The house of the Watery Empire

MSW&DB Building

Built 1939
339-341 Pitt Street Sydney
The supply of water has always been a difficult task for the civic leaders of Sydney. With the original water supply for Sydney, the tank stream, becoming too polluted for human consumption, several extreme droughts and a swelling population caused the very viability of the city was being called into question. To resolve this a plan was put in place to construct a series of dams scattered around Sydney’s regional waterways.

The task for the completion of this plan fell to a succession of government bodies ultimately becoming being the responsibility of the newly named the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board (MWS&DB). The MWS&DB was responsible for the supply, maintenance and construction of all water, sewerage and drainage projects throughout the greater Sydney area. One of the few state government organisations of the era to control its own finances, it was one of the largest employers in the state and had great freedoms as it operated semi autonomously form the rest of the New South Wales government.
As the 1930s progressed, it became evident that this watery empire needed a centralised office that reflected its importance and influence on Sydney-siders. Originally housed in a hotch-potch of 19th century office buildings scattered throughout the city, the organisation was struggling under the weight of poor communication and integration. One of the larger sites consisted of a modest Victorian building on the corner of Pitt Street and Wilmot Lane in the south of the city near the Sydney Town Hall. This site was selected in 1936 to be the location of the new head office for the ever-expanding MWS&DB.
Following the success of the last major Sydney government building constructed in Sydney, Railway House at Wynyard, the architects Budden and MacKay were selected to design what be last major public building constructed before the material restrictions of the Second World War and the penultimate Sydney Moderne government building.

It was realised as a nine story, Moderne office building constructed by Howie Moffat & Co between 1938 and 1939. Built to a very high standard the building is a testament to the amount of spending and effort then occurring on public infrastructure. When completed it consisted of a basement, ground and mezzanine areas topped with six levels of office space. The building boasted a library, lecture hall, lunchrooms, basement level parking and extensive medical facilities. By the time it opened business on January 2, 1940 the Second World War had been underway for four months. This impressive and somewhat ostentatious construction opened to controversy. At the time Sydney was in the midst of one of its most severe and extended droughts. The drought was in its sixth year causing almost complete failure of water supplied in Sydney. At its worst dam levels fell to twelve and half percent of capacity. Drastic measures resulted in water restrictions including a mandatory one third cut to beer production. To many the opening of a new marble lined office in the midst of this crisis was inappropriate.

Constructed utilising a steel frame in a grid pattern, the building incorporated many progressive features such as electric elevators, expansive risers to carry building services including telephone and a white tiled light well designed to reflect light into the drawing offices that faced it. The base of the light well incorporated a translucent ceiling to let light flood the ground and mezzanine levels below. The building included strips of rust proof, opening brass windows contained double-glazing to reduce noise and to improve insulation against Sydney’s extremes of temperature.
Vertical columns rising above the foyer and entrance hall were designed into the façade, together with horizontal elements containing bands of brass decorative panels and large windows to encourage natural light to fill the offices within. Curved corners emphasised its simple Moderne design, showing the evolving style influenced by both the American and European thoughts on the Moderne style.

 The exterior is clad in bronze and copper coloured terracotta tiles, with a colonnade with Egyptian cobalt blue accents gracing the top of the flat roof. The roof is covered in large terracotta roofing tiles, now encased in a waterproof membrane. Bronze relief sculptures, by Melbourne artist Stanley Hammond, incorporated above the entrance, demonstrate the benefits of the organisations offerings to interested passersby.

 The original black marble main entrance in Pitt Street opens via heavy brass doors, topped with a decorative steel screen sitting in front of the tall glass windows. The travertine and marble foyer, which included access to the northern internal staircase, opened to an expansive marble finished enquiries desk and lift lobby.
The internal finishes include salmon coloured scagliola , a marble like plaster finish, and marble columns. Extensive joinery, made from deep red Australian rainforest timbers, were integrated into the walls providing ready storage for the ground floor workers. Much of the flooring was finished with terrazzo in a range of colours and patterns to differentiate the areas. Terrazzo graced hallways, meeting rooms and many offices. For areas that required a more forgiving surface, such as technical and medical areas, linoleum was used.

Cream and pale yellow ceramic tiles lined the basement, walkways and the dual angular staircases that sit at the northern and southern extremities of the building. As you would expect for an organisation that focused on water and sewerage, extensive washroom, shower and toilet facilities were installed and finished to a very high standard.

The building was originally designed to be expanded northward when extra capacity was required. When the site was expanded in 1965, it was not done in the Moderne style envisaged. In 1965 a modern skyscraper was added by the MWS&DB to the existing building. Designed by McConnely, Smith and Johnson, the new building did not harmonise with the style of the original. Significant changes were also made to the existing building. The mezzanine area above the ground floor was expanded to enclose the space utilised by the central building light well and an escalator was installed to improve access to the newly expanded mezzanine. The translucent ceiling above the mezzanine was covered over and false ceilings were installed in many places through the building.
In 2008 the original owners, now named Sydney Water Corporation, left after nearly 70 years of continuous occupation. Today much of the interior survives, either visibly or under the 1960s false ceilings and modifications. The 1965 skyscraper that adjoins the 1939 Pitt Street building has been earmarked for demolition with an even larger post-modern structure to rise in its place. As part of this redevelopment, a significant proportion of the 1960s modifications will be removed from the original building ultimately returning one of the last great Moderne public buildings to its former glory.

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