Helping you find government information and services

Urban renewal of maritime buildings

The restoration and reuse of maritime buildings has been part of the transformation of Australia's docklands. Maritime buildings such as customs houses, quarantine stations, storehouses, warehouses, bond-stores and wharves themselves were often substantial buildings designed by architects or engineers to withstand heavy use and loading.

Brisbane customs house

Brisbane Customs House. Image courtesy of Brisbane Customs House.

Maritime buildings, such as customs houses, were an essential part of servicing Australia's maritime trade and industries, collecting significant amounts of revenue as well as acting as immigration depots. Adjacent to the docklands, the buildings were located in prime waterfront central business district (CBD) locations.

After the Second World War (193945) and the development of civil aviation, ports were redeveloped and moved away from city centres. Plans for redevelopment of the docklands sparked campaigns for public use of the often derelict buildings.

Subsequently, customs houses and other maritime buildings have been reborn as galleries, libraries, museums, archives and theatres as part of urban renewal campaigns. Their role as maritime museums and public cultural spaces is appropriate, as the very buildings harbour the memory of those people who are now the focus of the museums' activities.

Once again these spaces are hosting visitors from across the world, but this time for the purpose of reimagining the experiences. Instead of housing commercial shipping interests and deriving income therefrom, the buildings house creative industries and artists that generate millions of dollars a year.

Sydney's Old Customs House host to a library and exhibition space

painting of customs house circular quay 1845

G. E. Peacock, Custom House and Circular Quay, 1845 (detail). Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales a128105r.

Sydney's Old Customs House, adjacent to Circular Quay, was in use by Customs until 1990. Customs not only collected revenue but also controlled all matters of early shipping, censorship and, later, immigration.

Customs House is located on a significant site where the local Eora people are said to have watched the First Fleet land. The building was completely redesigned and enlarged by James Barnet (18271904), the Colonial Architect, after an earlier 1844 building by Mortimer Lewis (17961879).

customs house at circ quay

Sydney Customs House at Circular Quay.

The City of Sydney was given the building to operate in 1994 by the Federal Government. Public lobbying for its future use included stiff arguments that it should be turned into a recital hall. However, Tonkin Zulaikha with Jackson Teece, Chesterman & Willis were commissioned to convert the building into a culture and information centre. It has now been transformed into a hybrid destination, incorporating a library, cafes and restaurants and a multimedia entertainment wall.

Sydney's Maritime Services Building as a museum for contemporary art

The Maritime Services Board (MSB) building, commenced in 1939, was finished in 1952 after the Second World War and post-war shortages delayed construction. This site marks one of the landing places of the First Fleet in Port Jackson in 1788. The MSB building was built on the site of Sydney's commissariat stores built by Colonel Foveaux in 1812, demolished in the 1930s.

maritime services board

Maritime Services Board, Sydney. Image courtesy of City of Sydney.

With the relocation of the MSB to larger premises in 1989, the building was gifted by the NSW State Government to the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).

The MCA was established to fulfil part of the visionary bequest of Australian expatriate artist John Power (18811943), who left his personal fortune to the University of Sydney to inform and educate Australians in the contemporary visual arts. The MCA was officially opened in November 1991.

The Museum of Contemporary Art has plans that will see the institution transformed into a global hub for contemporary art and ideas by 2011, including the building of a new northern wing and the refurbishment of its current headquarters on Sydney's Circular Quay.

Sydney's Quarantine Station offers history tours and accommodation

North Head, the site of Sydney's Quarantine Station, is the site of some of the earliest contact and formative interaction between Aborigines and the British colonists.

tents and houses at quarantine station

Tents and houses, North Head Quarantine Station. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia.

Initially tents provided accommodation. In 1837, 295 healthy people were crowded into 36 tents in the heat of summer whilst the sick stayed on the ships. A wharf and four or five buildings were eventually erected. In 1847, kitchens, bathrooms and a hospital were constructed. By 1853 the Quarantine Station could accommodate 150 people.

In 1909 the Commonwealth Government took over responsibility for the Quarantine Station and introduced the biggest upgrade the station had ever seen. This resulted in the station reaching its maximum capacity of accommodation: 1,200 people.

In 1984, ownership of the Quarantine Station was transferred from the Commonwealth to the NSW State Government and it was reserved as part of Sydney Harbour National Park. The National Parks and Wildlife Service established guided tours and a conference and functions centre.

north head q station dining

Dining, North Head Quarantine Station. Image courtesy of Quarantine Station

In 2000, the condition of the buildingsespecially the timber buildings, subjected to wild weather and gusty, salty windswas considered to be seriously deteriorated. In order to cover some of the expensive costs of conservation, the site is leased by the NSW State Government and operated as a sustainable tourism operation by private developers subject to conservation management plans. Today, the site comprises 65 buildings, and several archaeological sites.

