Once scheduled for demolition the Female Orphan School has undergone a 13-year restoration that will see its doors thrown back open to the community. Sally Willoughby reports.
FOR two centuries the Female Orphan School has housed some of the country's most marginalised people.
Standing on the banks of the Parramatta River, now within the University of Western Sydney's Parramatta campus, an intensive restoration project will see the historic building become the Whitlam Institute's permanent home.
University vice-chancellor Janice Reid, one of the project's drivers, said the university had taken responsibility for the building as a steward, not a proprietor.
"When I first came here the building was locked up and derelict," Ms Reid said.
"It was a shell occupied by pigeons and ghosts. The pigeons have gone — I'm not really sure about the ghosts."
She said the vision was for the building to be an intellectual and cultural hub.
"A democratic space celebrating and researching our own political and social history."
The building, built to house the colony's orphan girls and later served as a psychiatric hospital, fell into disrepair around 1969 and was earmarked for demolition before the university took over the site in 1995.
TKD Architects managing director Alex Kibble, whose firm managed the restoration, said it was special to see one of Australia's oldest buildings now used for cultural uses.
"It has had so many uses over the years . . . the period where it became a psychiatric hospital changed the structure quite dramatically but we've tried to show evidence of all those eras in the restoration," Mr Kibble said.
The Female Orphan School is open on Thursday, Friday and selected Saturdays from 10am to 4pm.
THROUGH THE ERAS
1813-1850■The Female Orphan School
The school was founded by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and inspired by his wife’s family home in Scotland. The building was one of the colony’s most ambitious projects.
The institution educated and trained the girls with skills to become domestic servants.
1850 to 1886■The Protestant Orphan School
In 1850 the school was amalgamated with Liverpool’s Male Orphan School to create the Protestant Orphan School — the boys and girls were always kept separate.
Dormitories were added to the west wing and a new hospital facility was added to the north of the building. By 1867 250 children were housed at the school.
1888 to 1980s■Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital
The old school became a branch of Parramatta Hospital for the ‘‘insane’’ in 1888 mainly housing people with chronic ‘‘lunacy’’. Prior to 1811, people with psychiatric disorders were housed at the Old Parramatta Gaol with male prisoners and female convicts. By 1890, there were 120 male patients at the hospital.
2013■The Whitlam Institute
A 13-year restoration project, driven by the University of Western Sydney, with the Parramatta campus now encompassing the building, will see it operate as a public exhibition space and home to the Whitlam Institute.