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Science House
The Rocks NSW 2000, Australia - panoramio (12).jpg
Rear of Science House, looking down
Essex Street in 2012.
Location 157–169 Gloucester Street and Essex Street, The Rocks, City of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Built 1931
Architect Peddle Thorp & Walker Architects
Architectural style(s) Inter-war Commercial Palazzo
Owner Property NSW
Official name: Science House (including original interiors); Sports House 1978–1991
Type State heritage (built)
Designated 10 May 2002
Reference no. 1578
Type Scientific building
Category Scientific Facilities
Builders John Grant and Sons, Master Builders

Science House is a heritage-listed commercial building located at 157–169 Gloucester Street and Essex Street, in the inner city Sydney suburb of The Rocks in the City of Sydney local government area of New South Wales, Australia. It was designed by Peddle Thorp & Walker Architects and built in 1931 by John Grant and Sons, Master Builders. It was also known as Sports House from 1978–1991. The property is owned by Property NSW, an agency of the Government of New South Wales. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 10 May 2002.


Science House was opened on 7 May 1931 by the NSW Governor Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Game as a co-operative venture between three of the major scientific organisations in NSW. A venue to share facilities and operate from a centralised headquarters had been discussed since the 1870s and, in 1905, a committee was formed to that end but World War I and lack of finances forestalled the plan until the 1920s. After the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects and the Institution of Engineers built their Allied Societies Trust Building in Melbourne, The Royal Society of NSW, the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and the Linnaean Society of NSW decided to follow suit and formed a joint committee in 1926 to pursue the matter. When the site at the corner of Essex and Gloucester Streets was granted by the NSW Government in July 1927, an architectural competition was held by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in 1928 with a first prize of £250. It was won by Peddle Thorp and Walker who designed an Inter-war Commercial Palazzo style building, one of the few in Sydney. The adjudicator's report on the entry said the design was:

'Remarkably in accord with the conditions, a special feature being its economy. The design shows cleverness, a thorough insight into the requirements of the promoters. The ground floor has been skilfully arranged to accommodate both lecture halls and, to meet the irregular angles in the boundaries of the site, the elevations are excellent and admirably suitable for the dignified purpose of the building.'

In June 1930 Governor Game laid the Foundation Stone and the building was completed in January 1931. It was constructed by John Grant & Sons who kept to the budget of £45,000 but allowed enough structural integrity in the building for additional storeys to be added in the future, and an additional lift to be installed. The first general meeting of the Royal Society of NSW was held in Science House on 6 May 1931. When the building was opened the three scientific bodies were joined by The Australian Chemical Institute, The Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, The Australian National Research Council, The Institute of Architects NSW, The Institution of Surveyors NSW and the Standards Association of Australia.

The Council of the Institute of Architects of NSW decided that the Sir John Sulman Medal (for 1932) should be for an institutional building and seven buildings were nominated. On 3 January 1933 it was announced that Peddle Thorp and Walker had been awarded the inaugural Sulman Medal for the design of Science House.

During World War II an air raid shelter was constructed in a small hall on the ground floor. There were plans to extend the building an additional three storeys in 1953 but that did not eventuate. The building was occupied by the various scientific organisations from 1931 until 1976 and in 1978 the NSW Department of Sport and Recreation moved into the building which became known as "Sports House" until they left in 1991. During this time the large auditorium continued to be used for talks, and the building housed 11,000 books and journals and 1,000 films covering many areas of Sport. A Hall of Champions was installed in 1982, which included a Sports Museum to commemorate outstanding sportsmen and women of NSW. Major works were carried out on the building during 1995-96, after which the Australian Centre for Languages occupied the building, remaining there until 2007.

In 2012, New York University established a global campus in Sydney, leasing the ground floor and the three floors directly above. The campus has a number of classrooms, a computer lab, library, and administrative offices, with a Student Activities Center doubling as a study lounge and space for social gatherings. The campus hosts courses in Fall, Spring and J Term and has 25 instructors, 8 administrative staff and around 150 students who reside in a separate residence hall. Courses cover a range of disciplines including business, psychology, journalism, media, culture and communication, literature, creative writing, environmental studies, history, anthropology, public health, organic chemistry, physics and biology. Students are taught by academics and professionals affiliated with leading institutions in Sydney.

In 2016 it was announced that the NSW Government would sell more than $100 million worth of commercial property in The Rocks in order to preserve and enhance the historic area and Science House was included. In August 2019, a 99-year leasehold was offered and a sale was announced in January 2020.


Science House, Sydney
Gloucester Street frontage of Science House, pictured in 2009.