As part of the sustainable development for renewed access to the site, the facilities offered are: a visitors discovery centre and tours, as well as accommodation and dining facilities.

Melbourne's Old Customs House, home to Victoria's Immigration Museum

1841 customs house vic

1841 Customs House, Victoria. Image courtesy of State Library of Victoria.

The Old Customs House building is one of Melbourne's most important public buildings of the 1800s. Beautifully restored in 1998, it is now a part of Museum Victoria, and home to Melbourne's Immigration Museum.

The existing grand site is a result of the fact that three customs buildings have occupied the current site of the Old Customs House, based upon a two-storey bluestone Customs House completed in 1841. Soaring revenue from the gold rush allowed the Victorian colonial government the means to commission Peter Kerr to design a new customs house, commenced in 1855. The building was then redesigned after falls in revenue in 1871, before being finished in 1876.

immigration museum vic

Immigration Museum Victoria. Image courtesy of Immigration Museum Victoria.

In this building customs officers recorded all goods entering or leaving Victoria; the customs duties they collected formed the backbone of government revenue. Customs officers also controlled immigration, recording every arrival, and administering a White Australia Policy that excluded immigrants on the basis of their race. Customs officers were also in charge of censorship, determining what material might offend mainstream social values.
Museum Victoria .

The history of the Customs House and the activities of the people who worked here is thus the history of Victoria's trade, immigration, social attitudes and government, representing the changing faces of early and modern Australia.

Fremantle's maritime buildings home to local creative industries

kidogo art institute

The former Old Kerosene Store, Shipwrights Building. Courtesy of Kidogo Art Institute

Over 150 of Fremantle's buildings, described as 'charming heritage sandstone buildings', have been classified by the National Trust. Hundreds of others are listed on the various registers described by the Heritage Council of Western Australia. A number of the significant maritime buildings, reflecting the busy commercial activities of the port city in the 1800s, are now the home to a range of arts and cultural organisations.

The arts community lobbied for accommodation in the 1980s, when redevelopment work was carried out in preparation for the America's Cup sailing challenge. As a result, the City of Fremantle negotiated with the State and Federal Governments for the Moores Building to be established as a visual arts venue; the Short Street Theatre building as a home for Spare Parts Puppet Theatre; and the Fremantle Artillery Drill Hall (constructed in 189596 and owned by the National Trust of Australia) as the Fly By Night Musicians Club.

Ian Hamlin, Geraniums, Joan Campbell Pottery Shed [former Shipwrights Building]. Courtesy of McKenzies Auction.

As part of the cultural development plan, the city implemented a policy of non-commercial rents on buildings such as those used by the Film & Television Institute (completed in 1855 utilising convict labour), Kidogo Art Institute (the former Old Kerosene Store, Shipwrights Building and studio of potter Joan Campbell at Bathers Beach), and the development of semi-commercial premises such as the Beach Street Studios (home of Disability in the Arts, Disadvantage in the Arts, Australia - DADAA WA).

The Moores Building

The Moores Building, 46 Henry Street, was the site of William Dalgety Moore's general merchant business, which began operating in 1868, a complex of buildings including a family cottage, later replaced by a town house, stables, warehouse, factory and office facilities.

moores building fremantle

The Moores Building, Fremantle. Image courtesy of Image courtesy of City of Fremantle.

It was a typical arrangement where the owners lived and conducted their commercial, business and production activities from the site. The architecture typically reflects Fremantle's built environment at a prosperous period of WA's history, constructed from local materials including: limestone blocks, sandstone bricks and sawn shingles. The building's fine classical facade was constructed at the height of the Western gold rush in 1899 and it was designed to unify a number of the earlier buildings existing on site into a one, cohesive frontage.
City of Fremantle, Moore's Building.

While the building progressively deteriorated from 1900, it survived essentially intact when it was purchased by City of Fremantle in 1986. Restoration was undertaken over an eight year period. In 1993 The Moores Project received the award of merit by the Royal Australian Institute of Architects in the conservation category. It is managed by the Artists Foundation of Western Australia as a contemporary art gallery and performance space.

Fremantle's Old Custom's House, serving artists statewide and across Australia

old customs house detail fremantle

Old Customs House, Fremantle. Image courtesy of City of Fremantle.

Fremantle's Old Customs House is a heritage listed property in Fremantle's maritime precinct. This unique Georgian style building, of quite an elaborate scale, was built in 1853 and served local trade until 1903. It is associated with Hillson Beasley, Chief Architect of the Public Works Department, 19061917

Customs House is highly valued by the local art community. It is a reminder of the local community's fight to protect the architectural character of Fremantle during the defence for the America's Cup in the 1980s.

