Our Scottish architects

Western section of the Hickson Road Shore Sheds c1918.

Irish engineer Henry Deane Walsh is widely claimed to have created all the Sydney Harbour Trust’s post-plague developments around Walsh Bay. But he had no architectural training and there is strong evidence that our splendid brick edifices and timber wharf sheds really were designed in the early 1910s by at least one of three Scottish architects who then were employed in the NSW Department of Public Works.

After the legendary NSW Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon retired in 1911, his successors in that role, George McRae and Gorrie McLeish Blair, and their colleague William Shepherd Moyes, designed Sydney’s major buildings in the ‘Federation Free Style’ mode that followed the death of Queen Victoria and the Federation of Australia’s states in 1901. The style was strongly influenced by Britain’s late-Victorian and Edwardian Arts and Crafts movement—which reacted against the perils of coal-powered (polluting) mechanisation.

McRae was an Edinburgh-educated architect who, after arriving in Sydney in 1884, became a protege of Vernon, who he succeeded as NSW Government Architect. Vernon and McRae also employed William Shepherd Moyes, a draughtsman (registered as an architect in 1923), who had attended the progressive Glasgow School of Art and worked with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, its architect. Both the art school and Mackintosh were central forces in the Scottish Arts and Crafts movement, which emphasised Japanese handcraft traditions of exactitude and nature-inspired creativity.

George McRae, before he became NSW Government Architect 1911-23 (Wikipedia).

McRae was the architect of various Federation Free Style landmarks  in Sydney, including the Queen Victoria Building, the Education Department building in Bridge Street and the St James railway station.

Moyes is not credited personally for designing any major buildings, because of a tradition that only the official Government Architects could be named for their office’s work. However, his biographical notes suggested he brought ‘a new enthusiasm’ (for British trends) when he joined Vernon’s team in 1910.

Also Moyes’ art school training seems to hint that he might have been the artist of the two elegant colour illustrations of the Sydney Harbour Trust’s ‘wharfage schemes’ that Walsh signed formally in 1913 and 1918. The florid title lettering on these ink and watercolour renderings is comparable to drawings of other ‘Rocks renewal’ projects by the Government Architect’s office during the 1910s, and to the hand-lettering style favoured by Mackintosh and other British designers of that time.

Blair was another Scottish architect who worked with McRae and Moyes and succeeded McRae as the Government Architect (1923-26). His most significant work was the State Library’s Mitchell Building.

Most Sydney public buildings of the 1910s and early 1920s blend classical (Roman, Greek and Egyptian) forms with organic design features. The facades were highly articulated, with narrow, vertical elements that project and recede to suggest that their masonry walls are  rippling (naturally alive).

Another characteristic of Federation Free Style monuments is their facade patterns made by combining rough-hewn and smooth sandstone and several colours of bricks. Walsh Bay’s outstanding examples are the Shore Sheds along the north side of Hickson Road, the former Parbury bond store at the south-west end of Hickson Road (now the Roslyn Packer Theatre), and the Hotel Palisade uphill on the corner of Dalgety Road and Bettington Street (Millers Point).