Sydney's Tallest Buildings

Over the years, numerous buildings have had the honour of being Sydney's tallest. Many were the tallest almost by default, as it was their towers which took them to lofty heights rather than the buildings themselves. Nevertheless, they were the tallest structures of their day and so they have been included here.
In the 1970s and 1980s, which were boom years in city building construction, some which were destined to become the tallest building when construction began lost their title before they were completed, passed in many instances by a mere few metres in height by a newer, taller building a few blocks away. Many of the "tallest buildings" in the Sydney business district have provided visitors with vantage points from which to view the harbour and Circular Quay. Those which still have or once had lookouts have this feature highlighted. This list is complete to the year 2010.

Note: in determining the height of a building, some people include additions to the base structure, such as tower and antennae, while other deem a building's height to be that of the structure only. As a result, no two lists of Sydney's tallest buildings are the same. In our list, we have quoted dimensions as recorded by the builder, or where such records no longer exist, the dimension as they appear in heritage records. We are happy to hear from readers who disagree with our list, and will modify any that can be shown to be incorrect, but no abuse please.

Click on or tap a building's name to read the description. Click or tap again to hide the description.

1788 - Old Government House

Bridge Street, Sydney. Height: 8 metres.
For a while it wasn't just the tallest building in town it was the only building in town. Built in April 1788, it was the first permanent dwelling in Sydney - everyone but the Governor made do with living in tents until the knack of creating a wattle daubed hut was mastered. Old Government House disappeared from the streets of Sydney in the 1840s and was believed lost forever until its foundations were uncovered during excavations for Phillip Tower. These relics of early colonial Sydney take pride of place in the Museum of Sydney, which occupies the site of Sydney's first permanent building. UBD Map D Ref E 11

1805 - Government Windmill

Millers Point. Height (frame): 12.2 metres
The most dominant image on the skyline of Sydney at the beginning of the 19th century was a giant windmill erected by Nathaniel Lucas, a First Fleet convict. Lucas was a master carpenter, a rare commodity in the young colony and his ancestors have reason to believe that, being a skilled tradesman, he was "needed" to help establish the colony, so goods were planted in his lodgings and he was convicted of theft and transported to NSW. In 1795, he constructed an overshot water mill on Norfolk Island, the mill having a capacity to grind and dress eighteen bushels of flour a day. In 1804, Governor King invited him to return to Sydney to erect a windmill for the Government on a site on Church Hill (approximately where the toll gates for the Sydney Harbour Bridge now stand); and on completion of that he was permitted to erect another mill for himself in the Government Domain (approximately where the Shakespeare Memorial stands near the State Library of NSW).

These two windmills were prefabricated in Norfolk Island and shipped to Sydney on Matthew Flinders' ship, HMS Investigator. Described as octagonal smock mills, they were of the unusual post type, which had never been built in the colony before. The upper unit, holding the propellers rotated on a post with their direction being determined by sails placed like rudders. Previous mills were fixed after calculating the best position according to the wind. Each mill had two millstones that were manufactured in Norfolk Island, and were described as 'superior in point of durability to any that can be produced here'. The mill on Church Hill took six weeks to erect and became operational around the end of June 1805. Windmills became a prominent feature of the Sydney skyline and an economic necessity to provide flour for all the food requirements of the colonists.

1809 - Old St Phillips Church

Lang Street, Church Hill, Sydney. Height: 15 metres
The first of a number of churches built in Lang Street in the area to the north of the site of Sydney's first military barracks which became known as Church Hill. Erected where Lang Park is today, this Anglican Church was located over the road from the St Phillips Church we see today (above). UBD Map C Ref M 10