The arts community's lobbying for accommodation during the America's Cup Challenge resulted in Customs House becoming an Arts Centre. The State Government owns Old Customs House. As part of the planning for Fremantle, Old Customs House became home of the Artists' Foundation of Western Australia Limited, trading as Artsource, and the WA Circus School as well as used occasionally as a venue by the Deckchair theatre.

old customs house freo art source studios

Old Customs House, Fremantle, home to ArtSource. Image courtesy of ArtSource and the Western Australian Government.

The former Customs House is seen as having a rarity value as one of a few surviving purpose-built customs houses in Western Australia. Others include the Customs Houses at Broome (1886), Cossack (1895), Geraldton (1935) and Albany (1966).

Together with His Majesty's Hotel (c.1899,1903), McIlwraith Building (former Adelaide Shipping Co. and also known as Scottish House; c.1898), Phillimore Chambers (1899), Dock Buildings, and P & O Building (1903); the former Customs House makes a positive contribution to the early twentieth century streetscape along Phillimore Street.... their scale and heavy masonry qualities, together with the consistent use of stonework, brickwork and parapeted facades, combine to provide a unifying theme.
Heritage Council of Western Australia, Register of heritage places - Assessment documentation [Customs House] .

Old Customs House is now home to 23 artists' studios managed by Artsource. The Residential Studio at Old Customs House is part of the Artsource residency program, which in 2008:

welcomed artists from South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, the Kimberley, Pilbara, and Gascoyne regions, England and Scotland. Between the newly established Henderson Street Residency Cottage and the Old Customs House Residential Studio, over 30 artists were hosted with artforms ranging from illustration, painting, photography, theatre, installations, interdisciplinary practice, sculpture, writing, sound arts, dance and digital multimedia.
Artsource, Annual Report 2008

old customs house studios

Old Customs House, Fremantle. Image courtesy of ArtSource and the Western Australian Government.

After 22 years, the Old Customs House in Fremantle is the longest running studio venue managed by Artsource. It was opened to the public in October 2008, to be an annual event where the public are encouraged to chat with artists, look inside their working spaces and view the art installations throughout the corridors of the heritage building.

Complementing the core studio complex facilities, Artsource manages artConnect, a public art program; a Regional and Indigenous Program, residencies, art consultancies and project coordination and public programs.

In addition, in 2008 the Artsource employment agency activities filtered employment opportunities valued at over $15 million, including commissions worth $6.8 million, to Western Australian artists.

Customs houses and wharf complexes in the far north: Brisbane, Townsville and Cairnshomes for art and maritime museums

In Brisbane, the old customs house on the banks of the Brisbane River is now part of the University of Queensland. Largely a public space, it houses a permanent display of Australian art and a restaurant and is a reception and wedding venue.

In Cairns, the wharf complex, begun in 1910 by shipping and trading companies such as Howard Smith and Burns Philp, was the earliest attempt to introduce concrete construction. The new wharves are built on the site of early rudimentary timber jetties with piles. The jetties were built across the mud and mangroves to boats moored in deeper water and most jetties had an attached shed. The town port area, surveyed in 1876, included shops, hotels, warehouses, banks, the customs house and other government offices.

townsville maritime museum

Townsville Maritime Museum. Image courtesy of Queensland Maritime Museum.

The concrete wharves are part of the actively utilised wharf facilities on the Cairns waterfront. A four-sided clock tower is mounted on wharf three, capped with a pyramidal roof and weather vane, with vents on all sides, still in working order. The Amenities Hall housed the Cairns Maritime Museum (previously the Maritime Archaeological Association of Far North Queensland) from 1988 until 2000 when it was relocated. The Cairns Maritime Museum is still looking for a permanent home.

The Townsville Pier Master's office between berths 4 and 6 at the Townsville port was the home to the Townsville Maritime Museum, originally 'begun by the Seafarers Association to ensure the safe keeping of local maritime cultural history'. In 1992 the building was picked up, loaded onto a house-moving trailer and driven down the road to the southern bank of Ross Creek, the boardwalk overlooking the Townsville motorboat and yacht club. In 2001, the museum opened its doors to the public after a year of extensive refurbishment with Commonwealth Centenary of Federation funding, including a clock tower like the one from Cairns Wharf 3.

museum of tropical queensland

Museum of Tropical Queensland, Cox Rayner Architects, Brisbane. Image courtesy of Cox Rayner Architects.