This listing includes the significant original interiors. Science House sits on the south-western corner of the intersection of Gloucester and Essex Streets at Church Hill, Sydney. Science House is a six-storey building. The structure of the building consists of a concrete-encased steel frame of columns and reinforced concrete slabs. The external masonry walls of the building are non-load bearing and merely support their own weight. The design of the principal facades in Gloucester and Essex Streets are divided into three architectural zones mirroring the exaggerated ground floor, piano nobile and attic storey of the Florentine Early Renaissance palazzo type. At Science House the exaggerated "ground storey" comprises the Ground Floor and Floor 1; the piano nobile Floors 2, 3 and 4 the attic storey, Floor 5. The exaggerated "ground storey" is built of fine quality ashlar sandstone masonry with rusticated joints. In Gloucester Street, the windows have semi-circular heads rising through two storeys. A decorative metal grille fills the semi-circular arches; below the windows have steel frames. The piano nobile at Science House is stretched through three floors and has the most simple architectural treatment. The walls are built of textured brick of subtle colour variations. The window apertures are regularly spaced in nine bays along Gloucester Street, four bays in Essex Street. Each window aperture consists of a pair of identical double hung timber sash-windows each sash of six panels in the general design and portion of the Georgian style windows. The attic storey is more highly decorated. At window sill level a projecting square profile string course runs along the Gloucester and Essex Street facades.

Style: Commercial Italian Renaissance Palazzo; Storeys: Six; Facade: Stone and face-brickwork; Internal Walls: The walls are largely undecorated and finished with painted plaster over brickwork.; Floor Frame: Timber (original); Roof Frame: Terracotta pan tiles; Ceilings: Moulded plasterwork embellished ceiling (the main lecture hall); Fire Stairs: South-western corner of the building.; Lifts: Two (opposite the entrance doors), original lift (southern side).

Items of moveable heritage including chairs, projectors, heaters and numerous other items are temporarily stored in ASN Co building, Bay 4, Circular Quay West.


As at 17 September 1999, The physical condition of the building is good. See details of work undertaken in 1995-96 in modification field below. Archaeology Assessment Condition: Mostly disturbed.

Modifications and dates

  • 1942 – Air raid shelter constructed in small hall on ground floor.
  • 1948 – Upgrading of lighting in main auditorium.
  • 1953 – Peddle Thorp & Walker prepare a design for a three-storey addition to Science House (which was never executed)
  • 1972 – The SCRA gives approval for the enlargement of the roof-mounted advertising sign.
  • 1983 – Recommendation by the SCRA that Science House be extended so that the new additions complement the original design.
  • 1983 – Original passenger lift decommissioned and new lift installed in adjacent lift shaft. Fire isolation wall erected between lift shafts.
  • 1995-96 – Major building project included new electrical, fire and airconditioning services, the construction of a second fire-isolated staircase and escape tunnel, a new second lift car and machinery and the recommissioning of the original lift car which remained unused since the 1980s. The original interiors and exteriors were conserved or restored including the replacement of some of the original terracotta roof tiles, external stone and brickwork, the internal partitions, corridors, main reception rooms and auditorium. New light fittings similar to the original were manufactured and original fittings were repaired and upgraded. New corridor paving was installed and the main stair and corridors reinstated.

Heritage listing

Science House and site are of State heritage significance for their historical and scientific cultural values. The site and building are also of State heritage significance for their contribution to The Rocks area which is of State Heritage significance in its own right. The importance of Science House is derived primarily from its aesthetic, associational and social significance, established as a building of exemplary architectural design for its period, receiving the first Sulman Award of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, New South Wales chapter in 1932. Despite changes of use and occupancy, the building retains physical evidence of its strong association with Australia's three leading organisations that built and first occupied it; the Linnean Society, the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Institute of Engineers Australia.

The building was designed in 1928 by a notable and long-standing architectural firm, Peddle, Thorp and Walker. The building is an outstanding and rare example of the Commercial Palazzo style through its Georgian references. It illustrates the style externally within the three classic bands over five storeys; sandstone ashlar coursing at street level, face brick to the middle three levels; and an elaborate top level marked by a strong cornice to both street facades. It makes a distinguished contribution to the streetscapes of the south-western section of the historic Rocks precinct. The building's social significance is primarily derived from continued use since it was first constructed by the three cultural institutions as a centre of learning and inquiry, which has varied over time from science and technology to sports and education. The building is unique for the quality and intactness of its interiors.

Science House was listed on the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 10 May 2002 having satisfied the following criteria.

The place is important in demonstrating the course, or pattern, of cultural or natural history in New South Wales.

Science House has been used since the building was constructed by a number of institutions as a centre of learning and scientific inquiry. The building stands as a symbol of the development of the city of Sydney, not only as the major commercial centre in Australia but also as a place to establish cultural institutions.

The building reflects Australia's scientific, intellectual and cultural development of the time for the three institutions' amalgamation of activities, inhabiting a building especially designed for their necessities. This idea of a shared home befitting the needs of several organisations was a novel idea to Sydney. Science House still demonstrates the specific requirement for the design to provide a lecture hall with demonstration facilities, meeting rooms, offices and a library. The building can continue to interpret the existence of the scientific society within the physical fabric of the city. The intact significant architectural features displaying their reference to science include the Science House external sign over the entrance to the building, the crest with three lamps located internally over the entrance doors of the foyer, the lecture hall with its bio box, blackboard, demonstration desk containing sink and gas connection and other meeting rooms including Edgeworth David Room (reception) and the foyer fitted with book cases.