1819 - St James Church

179 King Street, Sydney. Height: 20 metres (including spire 52 metres)
The oldest surviving "tallest building" in Sydney, it was designed by convict architect Francis Greenway. This fine Georgian style building was built by convict hands as a courthouse but midway through its construction, Greenway was forced to change it to a church in consequence to Commissioner Bigge's overruling of Governor Macquarie's plans. Greenway performed the change satisfactorily, but was never happy about it and constantly sniped at Bigge over his decision.
Consecrated on 11th February, 1824 by the infamous "flogging parson", Samuel Marsden, it is Australia's oldest church still in use, having been a place of worship since the first service was held on 6th January 1822. Over the years numerous alterations have been made, the last being the addition of a Children's Chapel in 1930. The original spire, which was covered in copper sheets stamped in broad arrows to avoid theft, was erected in 1824. Its replacement, with a slate roof and cross, was constructed in 1894 to a Buildings design by Varney Parkes, the architect son of Sir Henry Parkes, who built the semi-circular sanctuary at the time. Colonial Architect Edmund Blackett used the stone vaulted crypt as his office while designing St Andrews Cathedral. John Verge added the classical stone porch and vestry in 1832. Marble tablets recall members of Sydney's 19th Century society and the violent deaths many of them faced.
For all its additions and modifications St. James Church is still a splendid example of its architectural style and one of old Sydney's prized buildings. A reason for this could well be that the church is closely linked visually to the Hyde Park Barracks opposite and the Supreme Court Building alongside it.
The three building were planned that way as part of Governor Macquarie's master plan for a civic centre that has today become Queen's Square. The three building are on the same axis, each has brick walls divided into bays by long rectangular brick columns (palisters).
At ground level, arched windows are set in each brick bay within an arched panel and the recessed arches of brick over the side wall windows are echoed in the windows and doors of the two other buildings. All use warm salmon-coloured sandstock bricks called samels which were fired in small kilns at Brickfield Hill near the Haymarket. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court building has undergone so any changes and additions, some of the design features which once aligned it with St James Church and Hyde Park Barracks have disappeared. UBD Map F Ref E 6

1869 - Colonial Secretary's Building

Bridge Street, Sydney. Height: 30 metres.
Lavish, extravagant creation of architect James Barnet who also designed the General Post Office. Built of golden Pyrmont Sandstone in Victorian Italianate style, the building features elaborately carved interior woodwork and its exterior is dominated by the iron-crested mansard roofs and the pavilion dome.
The building served as the workplace of the majority of NSW's public servants for almost 100 years. Note: The Colonial Secretary's Building is taller than St James Church minus its spire and for this reason has been included in this list of tallest buildings (towers and spires are generally excluded when calculating a building's height).
UBD Map D Ref F 11

1879 - Garden Palace Exhibition Building

Botanical Gardens, Macquarie Street, Sydney. Height: 28 metres (including tower 68 metres).
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. 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. Three years after it was opened the Garden Palace mysteriously burnt down one night in a spectacular fire the likes of which Sydney had never seen before. Today, the only reminder that the building ever existed are the elaborate stone pillars of the Palace Gates which stood at its entrance. UBD Map D Ref G 13

1887 - General Post Office

Martin Place, Sydney. Height: 33 metres (including tower 73 metres).
At the opening of the first stage in 1874, the GPO was described by the Postmaster General as a building that "will not be surpassed by any other similar structure in the southern hemisphere".
Built on a grand scale and at huge expense, it dominated the streetscape and skyline for decades and symbolised the prosperity Australia was enjoying in the wake of the gold rush and the economic boom it had fostered. It was built of stone quarried from the rocky escarpments of Pyrmont in grand Renaissance style.
The Martin Place section was constructed between 1866 and 1874, the Pitt Street section being added between 1881 and 1885. A series of relief figures in the stonework were created by Tomaso Sani, and were intended to represent Australians. When the building was first opened the figures created a storm of protest from residents who believed they were inappropriate for a civic building.
For Sydneysiders, it symbolised their city in the same way that the Houses of Parliament symbolise London and the Eiffel Tower Paris, and remained its most well known landmark until the Sydney Harbour Bridge (1932) and the Sydney Opera House (1971) stole its limelight. When its tower was completed in 1887, it became Sydney's tallest structure. The building is now part of the Westin Hotel.
UBD Map E Ref Q 3

