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9 Grand Heritage Buildings around Adelaide

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by Graeme Fanning (subscribe)
I'm a tour guide who is passionate about South Australia and love to showcase to locals and visitors. Visit my facebook page at www.facebook.com/Down-to-Earth-Tours-1491827191071798/
Published February 19th 2022
Gazing at grand buildings
Adelaide is one of the capital cities in Australia which still has a fair proportion of older heritage buildings still standing, blended in with some of our newer modern developments.

There is no question that you need progress in any urban environment but I think if you lose all of your older heritage buildings, you have lost some of the character of a place.

As you walk around the city of Adelaide, there are so many impressive buildings still standing which represent a grander era in our history, many of them built with philanthropy.

Here are 9 that I discovered on numerous journeys taken around the city:

1. Parliament House

Many of our government buildings, as we see them today, are large prominent structures usually built on or near corners of major intersections. Parliament House is no exception.

Did you know we actually have two Parliament Houses adjacent to each other on North Terrace? The one with the impressive stone and brick dressings is the Old Parliament House, completed by 1855, comprising of an Elizabethan style chamber together with 10 rooms.

Just two short years later in 1857, South Australia gained self-government from Britain, which meant for the first time we had a democratic and responsible government instead of a system where the Governor ruled the colony answerable only to the British Crown, not to the people.

By the 1870s the original Parliament House was seen to be too small for its purpose, so plans were submitted to build a "new" Parliament House which would function more efficiently.

The original elaborate plans were soon cut back due to budget constraints as well as material and labour shortages at the time. A magnificent dome was originally planned to sit atop the current Parliament House, which obviously never came to fruition.

As it was, the cost including furniture and fittings came to a staggering 165,404 pounds, using all local stone and marble - the granite from West Island, near Victor Harbor and the marble from Kapunda in the State's mid-north.

It's hard to believe but the building works were a work-in-progress, taking an amazing 50 years to build from the western end to the eastern. The western end was opened in 1889 and the eastern end was not completed until 1939. If it wasn't for the Bonython family and their philanthropy, the eastern end of the complex would never have been built.

Today free tours are available through the new Parliament House, at times when Parliament is not sitting. Check the website for availability.

Old Parliament House was at one time used as a Constitutional Museum, in fact when it was opened in 1980, it was the first political museum in Australia. Sadly it closed in 1995 and today the building is used for offices for Parliamentary staff.

Parliament House Adelaide
Parliament House Adelaide


2. Bonython Hall

Bonython Hall is quite striking in its appearance with its "oldy-worldy" architecture, which although having a classic Gothic English/Scottish appearance, the building was only built and opened during the 1930s.

Prior to the 1930s, Adelaide lacked a University style hall and Sir John Langdon Bonython, a member of one of Adelaide's prominent business families, donated over 50,000 pounds for the erection of the building.

Bonython visited Melbourne and Sydney to gain some ideas of building style for the type of structure he wanted built in Adelaide. He also apparently made trips to England to both Oxford and Cambridge to view their university halls.

Bonython Hall was built with local Murray Bridge limestone and roofing slate from the Willunga quarries. One of the interesting design features of the building is the recessed windows which were designed to minimise the hot sun's effect.

There are two folklore stories about this building connected with Mr Bonython. One relates to the floors within Bonython Hall not being level, sloping from the doors at the front of the building down to the stage at the rear. It was rumoured that Bonython wanted assurance that this hall would only ever be used for ceremonial purposes, not for any frivolous activity such as dancing, hence the deliberate floor design.

The other relates to its location. You will notice Pulteney Street ends at the intersection of North Terrace. Under the original plan of Colonel William Light, there was going to be a road aligned closely to where Pulteney Street is today, which continued all the way up to North Adelaide. Bonython had a large mansion overlooking the city near the very location where the road would have gone past!

Today the building is used mainly for university graduations, concerts and a hire facility for weddings and other special occasions.

Bonython Hall University of Adelaide


3. Art Gallery of South Australia

Another striking piece of architecture along North Terrace is the Art Gallery of South Australia, built in 1900, again sponsored by philanthropy - this time Sir Thomas Elder of Elder Pastoral fame.

Prior to the current Art Gallery, SA's major collection of art was housed at one time in both The Institute building (now part of the State Library of South Australia) and then for a while in the Mortlock Wing, also now part of the State Library.

The Art Gallery for a short time was also housed within the old former Jubilee Exhibition Building, which was demolished in 1962 on what is now part of the University of Adelaide site.

Elder donated amounts in the vicinity of 25,000 pounds for acquisitions and others like Alexander Melrose gifted around 10,000 pounds in 1935.

The facade of the Art Gallery as we see it today is a 1936 modification to bring a more classical Greek/Roman-style to the North Terrace precinct.

Thankfully most of the galleries within the Art Gallery, which is believed still to be one of the better art galleries in Australia, are free to visit. Normally you will however pay to go into any special exhibitions.

Examples of collections within include the largest amalgamation of Morris & Co decorative art outside of Britain and the finest body of Auguste Rodin sculptures in the southern hemisphere, acquired in 1996.

