Newly restored RD Watt building

Preserving the history of our precious sandstone buildings

11 August 2020
Maintaining our heritage buildings requires the mining of fresh sandstone and the carving of new gargoyles
The University of Sydney is one of a rare breed, having some of the finest, grandest sandstone buildings in Australia. But with great buildings comes great responsibility to maintain them.

They were called Paradise, Purgatory and Hellhole, and chances are, you’ve seen what they produced without realising it. These were the three quarries from which most of the sandstone was obtained for the great, classic buildings of Sydney.

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney Town Hall, the Martin Place General Post Office and indeed, the early parts of University of Sydney, were built of sandstone from Paradise, so-called because it produced high quality stone that was easy to extract. By comparison, Purgatory and Hellhole demanded a lot of work for lower quality stone.

“All three were in what is now the heavily built-up inner-Sydney suburb of Pyrmont, so that stone is effectively out of reach,” says Chris Legge-Wilkinson, until recently, the University’s longstanding Heritage Architect. “This is a problem when you need matching sandstone for restoration work.”

Sandstone quarry site in Pyrmont

Digging deep in Pyrmont. When buildings come down, crews move in while they can, to grab more sandstone for maintaining the historic buildings of Sydney. Photo by Louise Kennerley / Sydney Morning Herald

Sandstone doesn't last forever

Restoration is a continuing issue, because Sydney sandstone, as it’s called, will last for only about 100 years in exposed areas. Construction of the glorious Quadrangle began 166 years ago. Fortunately, greater Sydney rests on a massive seam of sandstone, and there are sandstone quarries in Gosford, north of Sydney, that give a close-enough match.

“If you were looking to refinish a whole building, you’d be in strife,” says Alan Crowe, Design Manager of University Infrastructure (UI). “But in terms of building conservation, we manage pretty well.”

Some of the problem solving is invisible but essential. As Simon Ridout, UI’s Infrastructure Delivery Manager, explains, “On the JD Stuart Building (completed in 1913), they originally used steel nails on the roof tiles. But steel rusts, so the heads started breaking and the slate was sliding off the roof. We replaced them all with copper nails.”

Invisible destruction

RD Watt building renovations

The RD Watt Building undergoing major restoration work. 

Protecting the University’s precious buildings from decay is just one responsibility of UI. Crowe and Ridout are part of a busy team, along with a rotating cast of artisan builders, stone masons and specialist architects.

A much larger scale project was the recent repair of a major damp issue in a section of the Quadrangle. It had been a problem for 120 years, made worse by some incorrectly placed concrete slabs, probably from the 1960s. The damp made for a difficult workplace and it was undermining the wall plaster. Repairs involved excavating almost down to bedrock.

“Water is the enemy,” says Crowe. “We planned for a couple of years, then we sent in the specialist contractors who’ve worked on the campus for generations, to essentially restore the intentions of the original builders. They also added some new drainage structures. “No-one can see what we’ve done, but it looks like the old problem’s been fixed,” says Crowe.

We looked at records in the archives to see how it used to be, because you lose a lot of detail with weathering and the like
Alan Crowe, Design Manager, University Infrastructure (UI)

Of course, some projects aren’t invisible at all. In fact, they’re transformative. When it was completed in 1916, the RD Watt Building was a large, elegant, two-storey Federation Arts and Crafts structure nestled in a quiet corner of the campus, and the first purpose-built space for the newly established Faculty of Agriculture.

Not unexpectedly, a hundred years of use and remodelling took a heavy toll, with rooms divided, ceilings and even windows covered, and exterior gargoyles weathered by decades of wind and rain.

“We looked at records in the archives to see how it used to be, because you lose a lot of detail with weathering and the like,” says Crowe. “Then we asked the contractors to reproduce what’s there but with some licence to do their own thing.”

The old and the new

RD Watt was built when the fashion for solid sandstone buildings had passed, but it had sandstone elements, including those gargoyles. And no, carving gargoyles is not a lost art. “Plenty of people still have those skills because of the number of sandstone buildings around the city,” says Legge-Wilkinson.

Right now, the bright, new gargoyles are easily spotted. But time and weather will eventually give them the University of Sydney complexion. That would be true even when using the sandstone from Paradise, which is actually sometimes a possibility.

Gargoyles on the RD Watt building

Our bright new gargoyles currently standout on the RD Watt Building, but overtime the weather will change their complexion.

Every so often, one of those buildings in Pyrmont has to come down, as happened most recently in 2017. In the time between demolition and new construction, as much stone as possible is taken out for the use of the city’s building conservators, though the sandstone stockpile is managed by the State Government and an application must be made for an allocation.

Negotiating big and small projects, budgets and suitable raw materials for the University’s sandstone buildings would be a big enough job on its own, but UI also has oversight of the other, non-sandstone but still significant architecture across the campus.

From the old and graceful Macleay Building to the more recent, and in its day, innovative, Fisher Library, the team is constantly assessing, repairing, upgrading and conserving. They care for the buildings but also consider how those building sit in the wider compass: the domain of the University.

“We have camellias that live nowhere else in the world because of a language professor from the 1920s called Gowrie Waterhouse, who was an avid camellia grower and created gardens around the campus,” says Legge-Wilkinson. “The whole landscape is precious.”

It’s no wonder the University of Sydney has been many times voted one of the top 10 most beautiful campuses in the world. 

Written by George Dodd. Photography by Stefanie Zingsheim.

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