1891 - The Australia Hotel

Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Height: 38 metres (including tower 55 metres)
Located on a site now occupied by the MLC Centre, it was Sydney's premier hotel for many years. 'The Australia' offered an international standard of comfort and service and it was here that Sarah Bernhardt registered as a guest on the first day of opening. Another lady liked the place so much, she stayed there for 31 years. In 1882, it became Sydney's tallest building when the Garden Palace Exhibition Building burned down. The General Post Office was in fact taller if its tower is calculated as part of the building. UBD Map F Ref B 4

1895 - Societe Generale Building

350 George Street, Sydney. Height: 40 metres
An imposing stone-clad structure , this Italian Palazzo style building is the creation of American architect Edward Raht, who sailed to Australia to supervise the building's construction. It was one of Sydney's first buildings to be built of fireproof steel girder construction and is clad with Bowral trachyte.
UBD Map E Ref P 1

1898 - Queen Victoria Building

George Street, Sydney. Height (including towers): 58 metres
Designed by City Architect George McRae and built over a period of five years, this spacious and ornate building of Romanesque design features elaborate carvings and several domed towers in Byzantine style. Built with a steel frame, brick vaulting and a base created out of basalt from Bowral, the building - then known as the Victoria Markets - was seen as a white elephant for many decades, being too elaborate and never as successful as a produce market as the men who built it hoped it would be. After surviving numerous threats of demolition and various uses including that of the City Library, it was refurbished at a cost of $75 million and reopened in its present form in 1986.
UBD Map E Ref N 10

1912 - Culwulla Chambers

Cnr Castlereagh and King Streets, Sydney. Height: 48 metres
Until this building was constructed, very little thought by both governments and individuals was given as to how tall a building should be or what a tall building should look like. Modelled on a number of New York buildings which had started the trend in which office buildings grew upwards rather than outwards, Culwulla Chambers was Australia's first skyscraper. It boasted such revolutionary inclusions as fireproof construction, high speed lifts, ducted vacuum cleaning, internal fire escapes, roof top water storage and postal box system, but its height raised eyebrows in both architectural and government circles. So strong was the fear that a race would commence to create the highest building, resulting in a New York-like skyline, legislation was quickly passed restricting the height of buildings to 150 feet (46 metres) above the pavement, a rule which was to stand for 44 years. Culwulla Chambers was named after the owner's family home at Jamberoo.
UBD Map F Ref B 5

1914 - The Trust Building

72 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. Height (including tower): 66 metres
Built as the home of the Daily Telegraph newspaper, it reflects the influences of both the Beaux-Arts and Renaissance architectural styles. The building escaped the 46 metre height limit placed on Sydney buildings in 1913 by being given the go-ahead just weeks before the new height restriction became law.
UBD Map F Ref B 3

1932 - The Sydney Harbour Bridge

Height at top of arch: 134 metres; Height of towers: 89 metres; Height of lookout: 87 metres
Until 1968 when Australia Square was built, the Harbour Bridge was the highest manmade structure in Sydney, and until 1961 when the AMP building lookout was opened, the south-eastern pylon was the highest lookout in Sydney. From 1932 until the mid 1960s a cafe operated in the area now occupied by the historical display on the lower gallery level. Though it's no longer the highest, the Pylon Lookout still offers one of the best views of the harbour and the climb to the top of the tower is worth the effort.
UBD Map 1 Ref H 6

1939 - AWA Building

45 York Street, Sydney. Height: 46 metres (including tower 111 metres)
Between the world wars, Australia enjoyed a vigorous period of growth, spurred on by a major migrant intake and a worldwide sweep of technological development. At the forefront of the latter in Australia was Amalgamated Wireless Australia (AWA), a broadcaster and the largest manufacturer of radios, record players and other electrical equipment in Australasia. AWA's head office building, with its lattice steel broadcasting tower on top, reflected the company's success and became a major landmark in the city.
Completed just before World War II and built to the 46 metres height limit of the day, it is a brick-faced building with projecting vertical ribs and parapet decoration in the form of a Pegasus in bas relief, it being the company's logo.
The building features a marble clad lift foyer and stairs, timber panelled foyer with wall decorations in relief and a tiled mosaic of a Pegasus laid in the floor. Soundproof windows and specially designed flooring and ceiling coverings were features of the new building. Even the light fittings in the entrance were in the shape of radio valves.
UBD Map E Ref L 1

