For anyone with even the vaguest interest in convict-era Australia, the Hyde Park Barracks is an essential visit. Built to house newly-arrived convicts arriving from Britain, it is now an utterly engrossing museum about what those sent to the other side of the world encountered.
But perhaps more remarkable than the tales of skirmishes with indigenous people, grim working conditions and rife corruption is the identity of the man who built the Hyde Park Barracks in the first place.
The name above the door, of course, goes to Lachlan Macquarie – the somewhat egotistical governor of New South Wales who had it commissioned. But the architect was Francis Greenway, a man with clear talent but a chequered past.
Greenway had designed a few buildings around Bristol in his native England, but fell bankrupt in 1809. Three years later he pled guilty to forging a financial document, and was sentenced to death for it. As so often happened in those days, the death penalty was commuted to transportation – and Greenway was sent out to New South Wales for 14 years. He would never return home.
Unlike many of the men shipped out at the same time, however, Greenway wouldn't see out his term doing back-breaking manual labour. Macquarie had visions for the colony that went far beyond it being a place of punishment for British petty criminals – and to bring it to life, he needed people with skills.
Architects, as can be imagined, were thin on the ground. So Macquarie quickly latched on to Greenway, and after giving him a few relatively menial tasks, set him loose on what is now known as the Macquarie Lighthouse at Dunbar Head in Vaucluse.
The one currently standing is a rebuilt and slightly remodelled version – Greenway's original was built in a particularly soft sandstone which quickly started to crumble. But the design – slightly phallic with two domed wings either side of the central tower – was easy on the eye and marked a change from the largely utilitarian buildings that had been Sydney's architectural hallmark thus far.
Greenway was quickly emancipated, and in 1816 was given the job of Acting Civil Architect.
Two-hundred years later, Greenway's most prominent efforts can be found near each other at the top of Hyde Park. The barracks manages to be both stout and elegant at the same time, while the St James' church opposite employs many of the same eye-catching techniques, but with a more celestial sense of grace. The trio is completed with the neighbouring courthouse.
The odd thing is that you'd be hard-pushed to recognise them as being by the same architect who designed the Macquarie Lighthouse. And when you stroll down Macquarie Street to the next of Greenway's buildings, it looks totally different again.
The Conservatorium of Music was originally designed as the stables complex for Government House, and some might argue that making it look like some sort of oversized whimsical castle was a little excessive.
In fact, some did argue that, and it was this sort of OTT indulgence that put paid to both Macquarie's reign as Governor and Greenway's mushrooming career. A commissioner was sent out from England to investigate what was happening in the colony, and went out of his way to collect evidence from people with grievances against Macquarie. The powers-that-be in London preferred the idea of Sydney as a deterrent rather than a flourishing city.
With Macquarie gone in 1921, Greenway's couldn't fall back on his patron. Unfortunately, he couldn't fall back on his good nature and charming personality either – Greenway was a notoriously abrasive character with a high opinion of himself and scarcely disguised contempt for the input of anyone who might deign to suggest improvements.
The commissions dried up, and by 1835 he was destitute. He died two years later, and was buried in an unmarked grave near Maitland. No-one knows exactly where he lies.
But Greenway's legacy lives on in his buildings. Other major efforts include the Obelisk in Macquarie Place and, perhaps most gorgeous of all, St Matthew's Church in Windsor.
Perhaps more important than the buildings directly traceable to him are the ones that aren't. Greenway made the case for style and beauty at a time when both were regarded as extravagant luxuries. It would take a while for Australia to come round to agreement, but when Greenway was finally embraced, he was embraced in style.
Fifty years ago, in February 1966, Australia ditched the pound in favour of the Australian dollar. Great Australian figures were required to go on the new bank notes, and Henry Lawson was chosen for the $10 bill. On the other side, however, was Francis Greenway, along with images of several of his public buildings. In 1993 the notes were replaced by new polymer versions, with Greenway and Lawson gone in favour of Banjo Paterson and Dame Mary Gilmore.
It's probably fair to say Greenway was the first – and probably last – convicted forger to ever be given such an honour.
Entry to the The Hyde Park Barracks (sydneylivingmuseums.com.au/hyde-park-barracks-museum) costs $10.
Context Travel (contexttravel.com) offers a historian-led three hour Making of Sydney walking tour for $95.