IF THESE WALLS: The rightful heir

Clive Lucas, president of Australian heritage body the National Trust in New South Wales, is not one to mince words, especially when he is slamming the planned sale of the Sydney General Post Office.

Nor is he a lone protestor. A 300-page heritage report compiled by Lucas Stapleton Johnson, a Sydney-based heritage architectural firm where Lucas is a consultant, also warns Australia Post against selling the Victorian-era post office building. Calling the sale “undesirable,” the report stresses the benefits of keeping the property under Australian ownership, according to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The chorus of anger has grown since late May, when Australia Post revealed the sale of the Sydney GPO freehold, subject to regulatory approval. Though the postal service did not disclose the buyer, the Singaporean property developer Far East Organization confirmed its A$150 million agreed acquisition in local news reports.

Once completed, the post office’s purchase will give Far East ownership of the entire GPO precinct located on Martin Place. In 2015, it acquired the adjoining Westin Hotel from the Singaporean state fund GIC through a joint venture partnership with the Hong Kong-listed Sino Land Company.

Australia Post insists that the GPO building continues to remain heritage protected. In its official statement, it also said the post office will continue to operate under the existing lease, which will remain until 2096, and so the transaction will not have any impact on the property’s continued operation.

Architectural standard

For some, however, the heritage complex is inextricably linked to Australia’s national identity, with observers citing concerns of neglect after a change of guard to foreign owners.

The GPO building was designed by New South Wales colonial architect James Barnet and opened in 1874.

According to the National Archive of Australia, it replaced an earlier building on the same site that the postal service had occupied since 1830, and went on to serve as the center of the New South Wales postal system until 1996. Over time, the surrounding area was also entirely remodelled to mirror GPO’s architectural style.

A trove of records relating to the GPO have been preserved in the national archive. There are thousands of drawings, including the sandstone-walled building’s original hand-colored plans signed by Barnet. Tourists taking the Commerce Heritage Walk organized by the government liken the architecture of the three-story building to that of Palazzi Comunali of Renaissance Italy. The central block is surmounted by a clock and a bell tower over 200 feet high.

According to the Heritage Council of NSW, the first clock, erected in the early 1800s and with Roman numerals in the middle indicating the hour, was not liked by the public because its single face could not be seen along the entire street. So, it was later replaced by the present three-faced clock.
In recent weeks, media have reported that Far East intends to renovate some parts of the building once the sale is completed, including allowing luxury shops on the ground floor.

With alterations like that, the Sydney GPO will continue to be in the news until all the approvals are sought and the sales process is officially completed. After that, though, it would be up to the new buyer to ensure history is not forgotten.