The Macquarie Street entrance to the Royal Botanic Gardens is marked by the gates to the long gone Garden Palace Exhibition Building. The Garden Palace was a huge building, similar in size and style to Melbourne's Exhibition Building, it was erected by a team of over 2,000 men to house Sydney's first international exhibition in 1879. Large international exhibitions were popular in the late 19th Century and when Sydney was host in 1879 the massive Garden Palace Exhibition Building was built to house it.
The Victorian era equivalent of a world expo, exhibitions and world fairs were at the height of fashion at the time. The International Exhibition was ground-breaking in so far as it was the first of its kind to be held in the southern hemisphere. It was responsible for bringing the world to Sydney at a time when the colony was prosperous and growing and full of potential. It boosted the economy and encouraged authorities to improve the city's services and facilities.
The feel in the city during the exhibition would have been similar to that of the Olympics in 2000. It was a very positive thing for Sydney and New South Wales, an event to be celebrated. The city would have been buzzing and a hive of activity. For seven months, more than one million people poured into the sprawling complex to marvel at the colony's prosperity. About 20ha of the botanic gardens became a fairground filled with bandstands, stalls, entertainments, eateries and smaller exhibition buildings. The Garden Palace was the centrepiece and inside, all manner of inventions, technology, art and ideologies were displayed by local and international exhibitors.
Built to a design by James Barnet, it featured four towers which could be seen from almost any suburb in Sydney, such as they were at that time. Up to 2,000 men worked on site night and day, using electric light for the first time, to complete the building in just eight months. A steam-powered tramway was installed to transport exhibition goers around the city. It one of the main attractions of the exhibition. Despite several accidents, after the exhibition, the tramway network was expanded and by 1905-06 the trams were converted to electric traction. It was a great success and the system expanded rapidly through the city and inner suburbs.
After the exhibition, the palace continued to play a central role in Sydney's social life. Balls, lectures, exhibitions and entertainments were hosted in its auditorium; an art gallery and the first technological museum, the forerunner to the Powerhouse, were established. Government departments also set up office and important records were stored in the basement, the wisdom of which would later be questioned. Unlike Barnet's other sturdy designs such as the GPO, the Colonial Secretary's Office and the Lands Department building which still stand today, the palace was primarily made of timber, which ensured its complete destruction on the night of 22nd September 1882, in a spectacular fire the likes of which Sydney had never seen before. The wind carried hot ash and cinders far into the suburbs; a house in Potts Point even caught fire.
While arson was generally suspected, the cause of the fire was never determined and remains a mystery to this day. Almost everything inside went up in flames. The fire destroyed the 1881 census, colonial era records, land occupation records, railway surveys, Aboriginal artefacts, artworks and the foundation collection of the Technological and Mining Museum. A new map of the colony which had taken year of work to complie, was also lost.
The Garden Palace gates in the Royal Botanical Gardens
Conspiracy theories from dynamite plots, masked men and trains of gunpowder were bandied about afterwards. Wealthy folk were blamed for trying to restore harbour views, destroy convict ancestry or simply get the gardens back. Today, the only reminder that the building ever existed are the elaborate stone pillars of the Palace Gates which stood at its entrance. A 1940s-era sunken garden and fountain featuring a statue of Cupid marks the former location of the Palace's dome. Height: 28 metres (including tower 68 metres).