1962 - AMP Sydney Cove Building

Cnr Alfred & Phillip Streets, Sydney. Height: 115 metres
Following approaches to the Sydney City Council over a 5 year period by the AMP Society to construct a building which broke the existing height limit of its day, vigorous public debate took place before a Bill was passed in the NSW Parliament changing the limit, thus allowing this project to proceed. When opened, its height was nearly twice that of any other building in the city.
Built as the head office of a leading Australian owned and operated insurance company, the building broke new ground not only with its height but also in that it did not occupy the whole of its site. Only 55% of the site was occupied by the office tower, the rest was to be part of the public space around Circular Quay, achieved by the removal of vehicular traffic from Alfred Street. For a time this occurred but the re-introduction of taxis and buses has turned the forecourt of the AMP Building into wasted space as it is separated from the rest of the Circular Quay open area by a busy roadway.
A rooftop lookout proved a popular tourist attraction until a similar lookout on the higher Australia Square building opened 5 years later, precipitating its closure. Following the new curtain wall-shaped office tower designs of New York architect Gordon Bunshaft, it broke new ground not only in its shape but also in being one of the first office buildings in Australia to feature floor to ceiling windows. Initially, the reflection from Circular Quay on the windows caused major air conditioning problems.
UBD Map D Ref E 9

1968 - Australia Square

Cnr George, Pitt & Bond Streets, Sydney. Height: 170 metres
This modern office block was designed by Harry Seidler, an architect whose designs have had a major impact on the Sydney city skyline. When opened the structure laid claim to being the world's tallest lightweight concrete office building. Created by the amalgamation of 30 small sites, its area includes a public plaza surrounding the tower, which incorporates office space, retail shops, car parking and a revolving restaurant on the highest public access level. Contrary to trends of the day and its name, the building was circular and not rectangular, and did not feature a podium, but was a free standing design set back from the street front and surrounded by ground floor public space.
When the building was opened, the lookout and restaurant on the 47th and 48th floors gave uninterrupted harbour views until 1976 when the new AMP tower (188m) in Bridge Street became the first of a number of buildings constructed between it and the harbour, partially blocking the view. The lookout is now closed, though The Summit Restaurant is still going strong. The view of Circular Quay and the harbour from Australia's first rooftop revolving restaurant is still spectacular, but sadly no longer uninterrupted.
UBD Map C Ref P 14

1976 - AMP Centre

50 Bridge Street, Sydney. Height: 188 metres
This office tower, the current head office building of the AMP Society insurance group, is located on the rise behind the Society's former head office on Circular Quay. The AMP building shows obvious influences of Eero Saarinens CBS building in New York, a fature it shares with similar AMP office towers in other states. For many years a tramway depot stood on this site. A steam train service inaugurated for the opening of the Garden Palace International Exhibition in 1879 was only meant to be temporary, for the duration of the Exhibition. It was such a success and so popular that it was kept on. The steam motors and double decker passenger cars came from the United States.

1977 - MLC Centre

Pitt Street, Sydney. Height: 228 metres
A 55 storey office tower (far right) with a two level shopping area and an underground theatre which replaced the Theatre Royal previously on the site. The complex was designed by Harry Seidler, a Sydney based architect who has had a marked influence on the Sydney Central Business District's skyline with a number of major buildings he has designed.
Like his Australia Square, the MLC Centre tower takes up only a small part of the site, the rest of the space being taken up by the north facing plazas.
UBD Map E Ref B 4

