Tocal College is a residential college for agriculture students in the NSW Hunter Valley, with a style that evokes not only its rural location and use, a response to the hot dry climate and the possibilities of demonstrating timber framing, but does so within a stylistically unusual character that recalls the details of Asian temples.

The college stands on long-term farming land at Paterson north of Maitland. When the owner Charles Alexander died in 1947, he left a large estate intended be used to help orphan and destitute children by training them for agricultural careers. In 1963, the Presbyterian Church was awarded Alexander’s estate and the church commissioned Ian McKay and Philip Cox to design the college buildings.

Tocal College exterior columns

In 1965, prime minister Sir Robert Menzies opened the college as the C B Alexander Presbyterian Agricultural College and the first fifteen students were enrolled. The church managed the college until 1970 when it was transferred to the NSW State as the CB Alexander Agricultural College, Tocal.

Tocal College exterior courtyard
Tocal College Asian Temple elements

There are several buildings linked by loggias or verandas, around courtyards. At the centre of the complex is a small chapel with an oversized spire that locates the complex from afar in the gentle rolling hills. This chapel has a single post structure in the spire, held together with framing that is exposed and lit from the four upper side lights. In this respect it recalls the superb timberwork of St John's Church at Branxton by John Horbury Hunt, featured in an earlier 'AAA looks at' article. 

Tocal College exterior point
Tocal College spire

There is a main hall, heavily buttressed as if a church, entirely appropriate given the Presbyterian beginnings. There are teaching spaces around the courtyards, a dining room and kitchen, and at a distance the residential parts of the college. All are linked by the deep verandas made with sturdy solid round tree trunk columns detailed to sit on a simple base, and a capital for connection to the large beams at the perimeter, holding rafters finished with white protective paint.

The gutters are hidden back from the edge revealing the glossy tiles, and around the courtyards the water falls from the roof into rubble drains, and in heavy downpours the water collects in the gentle depressed centres of the courts. The timberwork under the verandas, in the entry, the hall, and throughout the complex is exposed dark-stained timber.

Tocal College interior

The building is over 50 years old, has had less maintenance than may be desired in parts, but has weathered exceptionally well. The brickwork bears out the old English adage that all building materials weather, but brickwork mellows. It is a remarkable evocation of an agricultural past in forms that seem timeless and still put to its original use in great style.

In 2014 the CB Alexander College at Tocal was awarded the 25-year Enduring Architecture award.


Researched and written by AAA volunteers, edited by Tone Wheeler for the Australian Architecture Association. For more information on the AAA and its activities to promote architecture, click here