Art Gallery of South Australia
Art Gallery of South Australia


4. Mortlock Wing and Institute Building - State Library of South Australia

Two of the more imposing buildings along North Terrace in the city belong to the State Library of South Australia - one being the 1860 The Institute building and the other, the 1884 Mortlock Wing.

The words "The Institute" come from a shortened version of the English term "Mechanics Institute", which were rather like the very early versions of TAFE, where Mechanics and other tradespeople could hone and learn skills relating to trades.

Many of these grander buildings, which are visible in many country towns around Australia as well as suburban and city locations, transformed in many cases to either libraries or community centres.

The Institute Building was our very first cultural building in Adelaide, playing host in its early infancy to three cultural institutions all in the one building - the Library, the Museum and the Art Gallery.

It was also the place where a ground-breaking piece of technology was demonstrated for the first time on its grand opening in January 1861 - that was Electricity!! The man who demonstrated it was Charles Todd - who was one of SA's early Postmasters and Head of Telecommunications as well as Government Astronomer.

Yes, I hear you say, Todd has connections with Northern Territory re the Todd River named after him, Alice Springs named after his wife, Alice and he being responsible for the Overland Telegraph between Adelaide and Darwin, which opened up telecommunications within Australia and its connection to the rest of the world during the 1870s.

The other magnificent building, which is part of the State Library is the Mortlock wing, dating from 1884. Entering the old library is a step back in time as you step from the bright light into a dimmer chamber.

The Mortlock Library is classified as the best example of a Victoriana style library in Australia and has been voted as one of the top 20 beautiful libraries in the world.

The only entry to the Mortlock is through the more modern glass State Library building, up the main stairs and across the overway into this historic space.

Upon entering, you will be able to wander around 14 exhibition bays themed relating to South Australia and then you can venture upstairs to the mezzanine level, where you are able to take any of the old books from the shelving and sit down and have a read! An amazing atmosphere and space to spend some time in, all completely at no cost!

The Institute Building, State Library of South Australia
The Institute Building, State Library of South Australia


5. Mitchell Building - University of Adelaide

When you pass by the Mitchell Building, if you didn't know its purpose, you would be convinced it has connection to some form of religion, with its "modern Gothic" style architecture built in the early 1880s.

This building in fact was the very first stand-alone structure dedicated to the University of Adelaide, one of the oldest universities in Australia, dating from the 1870s.

The North Terrace facade was built of pale Sydney stone with darker horizontal bands, whilst the rest of the exterior walls were of Tea Tree Gully freestone. The striking red stone pillars of the porch together with the impressive stained glass windows came from Dumfries in Scotland.

The unusual looking turret on the top of the building was built as an ornamental ventilating turret.

Like several of the grander style buildings around Adelaide, this one was built following a competition conducted with prize money attached, for the best design for the first Adelaide University structure.

Designer and architect William McMinn, of Woods and McMinn Architects was granted the winning design and was given the credit, even though it very closely matched another entry design by Michael Egan, an architect from Melbourne (who had carried out all of the main design work, amended slightly by McMinn). Egan was to gain prominence soon after as the winner of a design that eventually came to fruition in the Torrens Building in Victoria Square.

When this building was opened, it was the stand-alone Uni building that operated within for lectures, graduations and admin. Today the building is purely utilised for admin purposes.

Not long after the Mitchell Building (took that name in the 1960s after an early Vice-Chancellor of the Uni), opened, the Uni of Adelaide became the first in Australia to offer a Science degree and was one of the first universities in the world to admit women into degrees - with Edith Dornwell graduating with a Science degree during the 1880s.

In front of the building, today stands an imposing statue of Sir Walter Watson Hughes, the first donor to the University and one of its founders, having made his money through copper discoveries on some of his land holdings near Wallaroo on the Yorke Peninsula.

Unfortunately, the building today is not public accessible but be on the look out for Uni open days when you get the opportunity to see behind the facade.

Mitchell Building, University of Adelaide

6. Former Treasury Building


We all know today that Victoria Square (Tarndanyyanga) is Adelaide's central square, designed along with the rest of the city's layout by Colonel William Light.

Light's intention with his design work was to have the majority of prominent government buildings facing the square, still evident today with structures such as the Law courts in the southern section of the square, the Torrens building, the GPO building and the former Treasury Building.

The original government building on the site of what is known today as the Adina Apartment Hotel (since 2002) on the corner of King William Street and Flinders Street, dates back to 1839 and upon entering the hotel, off to a room on the right lies remnants of the original exterior wall of the 1839 building, known as Kingston's wall. George Strickland Kingston was the architect of the original government building as well as many other early colonial designs.

By the 1850s, with the expansion of government departments and services, another complex was begun to be erected adjacent to the original building. Sometime during the building process, the original 1839 building was demolished, and with later excavations, remnants of some of the walls were discovered, which has now been incorporated into the more modern structure.

Seven major extensions and additions later (up to the early 1900s) brought the important government building into the size which can be viewed today.

