Opening on June 29, 1869, Mortuary Station on Regent Street in Sydney was built to facilitate the transportation of deceased people and mourners from the Devonshire Street Cemetery, where Central Station now stands, to the new Rookwood Cemetery. There was an increasing need during this period to relocate cemeteries outside of the city centres for aesthetic as well as hygienic purposes. At the same time a Receiving House was built at Rookwood and was dismantled in the 1950s and reassembled, stone-by-stone, in Canberra as All Saint’s Church. Designed by architect James Barnet, Mortuary Station is clearly influenced by the 13th century Gothic style and is adorned with angels, cherubs and acanthus leaves which were all seen as symbols of immortal life. These features were the work of sculptors Thomas Ducket and Henry Apperly.
At its peak, there would be as many as thirty coffins on one train making the journey to Rookwood, surrounded by the deceased person’s friends and family. However by the 1930s the advent of motor cars signaled a decline in the trains usage, as many people where now driving out to the cemetery, and in 1938 the station ceased to be used for funeral trains. Since then it has gone through numerous transformations – as a platform to dispatch animals in the 1930s, a parcel depot in the 1950s and perhaps most unusual, its brief stint as a pancake restaurant called the ‘Magic Mortuary’ which ran from 1986 until 1989. The restaurant was opened by Peter Shield and John McNally and used railway carriages to house the diners. Patrons bought ‘tickets’ from the former ticket office and then presented them to an attendant to eat their meal. Ahhh the 80s!
In 1981 the State Rail Authority went about restoring the station and it was classified as a heritage building by the National Trust of Australia and the Australian Heritage Commission. It reopened on April 21, 1985 and for the most part remains closed off to the public, being used to launch special train services and public displays of trains. At any time of the year you can walk past and take a look but if you wish to get beyond its gates, you will need to participate in activities such a Sydney Living Museum’s Sydney Open, which included Mortuary Station among its attractions in 2015. The venue is also used for the occasional wedding and in 2016 it will house the artwork of British artist Marco Chiandetti for the Biennale of Sydney.
Perhaps more than any other building in Sydney, Mortuary Station is a structure you could walk past a million times and never really notice. Certainly its rather somber and morbid history is not instantly known or easily discerned from its exterior and there is a small part of me that is hoping for a Magic Mortuary restaurant revival!