1981 - Sydney Tower

Westfield, Market Street, Sydney. Height (tower): 305 metres
Standing at 305 meters, Sydney Tower is the tallest man made structure in Australia. The Centrepoint development was conceived in 1968 and comprises over 140 shops, extensive commercial office space, overhead and underground pedestrian promenades and the high-rise tourist and telecommunications tower. 56 cables stabilise the Tower and the strands of these cables, if laid end to end, would stretch from Sydney to Alice Springs or from Sydney to New Zealand. The turret is serviced by three high-speed double-decker lifts having a car capacity of 14 persons or 452 kilograms and capable of moving 2,000 persons per hour.
Construction of the complex began in late 1970 and the first 52 shops opened in 1972. The office block was completed in 1974 and the Tower, the final stage of the complex, was finished in August 1981. The building process took 14 years. Seven stories of the turret were jacked 115 metres above Pitt Street and the first stage of the 56 cables was attached to an intermediate anchorage ring. The shaft supporting the turret is made up of 46 barrel units, each weighing 27 tonnes. These were brought on to the site in seven pieces and welded together. Each unit was completed with lift rails, stair well and hydraulic risers before hoisting. The shaft also contains two sets of fire stairs, fire, electrical and plumbing ducts in one half and three lift shafts in the remainder. UBD Map F Ref A 7

1993 - Chifley Tower

Cnr Hunter, Phillip and Loftus Streets. Height: 216 metres (244 including antenna)
One of the highlights of the present day Sydney skyline, Chifley Tower is a Post Modern office tower incorporating the latest in structural technology wrapped in a form reminiscent of of the picturesque romantic skyscrapers of early 20th century America. Complete with a turret and flagpole, it incorporates may features of the early Modernist ideals, yet is ultra-high tech., right down to its microwave technology, three electrical substations and an anti-sway counterbalance in the form of a 400 tonne steel block suspended on eight 75mm diameter steel wire from the top of the building. Connected to a hydraulic dampened gravitation system, it keeps the building stable in high winds.

1994 - Governor Phillip Tower

Phillip Street, Sydney. Height: 228 metres (254 metres including antenna)
Rectangular in shape with a central core, the building has 64 levels with 10 basement levels for parking and plant facilities and a typical floor area of 1872 sq m (52m x 36m), it is a typical office block skyscraper of recent years. Governor Phillip Tower is located within the first Government House site which is in the heart of Sydney's CBD and is bounded by Bridge, Phillip, Bent and Young streets. The site contains heritage listed terrace housing along both Young and Phillip streets as well as the important remnants of the footings of both the original, and many extensions to, the first Government House.

2004 - World Tower

George Street, Sydney. Height: 230 metres
World Tower was the 2004 Bronze recipient of the Emporis Skyscraper Award, and was briefly Australia's tallest residential building. The architect was Nation Fender Katsalidis. World Tower consists of 73 above-ground levels, 10 basement levels, 15 elevators and 701 residential units. Each of the three residential sections of the building has a pool, spa, sauna, gymnasium, games room, virtual golf driving range, and a private 24-seat theatrette. The pool and spa areas on levels 38 and 61 offer 180" views of Sydney. There is also a childcare centre located in the building.

2005 - Deutsche Bank Place

126 Phillip Street, Sydney. 39 storeys. Height: 240 metres (including tower)
This is the second-tallest building in the world with fewer than 40 floors - Al Faisaliyah Center (Riyadh) is taller - and it is for that reason that it is included in this list.
Construction began in 2002 and was completed in 2005. The building's architect is Norman Foster of Foster and Partners. The building has 39 floors and was planned to be much larger, however it would have blocked sunlight from reaching the buildings on its east including the State Library and Parliament.
The setback roof or step design allows sunlight to reach the south-eastern side of the building. The spires appear oversized for the building; this was caused by the height being reduced, the spires being proportionate to a taller building. The building has a hollow core that provides air and light throughout the building; this core rises from a large foyer area that covers the whole area of the ground floor. The foyer is named 'the assembly'.

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Governor Phillip Tower, Phillip Street, Sydney

Australia Square from Margaret Street, Sydney

AMP Building Circular Quay, Sydney

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