The place has a strong or special association with a person, or group of persons, of importance of cultural or natural history of New South Wales's history.

Science House has a strong and special association with the Linnean Society, the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Institution of Engineers Australia as well as significant groups and persons. Firstly, with the three institutions of scientific learning and inquiry who believed strongly that a central place of learning was required. Secondly, with the architectural firm, Peddle Thorp and Walker which was responsible for the design of the building developed through a design competition and then saw it through to its completion. Peddle, Thorp and Walker grew to become one of the largest and prolific architectural practices in Australia continuing to this day. Thirdly, as the first building awarded the Royal Australian Institute of Architects New south Wales Chapter the Sulman Award named in honour of one of Australia's leading architects, Sir John Sulman. The award marks Science House as a worthy example of design excellence.

The place is important in demonstrating aesthetic characteristics and/or a high degree of creative or technical achievement in New South Wales.

Science House is characteristic of the Inter-war period Commercial Palazzo style of architecture with highly refined detailing both externally and internally. It is widely recognised even today as an outstanding example of its type. At the time of its construction it was so well regarded that it was the recipient of the first Sulman Award.

It exhibits the principal characteristics of the style with a firm sandstone base with large arched windows, a plainer brick central portion with repetitive well proportioned pattern of windows and strongly expressed top floor embellished with classical detail and elaborate cornice. The building is also an example of Neo-classical Revival architecture in Australia and is an untainted model of the Commercial Palazzo style in Sydney. The facades are comparable to Louis Sullivan's treatment of the tripartite facade which draws parallels with the base, shaft and capital of a column. The facades also reflect the five principles described by Richard Apperly for identifying the Commercial Palazzo style of architecture. These include:

  1. A strong base at street level which may incorporate a mezzanine with elements portrayed in large scale, employing materials, colours and textures that may differ from the levels above.
  2. The shaft is reflected by the typical office floors expressed externally by repetitive windows and the facade devoid of decoration or detail.
  3. The "capital" of the building would be represented by the expression of the topmost level or levels with a projecting cornice which might also include an attic storey above.
  4. The building should convey its masonry construction and should conceal any references to the structural frame.
  5. The decorations and details should be derived from classical references such as from the Renaissance and Mannerist era such as the use of arches and rusticated surfaces.

Important internal spaces such as the original cruciform foyer, original Lecture Hall, original Reception Room (Edgeworth David room) on the ground floor possess fine detailing and spatial qualities that are intact in their fit out and finishes.

The two major intact street front facades at Gloucester and Essex Street contribute greatly to the streetscape character and add to The Rocks area's significant buildings. The building is sympathetic in its scale and material to its surroundings which are both old and new. It also takes advantage of the corner site with its two decorated facades, which can be viewed from the nearby streets. The pantile-clad hipped roof also can be seen from prominent views such as form the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The place has a strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group in New South Wales for social, cultural or spiritual reasons.

Science House has the considerable significance in its ability to demonstrate the development, practice and usage of learned society and professional bodies such as Royal Society of NSW, the Institution of Engineers, Australia and the Linnaean Society.

The place has potential to yield information that will contribute to an understanding of the cultural or natural history of New South Wales.

Science House has very limited to no archaeological research potential as the site associated with Science House is wholly occupied by the building and was subject to substantial physical disturbance when it was constructed.

It has considerable value for its ability to set a benchmark for research into the attitudes and taste that determine architectural excellence in different periods. Science House fulfils an important role in comparative analysis for architectural historians and understanding of historical development in building technologies. Like many buildings along this frontage, the ground floor is cut into the slope while the main entrance on Gloucester Street is located on street level. Recent excavations at 171–193 Gloucester Street recovered a range of archaeological features and deposits despite the construction of commercial buildings in the early 20th century. This may also be applied to Science House.

The place possesses uncommon, rare or endangered aspects of the cultural or natural history of New South Wales.

Science House, although not a unique example of the Inter-war period Commercial Palazzo style, is an extremely refined version employing classical details with a Georgian flavour, which is uncommon and rivalled by one other example in Sydney's central business district, Beneficial House on George Street. The other representatives of the style relying generally on more Italianate qualities. Recognition of its value by the first award of the Sulman medal marks it out as very special and therefore rare.

The place is important in demonstrating the principal characteristics of a class of cultural or natural places/environments in New South Wales.

Science House possesses all the primary characteristics of the Commercial Palazzo style, which was popular from the late Federation period into the later war period to reflect the image and status of corporate and institutional entities and is well represented in Central Sydney through its Georgian flavour, it is a significant variation to this class of items. It also demonstrates it type and period very well through its remarkably intact exterior and major internal spaces.

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