The building was first opened to the public in 1874. By the time of its final completion in 1891, the building was hailed as a turning point for the Colony of New South Wales, and historians have since noted the building's significance as a force for driving prosperity and for the Federation of Australia.
Its architectural expression and in particular its Pitt Street carvings have since been hailed as "the beginning of art in Australia," as well as its urban significance in the shaping of Sydney's urban grid and the Martin Place precinct.
In 1942 during World War II, the campanile clock tower at the centre of the building was removed by the Government and placed in storage in case of an air attack on Sydney. When the clock was retrieved from storage in 1964, an "Eternity" inscription by Arthur Stace was found written in chalk inside the bell. It was left there and is now one of only two original Eternity inscriptions.