ‘Eternity’ in the unmistakable copperplate lettering of Arthur Stace was found chalked onto the inside of the bell.
Although faint now, it’s still visible all these years later. It remains a mystery how Arthur Stace, the man who wrote ‘Eternity’ in chalk around the streets of Sydney for 35 years got access to the bell.
More letters are carved into the five-tonne hour bell, also known as Great Harry. The initials HP supposedly refer to Henry Parkes and were possibly inscribed by Henry Daly.
On the sixth floor a footbridge, following the route of the Tank Stream links the 31-storey hotel tower with the clock tower.
I’m delighted by the details that Margaret points out. A wall “built from besser blocks” almost looks like sandstone. Two ‘no smoking’ ghost signs are gradually fading away. And the windows behind the Pitt Street staircase where a scene in The Matrix was filmed clearly have a different style different from other windows on the same wall.
While standing in the Little Ball Room trying to imagine the hustle and bustle when it was the Morse code room, a faint whirring sound interrupts my thoughts. The minute hand of the clock known as Little Brother has just moved closer to the hour, the clock mechanism right beside me, in a large circular hole in the thick wall.
Cigarette Burns and Shipping News
The first to admit that she still learns about the building from her guests, Margaret points out burn marks on the Pitt Street staircase bannister. When a teenager, one of her guests worked in the GPO. He explained how workers on a break would strike their matches on the bannister and then extinguish their cigarettes there before returning to work.
Demolished in 1927, the grand heritage staircase was reconstructed in 1999. The splendid red carpet has provided a perfect location for many a bridal photograph. Looking up at the decorative ornate plaster ceiling, two dates reveal that one section is newer than the other.
Newer floor coverings blend with the original black and white tiles which grace older sections of the building. Intricate patterning on outside steps is reflected in stairs and carpeting throughout the building.
The Shipping Intelligence board found abandoned in a storeroom now hangs in the central courtyard. It advised the public when ships (carrying their mail) were due in port, the times hand written in chalk.
Remembering the Fallen
Opposite the honour board a book stands open on a shelf behind a glass door. Margaret explains that each page of this replica bears only one name, the name of an officer from the Postmaster General’s Department who died during one of the World Wars. Every day someone would turn the page to a different name. Margaret expresses the hope that this custom will resume one day.
A Worthwhile Tour
Margaret’s enthusiasm for Sydney’s ‘Grand Dame’ has rubbed off and our group disperses feeling more than a little affection for ‘the old girl’.
- The free 90-minute tours run on Fridays and Saturdays. Each day there is a tour for hotel guests and one for the public. Contact the Hotel to book a tour.
- Customised tours are also available.
- If you ever stay at the Fullerton, Margaret recommends asking for a heritage room.
Lovely article Jo, very interesting.
On the bucket list to do the tour
Thanks Robyn. You won’t be disappointed
Fascinating! I had no idea you could visit this beautiful building. Will definitely try and book a tour?
Thank you for writing about it.
Glad you enjoyed it. Tours on Fri and Sat am. You do need to book.
Enjoyed the story Joanne. What a good idea!!
This is such a lovely building and your piece shows just how worthwhile it was not to let the developers knock it down a few decades ago. Thanks as always Jo.
Thanks June, it is a lovely building with all sorts of hidden treasures.
Thanks Joanne for the information on the historical tour of the old GPO.
Visited this grandeur building and was very impressed.
Sandra the historical guide was very knowledgeable, gained so much and have a greater appreciation of this magnificent building.
Hope to see more historical sites.
So pleased you had a chance to enjoy the building, June.
Great tour! Will have to get the walking groups I’m in to organise a trip up and do the tour / thanks Joanne
Great idea, Chrissy
I-ll plan an excursion there. Thanks, Joanne!
You’ll enjoy it Constance. Do share your experience.
GreatJoanne, will share to Facebook.
Beautiful building and seeped in history. You captured the nuance of a bygone era with your blog and photographs. Thanks Jo.
Thanks Bernadette. It’s a lovely building carefully restored and maintained.
We just completed the tour and were amazed by the “behind the scenes” insights into the stunning architecture and stories of people who worked there. When you can’t travel overseas you realise how much beauty and history we have at our own doorstep. Two hours just flew by !…..and it is free as well!
So pleased you enjoyed it.
Hi Joanne, my mother worked as a telephonist at the GPO in the 40’s 50s. I wonder if the area she worked is part of your tour. I would love to bring her for a tour when we are in Sydney next .
Oh how interesting, Christine. I went on the tour – I didn’t lead it, but the telephonists were certainly mentioned – it was a while ago and I can’t quite remember if we went into that area or not, but I know your mother would really enjoy the tour. Many people who worked in the building at various times have come back to do the tour and shared their stories with the guide. The tour for the public is on a different day from the tour for guests of the hotel. Remember to pre-book.