Parramatta South is built around two aggregations of colonial buildings, demonstrating the centrality of UWS to the preservation of heritage in the western suburbs. The first aggregation, the Female Orphan School (FOS) is the oldest three-storey masonry building in Australia. It grew out of a series of government funded welfare institutions around the colony, and the concern of Governor King and his wife Anna Josepha, to care for neglected children, of whom they felt Sydney had a greater proportion than ’in any part of the world.’ (Moloney 2000, 34-5.) Modelled on a similar school the Kings had established on Norfolk Island, it was a benevolent act not entirely detached from state policy: women were in short supply, and the orphan school 'organised' and trained young women to become the future servants, mothers and moral examples so vital to the future of the colony. (Kingston 2008, 54.) Few of the inmates were actually orphans, ‘the majority being the offspring of convicts, and their parents still alive’ (Macarthur 1837, 213n.)
Sited on Arthur's Hill above the meandering Parramatta River and about a mile from the settlement itself, it was an embodiment of neo-classical understandings of a healthy environment (Saltmarsh 2005, 5.). The foundation stone of the school was laid by Macquarie in 1813. Its patron was the governor's wife, Elizabeth Macquarie, who had 'an interest in architecture', and who designed the buildings after the Georgian/ Palladian style of her family home (the Campbell family's 'Airds House' in Ayrshire) in Scotland. As Kerr points out, the buildings are deceptively 'plain and regular', but on closer look the ‘high style’ embodied in its shape, and the sophistication of its construction becomes apparent (Kerr 2008, 28; Saltmarsh 2005, 5). Aird's House as built by Elizabeth's grandfather, Donald Campbell, is:
Paradigm Palladian composition of centre block, side pavilions and linking wings. Those linking wings were altered from curved to straight by the colonial builder James Smith and the building - being intended for convict bastards - was somewhat simpler than the original Scottish country house. (Kerr 2008, 28.)
It was to be a suitable conjunction for UWS: two years later (in 1820) Mrs Macquarie (nee Campbell) also gave her name to Campbelltown, the location for another of the University's key campuses.
The school's first pupils arrived in 1818 and by 1829 there were 152 girls in a building designed for 100. (UWS News, 20/07/2010.) Almost immediately, the facilities were found to be inadequate (in part because the supervisor, Samuel Marsden, thought them too like a boarding school for young ladies with ‘some prospects in life’ rather than like a ‘house of industry’), and reconstruction and extension work took place to fit the building for inhabitation by 100 people (Saltmarsh 2005, 5). Further refitting was required because of the problem with damp. Twenty years later, the school housed 142 children from three to 11 years of age, though there had been as many as 190 in residence. Understandings of health, and criticisms of the orphanage system as supporting prostitution, dogged the Government’s system, despite the best attempts of well-meaning staff (O'Brien 2008, 155). In 1849, the Female and Male Orphan Schools were merged to found The Protestant Orphan School, housing about 250 children (Fox 1997, 37). The first male students settled into the site in 1850 (UWS News, 20/07/2010).
The 1873 Windeyer Royal Commission promoted 'boarding out' and 'family' arrangements as preferred ways of raising orphaned children, leading to changes enshrined in the State Children Relief Act (1881). The result was that the school closed, and retasked as (1888-1985) Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane, and then as Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital. A branch of the overcrowded Parramatta Hospital for the Insane (Saltmarsh 2005, 9), in 1891 it became a separate institution with its own Medical Superintendent, resident in the two-storey residence built on the river-side of the FOS. Rydalmere was for the 'chronic' patients, including some who were quite well known, such as Bridget Partridge, aka ‘Sr. M. Liguori’, and the poet Francis Webb (viz. Lee 1997). The vexed area of mental health in Australia made the site a significant one for scientific research. Medical Superintendent psychiatrist and researcher S. J. Minogue, 1944-47, established the first Alcoholics Anonymous program in Australia (Mellor 2008). Guy Prior, Medical Superintendent 1914-26, was not only internationally respected for his work on endocrinal contributions to mental disorders, he was also a keen developer of the site's ecology and sporting facilities. Ellen (Nellie) Gould, matron at Rydalmere (1898-1900), became founder of NSW Army Nursing reserve in Boer War, and so of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps.
