St James’ Church was constructed between 1819 and 1824. It is the oldest church building in the City of Sydney and has been in continuous use from its consecration on 11 February 1824 to the present.
The church came about through a series of unusual events. In 1819 convict and civil architect Francis Greenway was asked to design a courthouse for Governor Lachlan Macquarie. At that time, Macquarie's plans encompassed a grand cathedral on George Street, and a courthouse and school on King Street. However, due to the recommendations of Commissioner Bigge, sent from London, the cathedral plans were put on hold, the school relocated, the planned school turned into the courthouse and the already commenced courthouse into a church dedicated to St James (the cathedral was not finished until 1868).As a result, St James’ is a prime example of the architectural work of the Macquarie period, completely designed and built by convict labour. It is an integral part of the most extensive surviving group of Macquarie period buildings in Australia, which also includes the former Hyde Park Barracks, the (Old) Supreme Court, the General Hospital (the Mint and Parliament House) and Government House offices and stables (Conservatorium of Music). The church and the King Street Courts (formerly the Supreme Court) are the only buildings of this group to retain their original function.
The church contains a rare collection of 19th century marble memorials, its painted Children’s Chapel is unique in Australia and it includes amongst its collections and contents rare items of movable heritage. The original building has an extensive under croft (called the Crypt) with sandstone walls, a central corridor and twelve brick barrel vaults.
Substantial modifications and additions have been made to St James’ since its completion in 1824 but without significant loss of character of the exterior as a Georgian town church. The interior of the church was totally remodelled in 1900-1902 and all earlier fabric removed with the exception of the 19th century memorials, some timber panelling and the basic retention of the western gallery. The form and contents of the interior of the church are essentially as designed and built in the early 20th century, with the exception of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit (south portico) which was rebuilt in 1988.St James’ Church is significant in the history of NSW as: