Day 100: Old customs

Customs House
Customs House Brisbane
Ornate interior

There’s an air of grandeur about Customs House, which is not surprising since it is one of the grander buildings in Brisbane.

Built in the 1880s, it also appears out of bounds, somewhere not to be entered without meeting a proper dress standard.Customs House

It’s an impressive site both from the street and the river and is essential Brisbane, it’s dome appearing from many angles, a bit like St Paul’s in London or St Peter’s in the Vatican.

Yes, I know I tend to exaggerate significance but for Brisbane, it is a significant building. With its grand colonnades and portico it holds its own among the surrounding high-rise.

Customs House Brisbane
Heraldic scenes in the pediments were precursors to the official Queensland coat of arms, which was not granted until 1893

I’m not the only one, as I’ve discovered the Brisbane Courier reported a few days after it opened on September 7, 1889, that it has a “handsome and imposing appearance” and predicts it will “become one of the features of the city”.

And that it has!

From the riverwalk, it looks like it might be vacant or at least reserved for occasions greater than a simple stickybeak so, when I spotted the open door on the street side, I ventured inside for a look around.

Customs House
Balcony with river views

It’s a beautiful space evocative of past pomp, with carved red cedar, marble and chandeliers and the magnificent fluted Corinthian columns seen from the river.

Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to stand under the dome as it was locked away in the Long Room that is now a restaurant but it was possible to get across to a balcony to admire the river view.

Customs House
Magnificent internal staircase

Customs house was built between 1886 and 1889 to the Renaissance inspired design of Charles McLay of the Queensland Colonial Architect’s Office.

It was clearly built to capitalise on its dominant site which was carefully chosen in 1849 after the declaration of Moreton Bay as a port of entry in 1846.

Its magnificence reflects the importance of the customs service when it stood at the entrance to what was the main port of entry to Brisbane.

Inside is a photographic collection of others Customs Houses from around Australia.

They were built in major ports of the 19th century when customs and excise duties levied on goods from overseas were an important source of revenue.

Customs House Brisbane
Old marble fireplace, although the chimneys were removed in a 1947 renovation

It was used by the Customs Service for almost a century until 1988 and in the 1990s, was leased by the University of Queensland and restored as a convention centre and art gallery.

It remains for that purpose and has a restaurant serving lunch and dinner and Sunday breakfast, which is a great chance to get inside and check it out. It’s worth it.



  1. More interesting history. Thank goodness this grand building will live to tell its tale, unlike so many of Brisbane’s historic edifices which have been either bulldozed or sadly neglected, although it’s a pity one can’t access the dome.

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