Some had scant information stencilled on the side – messages such as TEN ASSORTED ORIENTAL OBJECTS – one of which turned out to be a Han period bronze bell of incredible rarity, plunder from the Boxer Rebellion.
Scattered on the dusty floor were the original drawings by Lucien Henry, a unique series of quirky designs for furniture, buildings and decorative schemes incorporating images Australian flora.
In the mid 1980s, a movement emerged to rehabilitate these and hundreds of other hidden treasures, to find a home for them and to exhibit them for the first time in almost a century.
First came a call to the Wran government to relocate the old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences across the road in Harris Street, Ultimo. A proposal to use the Treasury building, part of the historic Macquarie Street precinct that includes the State Library, the Conservatorium, Parliament, the Mint and the Barracks, was stymied by the then all-powerful head of the Premier’s Department, Gerry Gleeson. The Treasury became the Intercontinental Hotel.
As a kind of consolation prize, the government offered the Powerhouse site. With great spaces, ceilings so high one could suspend whole aircraft from them, this repurposed industrial building turned out to be an inspired choice.
In Stage One, an adjacent tram shed was made over make over while work proceed on the main building. At the front, a preview exhibition comprised an eclectic sample of the museum’s collection including the sublime Boulton and Watt steam engine. Behind, a state of the art storage and restoration facility was installed and the boxes from Alexandria arrived.
Excitement about the project was universal. When the main museum officially opened in 1988, there followed a rush of donations, funded acquisitions and a tsunami of awestruck visitors.
Perhaps it was inevitable that after so much excitement, and as the cultural temperature of Sydney rose, initial enthusiasm for the Powerhouse waned. Some unfortunate directorial appointments were made and a little of the glow of the early days faded.
But when threatened with obliteration, Sydneysiders rose as one in defence not only of a building but of an institution that had served to entertain, instruct and surprise successive generations.
So let’s have no recriminations. Just relief and hallelujahs that for once, the right decision has been made for the future of this wonderful, knockabout city.
Now is the time for all of us to ensure this beloved 140-year-old institution, with its ineradicable memories, will make a magnificent comeback. I have loved it for nigh on 80 years, served pro bono and proudly on its board of trustees for ten of them, All that is needed now is more love.
Leo Schofield was a trustee of the Powerhouse for 10 years. He was a member of the executive of the National Trust (NSW) and a chairman of the federal government’s committee on new uses for heritage properties