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Archives In Brief 28 - A brief history of the Sydney Opera House

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This AIB provides a brief history of the construction of the Sydney Opera House, including a chronology of events. It should be used in conjunction with Archives in Brief 30, which provides a brief overview of the major sources held by State Records that relate to the planning, construction and opening of Sydney Opera House.

Sydney Opera House Digital Galleries - include the 1955 booklet setting out the conditions for the architectural competition, the original set of competition drawings submitted by Jørn Utzon, as well as a number of later, more detailed sketches, drawings and plans.

A brief history | Chronology of events | Acknowledgments

A brief history

The Sydney Opera House is built on Bennelong Point, a promontory that forms the east bank of Sydney Cove. The first known concert on Bennelong Point was held in March 1791 when Bennelong, the Aboriginal man after whom the promontory was named, provided an evening of entertainment for the Governor and his party. The site was initially occupied by Fort Macquarie which was designed by Francis Greenway in 1817. Later, it was the site of the Bennelong Point Tram Depot. This in turn was demolished to make way for the Opera House.

Public pressure to build a suitable concert facility in Sydney intensified in the 1940s. In 1955 Premier J.J. Cahill announced an international competition for the design of 'an opera house'. Danish architect Jørn Utzon's entry was selected as the winning design. His design was for a complex with two theatres side by side on a large podium. This was covered by interlocking concrete shells, which acted as both wall and roof. A third smaller shell set apart from the others was to cover the restaurant.

The construction of the Opera House was at times difficult and controversial with Jørn Utzon resigning from the project in 1966. The Opera House was officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on 20 October 1973.

Chronology of events

Year Date Event
1947 Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra calls for "a musical centre housing a big hall for a symphony orchestra, a small hall for chamber music and a fine home for an opera company".
1955 13 September The Premier, J.J. Cahill, announces that the Government of NSW will hold an international competition for the design of "an opera house". It is to be suitable for many kinds of performing arts, with two halls, one to seat between 3000-3500 people, and the other to seat 1200. There is also to be a restaurant and two public rooms for meetings.
1957 29 January Out of 233 entries from 32 countries, Jørn Utzon wins first prize.
1957 July Jørn Utzon visits Sydney to discuss the proposed building.
1958 August Demolition of the Bennelong Point Tram Depot commences.
1959 2 March Work begins on the foundations. The work on Stage I — the building of the upper podium — is to be carried out by Civil and Civic P/L.
1959 19 October Premier J.J. Cahill dies in office.
1963 March Stage I completed.
1963 April Stage II commences — Construction of the shell roofs and some subsidiary work is carried out by MR Hornibook (NSW) P/L.
1965 Newly elected Premier, Robert Askin transfers power over payments from the Opera House Committee to the Minister of Public Works, Davis Hughes.
1966 28 February Jørn Utzon resigns.
19 April Replacements for Jørn Utzon announced a panel consisting of:
  • E.H. Farmer, Government Architect
  • Peter Hall, Design Architect
  • D.S. Littlemore, in charge of supervision, and
  • Lionel Todd, in charge of contract documents
28 April Jørn Utzon leaves Sydney.
May 17 The Government pays Utzon's representatives $160,000 in return for 130 architectural drawings for Stage III.
12 December Hall, Todd and Littlemore submit "Review of Program" and suggest major changes to the use of halls.
1967 March Stage II completed.
1972 28 February The Premier, Sir Robert Askin, heads the Sydney Opera House Official Opening Committee.
1972 17 December First test concert in Concert Hall with Sydney Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Bernard Heinze.
1973 Responsibility for the Opera House is given to the Sydney Opera Trust and the Minister of Cultural Activities, George Freudenstein.
1973 29 September First public concert in Concert Hall with Birgit Nilsson singing Wagner with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Charles Mackerras.
1973 20 October Official opening by her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
1974 May The final cost of the Opera House is $102 million (excluding cost for the organ and car park.)
1975 31 May Architects' Certificate of Completion.
1979 30 May Organ finished.
1993 17 March A car park for 1,100 cars is built under the Royal Botanic Gardens by Enacom in association with the Department of Public Works. The Car park is opened by the Premier of NSW, Mr John Fahey
1997 28 March The Premier and Minister for the Arts, Mr Bob Carr, announced that in an endeavour to reflect the Government's commitment to open and accountable administration, all the construction records of the Opera House, irrespective of their age, were to be open to the public.

Other records may be identified in Archives Investigator.


Dawn Troy, Sydney Opera House — Media Briefing Material, 25 March 1997

The Australian Encyclopaedia, Grolier Society of Australia, 1983.

© State of New South Wales through the State Records Authority, 2003.
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