The Historic Houses Trust’s decision to reconstruct the guardhouse domes follows the inclusion of Hyde Park Barracks (HPB) with ten other Australian Convict Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Hyde Park Barracks interprets a significant aspect of the evolving Australian convict experience from 1788 to 1868. Built to house the convicts engaged in Governor Macquarie’s ambitious public works program, the HPB compound represented the designation of places of incarceration. Previously the whole of the Australian continent had been regarded as a place of exile and, while military personnel were housed in barracks, convicts had been lodged throughout the town. The Barracks saw 50,000 convicts pass through its gates between 1819 and 1848.
The reconstruction of the Hyde Park Barracks guardhouse domes also interprets an aspect of Macquarie’s vision for the colony of NSW. Macquarie saw polite architecture as civilizing and ornamented Sydney’s principal street with a suite of public buildings – St James’s Church, the Supreme Court, Hyde Park Barracks, the Mint and Parliament House, Sydney (the latter were wings of the ‘Rum Hospital’. In his enquiry into New South Wales’s administration (1819-1822), Commissioner Bigge was to censure Macquarie for this, regarding architectural embellishment as an imposition on the British Government purse and a waste of convict labour.
Admired today for its fine proportions and truth to materials, the Hyde Park Barracks had a history of ad hoc adaptation and poor maintenance as a result of its institutional use. The guardhouse domes were removed by the mid 1850s, possibly owing to the decay of the shingles and ribbed structure. The southern guardhouse was subsumed into a residence with the demolition of two of its walls. The Barracks compound’s south-western pavilion was demolished for road widening in 1918, destroying the symmetry of the Macquarie Street elevation.
In the 1930s it was intended to replace the Hyde Park Barracks for a new courts complex. This did not eventuate, partly as a result of World War II. In 1979, with a new appreciation of the early colonial period, it was decided to convert the Mint and Hyde Park Barracks to museums of social history and the decorative arts administered by the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. Both properties were transferred to the Historic Houses Trust in the 1990s. Today, the paired guardhouses’ divergent histories may be read in the fabric of their walls, which have undergone conservation in one case and reconstruction in the other.