The Museum of Tropical Queensland, on the Townsville waterfront, has three primary collection themesindigenous culture, maritime history, and natural history. The building design focuses on the gradual process of salvaging the HMS Pandora from Cape York (HMS Pandora was the Royal Navy warship sent to the South Pacific to capture the men who had mutinied the HMS Bounty. The Bounty was captained by William Bligh, who went on to become the fourth governor of the colony of New South Wales in 1806). The Pandora space is now the focus of the museum.

While not possible to reconstruct the Pandora from found relics, a locally-produced replica of the bow section is installed in the space. The active process of salvage, made visible by slot windows on the waterfront side, gives meaning to the concept of living museum.The entry off Flinders Street aims to make the waterfront openly accessible at all times.

Newcastle port precinct

Aerial view of Lee Wharf

Aerial view of Lee Wharf, Newcastle, NSW. Image courtesy of State Records New South Wales.

The site of Newcastle, at the mouth of the Hunter river, north of Sydney, was recognised early on as unsuitable for agriculture but coal rich and suitable for urban development. In 1823 a New South Wales colonial government surveyor, Henry Dangar, was directed to prepare a town plan on the site of the old convict's camp. The Australian Agricultural Company's move into coal mining, begun in the 1850s, transformed the town and served as a catalyst for the development of rail and port facilities, requiring massive dredging.

lee wharf last shipment of tasmanian potatoes

Potatoes, Lee Wharf: last shipment of Tasmanian potatoes till after settlement of waterfront dispute. Image courtesy of Hood Collection, State Library of New South Wales.

The introduction of steel mills in the middle of the First World War (191418) saw great expansion. There was a perception that jobs were plentiful and tens of thousands of people flooded to the Hunter region in the 1920s. Continued population growth occurred after the Second World War (1939-45).

The 1994 announcement by the NSW Government to abolish the Maritime Services Board and establish the Newcastle Port Corporation in 1995 was closely associated with the collapse and closure of the steel works. The legislation had a dramatic effect: large numbers of people and businesses left Newcastle. Newcastle's port area CBD suffered badly, with the university moving out and many buildings in the CBD empty.

Subsequently, there was a decade-long attempt to revitalise Newcastle from being an industrial city to one with other lighter economic activities. Urban renewal has seen Lee Wharf transformed from a working wharf to a waterfront residential development, and seen non-profit organisations collaborate with commercial developers like The GPT Group to establish leaseholds on the buildings for use by micro-businesses.

Renew Newcastle

remains of lee wharf

Part of the remains of Lee Wharf, looking across Newcastle Harbour, 2007. Image courtesy of FLIKR.

In 2007, Marcus Westbury (a Director of the Cultural Festival of the Melbourne Commonwealth Games) observed as many as 150 empty sites in the city's two main streets. The sites were boarded up, falling apart, vandalised or decaying because there was no short term use for them and no one taking responsibility for them. A not-for-profit company, Renew Newcastle, was established with the role to find short and medium term uses for buildings in Newcastle's CBD that are currently vacant, disused or awaiting redevelopment.

Renew Newcastle finds artists, cultural projects and community groups to use and maintain these buildings until they become commercially viable or are redeveloped. There are a total of 44 projects listed as being fully developed following a submission and evaluation process.

Renew Newcastle manages the short term use of the buildings, paying public liability and other necessary insurances and the basic maintenance (a fresh coat of paint, a clean, and fixing up the broken windows) while the buildings are in Renew Newcastle's care. Property owners can give 30 days notice at any time should they wish to reoccupy the building for commercial development. To date no projects have been asked to vacate Renew Newcastle properties.

red lantern night markets

Red Lantern Night Market Newcastle. Image courtesy of Renew Newcastle .

Projects include Red Lantern Night Market, Trine Deans' The Hive print making studio, Totoro's Tea House, and the Ciao Meow Gallery, an alternative retail shop. There are fashion businesses with Mad Hatter Millinery complementing Art Brasil, a shopfront for unique, hand-made artisan jewellery and Run Amok Clothing offering costume designs.

These emerging designers complement the established award-winning Newcastle fashion designer High Tea with Mrs Woo, run by three sisters Rowena, Juliana and Angela Foong.

Design studios include Tim Neve Design Studio, Neon Zoo (visual communication solutions) and Tanya Fogarty Design, an interior design consultancy.

The host of Stateline, NSW , Quentin Dempster, featured a story on Renew Newcastle that described it as a project that has 'recycled, reinvigorated, revived, revitalised, recreated and reimagined the city'.


Useful Links

Look, listen and play

The Rocks

Renewed government maritime buildings as cultural spaces

Some other urban renewal projects in Australia

Heritage studies and urban renewal references

Select list of creative industries occupying renewed maritime buildings

Sydney, Walsh Bay Wharves Precinct



Education resources

Last updated: 7 January 2010
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.