Additional buildings were added to the site to suit its new purpose, designed by the ‘arts and crafts’-influenced Walter Liberty Vernon, Government Architect between 1893 and 1904. In and after World War II, the shock of war produced so many psychiatric cases that the 'segregated' facilities promised to servicemen overflowed, and many had to be sent to other institutions. In 1975, the National Trust listed the buildings on the site, a preservation thrust which conflicted with the earmarking of the hospital as the first to be closed as a result of the Richmond Report into Psychiatric and Mental Retardation Services (1983). Despite the Heritage status of the buildings, there was increasing danger that -- due to deteriorating structures -- they would be demolished. Both Parramatta Council and local heritage bodies began to search for options. When the debate about the site for a Western Sydney university became part of the public domain in early 1987, Parramatta Council strongly supported the use of the site for a university: 'The buildings are in good condition and suitable for administrative and academic purposes,' Alan Hyams told the Mercury, 'The grounds are ideal for a university campus, an internal road system and car parking facilities are already available and ample opportunity exists for future expansion.' ('Options for university campus site', Parramatta and District Mercury, 24 February, 1987). If they were in 'good condition' in 1987 (a doubtful claim), four years of neglect did nothing for the built fabric. In 1991, the site became the centre of a campaign by Geraldine O’Brien of the Sydney Morning Herald, to save the derelict Orphan School buildings. This, as David Saltmarsh points out, was a public eruption of growing concern about 'heritage' in the rapidly changing city.
The NSW Government placed a conservation order on the entire 22-hectare site and transferred its ownership to the University of Western Sydney as its new Parramatta campus. Registered as an historic site, the new campus made the university the inheritor of a significant element of Australian 'heritage'. The idea of heritage in a modern university attached to a significant commercial CBD required careful thinking. This was particularly the case since, through the latter 90s, UWS came under stringent financial pressures from the withdrawal of Commonwealth funding to Australian universities, and the discovery of financial inefficiencies which had led to a significant budget deficit. In 1998, the University's primary bid for funding for the site (a $1 million NSW Heritage grant) was successful, and additional funding was obtained in 2001. The University's historian most connected to heritage issues, Associate Professor Carol Liston, became a significant voice in promoting the preservation and restoration of the site. Between 2000 and 2010, UWS spent over $5 million in conservation and “adaptive re-use of the interiors of the original three-storey central building". The central building was re-opened in 2003 by NSW Governor Marie Bashir, with the $3m conservation and adaptation work (architect, Megan Jones) receiving a UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award Honourable Mention in 2004.
It has since been used both for administrative purposes and as a location for cultural remembering (e.g. Corrina Bonshek's Shadows and Dreams, 2005), historical tours, associated with Parramatta's history, and "a unique heritage asset" used in the competition between universities for constituency and reputation (Saltmarsh 2005, 10). In 2003, Tanner Architects prepared an extensive Heritage Interpretation Strategy for the campus. When the Whitlam Institute was incorporated in 2000, its offices were housed within the first stage of restoration. Unfortunately, funding to complete the restoration of the East Wing failed to emerge when the Keating government was defeated in 1996, and only become available when in 2012 the Gillard government provided $7m for its completion. In the interim, when students and staff first moved onto the site in 1998, it was not yet finished, and there was a severe lack of teaching and staff space.
Refurbishment work to reclaim usable spaces in the existing buildings was pushed to the fore, with almost any available room becoming a teaching space. On the one hand, the move generated a litany of complaints. Students in particular found parking difficult, and — until the construction of the large lecture blocks in buildings EA and EB — the scattered buildings to be socially disconnecting.
The construction of EA and EB had another purpose. With the rise of a northwestern Sydney deprived of good public transport, James Ruse Drive (which defines the western edge of the campus) became a major arterial road. Two tall, north-south buildings were implemented as part of the original campus master plan to block noise, and so create a sense of ‘templum’ through the interplay of open spaces, heritage buildings, and bodily procession along pathways. Originally, there was to be no parking on campus, a plan that rapidly proved to be unworkable due to the distance of the campus from railway stations. Regardless of parking restrictions and relative lack of student amenities (beyond the proliferation of coffee shops), Parramatta has proven to be enormously popular with students. By the early 2000s, it was experiencing a rush of student preferences which have continued to inform overall planning and resourcing across all UWS campuses. Symbolically, the construction of the Sir Ian and Nancy Turbott Auditorium gave Parramatta one of the few ceremonial spaces on the University’s campuses, while the opening of the Whitlam Library in 2002 gave it an open, airy functionality reflective of new thought about the place of learning resources in university life. Reconstruction of several built structures at the centre of the campus (particularly the Boilerhouse and its attendant smoke stack) from 2009-10 have provided a coherence to the site which it did not previously know. Student life now circulates around the central space marked by EA, AG, and Student Central.