UWA Albany Centre – Old Post Office, 35 Stirling Terrace

CustomsThe University of Western Australia’s Albany Centre is located in buildings once operating as the city’s post office. The site was also a customs office, a base station of the overland telegraph and is noted for its architectural and historical significance. It was listed by the Register of the National Estate in 1992.

Albany’s official postal service began on October 14, 1834 when Sarah Lyttelton, wife of the State’s assistant surgeon, was appointed honorary postmistress. The following year, Edward Spencer became the paid incumbent at £10 year plus £5 expenses. In 1852 Albany became the mail port for Western Australia and the first contract deliveries were shipped by the Australian Company’s boat Australian and P&O’s Chusan and Formosa.

In 1867, after prolonged negotiations with the Perth administration, Government Resident Sir Alexander Cockburn-Campbell, succeeded in his requests for a government office building, to include a post office, court house, municipal and road board meeting rooms and a customs house. Work began in April 1868 and was completed in December 1869, when the eastern part of the building facing Spencer Street, was erected by George Adams and James Mattison at a cost of £4,184/18/9.
The construction required convicts to excavate 7,000 cubic yards of sand and soft stone to support massive granite retaining walls with buttresses 5ft thick. The retaining walls and the main north wall were separated by an access passage so the drainage of natural spring water could be monitored.
Local building materials were used, including bricks fired in kilns at the top of York Street, lime from around Limeburners Creek, south of the harbour, granite from Mt Clarence and timber from around the King and Kalgan rivers.

DSCF1064On December 26, 1871, a telegraph service to Perth was established and on January 1, 1875 the first pole for an overseas telegraph line was placed outside the post office by Governor Weld, where it remains on a monument commemorating this engineering milestone. The worldwide service began in 1877.  In 1895, a telephone exchange, with 112 subscribers and two telephonists, who were paid £35 per annum, was housed in the George Temple-Poole designed extension on the western side. This was built by the Tighe Bros and supervised by Francis Bird, at a cost of £4,500. Again, local bricks, granite and sheoak was used, while freestone, bluestone and cedar were imported from New South Wales.

The clock tower was also built around this time and features a ‘flying’ spiral staircase - an architectural design invented by 16th century Italian architect Palladio. Each step is a single stone embedded in the outer wall which carries the weight of the stone above it, eliminating the need for internal support.
Upon completion of the tower, its drop was found to be too short to accommodate the weights which drive the 4ft wide clock. So, in 1901, at a cost of £376,  W Harrison was contracted to raise the tower by a further 20ft (6.1m) making it 84ft (25.6m).
In 1901, after Fremantle became the State’s mail port, the ownership of the building was transferred from the Crown to the Postmaster General and Trades and Customs Departments.
From its earliest days, the building housed local and state government offices and was used as a public hall. In 1898 the Albany Court House, also designed by George Temple-Poole, was completed and judicial administration moved from the post office to this new location.

The building ceased to be used as a post office in 1964, when postal services were relocated to a new location on York Street and the Albany Town (now City) Council took over.
The customs office relocated in 1966 and by 1967 all Commonwealth departments had vacated. Albany Town Council came to an agreement with the Department of the Interior to buy the building for $15,000 on five-year loan terms. To finance the purchase, the council budgeted on $3,000 a year from rents including a ground-floor restaurant.  Lessees between 1964 and 1999 included the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Missions to Seamen, Girl Guide Rangers, Albany Pigeon Club and the Telecommunications Museum.

Much of the ground floor space was taken up by the Penny Post Restaurant, which used one of the old bond stores as a wine cellar. However, in 2000 the restaurant’s lessees were in rent arrears and auctioneers were engaged to sell the entire fittings and contents of the restaurant, gift shop and cellar, including some original post office fittings, notably the wooden counter. When the building became vacant there was much speculation as to its future. Negotiations between the City of Albany and the University of Western Australia resulted in the latter becoming the building’s new lessee. The Spectrum Theatre retained one of the bond stores and the telecommunications museum artefacts were placed into storage.

To prepare the building for its new life, $1m of state and federal funding was used to carry out extensive renovations. Alterations included the removal of numerous partition walls, the opening up of space for seminar and conference rooms and the building of an additional staircase to allow access from upper floor study areas to the student common room on the lowest level.
Considerable care was taken to preserve elements of authenticity including the reproduction of original paint colours. A heritage requirement ordered that views from the building’s balconies to the harbour be preserved and unobstructed by any construction.

Remodelling of the interior created a large reception room on the top floor, a study laboratory and student workroom on the middle floor, with a tutorial room on the east side in what was once the telegraph room. The official opening of the UWA Albany Centre took place on February 23, 2002, beginning with an impressive academic procession from the old centre, the headmaster’s house, in York Street.

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