In 2002, some $20 million was spent to bring the building into its current operation as an apartment hotel, comprising 79 guest rooms.

During its days as a Government building, various departments operated within, including the Treasury from 1860, the Surveying Department, Land Registry, Government Printing, Premier & Cabinet (from 1870s until 1968), with even an office for the Governor at one time.

A tour of the complex is conducted on a regular basis on most Sundays throughout the year (apart from mid-December to mid-January) by National Trust SA and their volunteer guides, where you get to explore some interesting spaces, including the historic Cabinet Room as well as the tunnels complex underneath the building, which was used to store fuel as well as gold, which came back from the Victorian Goldfields during the 1850s.

We as the general public can also visit Treasury 1860, a restaurant courtyard and bar and enjoy the hospitality in a unique enclosed courtyard environment. Nothing better to enjoy a balmy summer's evening sipping your favourite beverage with perhaps some nibbles to go with it!

Treasury 1860 is open from Monday - Friday 3 pm until late, Saturdays 8 am - 11 am and then from 3 pm until late, and Sundays 8 am - 11 am. The bar and restaurant is closed on Public Holidays.

Former Treasury Building
Former Treasury Building


7. Adelaide Town Hall

In what is still seen to be a landmark in the city of Adelaide these days, the Adelaide Town Hall was originally opened in 1866, at the time classified as the largest municipal building in the southern hemisphere.

Constructed of local Tea Tree Gully freestone and Dry Creek bluestone, the plans for the building were even originally much more elaborate than the structure ended up being.

The arches that many of us have strolled under on King William Street, were originally going to span the entire street, meaning that traffic would have travelled under the arched feature. Due to budget constraints, this idea was soon scrapped.

The tower with the faces of the now electronic clocks is known as Albert Tower, named after Queen Victoria's husband and if you glance at any old photos of Adelaide prior to 1935 you will notice, almost embarrassingly the holes in the tower where clocks were meant to be installed.

Due to the cost of the structure, designed by Edmund Wright and Edward Woods, the winners of a competition to create the winning design, the clocks had not been factored into the original budgets. However, provision was made for the eventual installation of clocks in 1935, thanks to Sir John Langdon Bonython, who donated monies for a fully imported London mechanical clock.

A Melbourne clock-maker came over to Adelaide and assembled the timepiece, which apparently failed to work initially and authorities had to get him back to fix it.

Before the clock went in, the municipal council members did not know how to distract from the gaping holes in the tower, so many flags on flagpoles were flown from the site, and then later, allegedly someone came up with an idea of covering up the holes to try and hide them, but it became even more glaringly obvious there were these incomplete clock receptacles.

The best way to view the building is to take one of Adelaide Town Hall's free guided tours, where you get the opportunity to view some of the beautiful spaces including the old Ballroom (now the Auditorium). These tours are held on the last Monday of the month at 10.00 am and last for 1 hour. Bookings are essential.

As a member of the public, you can also wander in on weekdays to have a quick look around. You will notice the striking bust of Queen Adelaide on the ground floor, and when the balcony is open, you can step out and imagine you are a member of royalty or even a member of the Beatles, who all did public town hall balcony receptions during their visits here. To think that the Beatles hosted their biggest ever world tour crowd right here in Adelaide in 1964 - with between 300,000 and 350,000 out in King William Street!

Auditorium, Adelaide Town Hall
Auditorium, Adelaide Town Hall


8. Torrens Building

Not many people realise that the Torrens Building is accessible on weekdays for general public members on parts of the ground floor.

Another imposing ex-government structure on the corner of Victoria Square and Wakefield Street in the city of Adelaide,

One of the wonderful things about this building is the very visible old land folio pigeon holes hanging both from the walls and from the ceiling, a left-over from the days when the Crown Lands had offices within the complex.

The other interesting bits of historic information are on display on boards, discussing the story of the original architect, Michael Egan, mentioned earlier in this article. There is also a chronological timeline of the uses of the building over the years including Dept of Engineering and Water Supply, Public Works, Crown Lands and Public Offices for Government.

There is also a brief outline of the career of Robert Richard Torrens, seen as the architect of the Torrens Land Title System, together with his photograph.

Most of the government departments vacated the building by 1993 ready for renovation. The building re-opened in 1997.

Today it houses our first foreign university in Australia, the American Carnegie Mellon, since 2006, as well as a small Government department.

In the deliberately planned inner courtyard, similar to the design of the old Treasury building courtyard, there was at one time a 50-foot tower in a Campanile style (similar to an Italian bell-tower) in the centre, which would you believe served a function of a ventilation tower for the building's toilet facilities! Imagine what the odours might have been like! The structure was demolished in 1967.

Land Folio Pigeon Holes Torrens Building
Land Folio Pigeon Holes Torrens Building


9. Former Moore's Department Store

Wow, what a re-use of a building for a different purpose! From its use as a boutique department store and then transformed into its current use - as a Law Court!

Charles Moore had migrated to South Australia in the 1880s working initially for the former John Martin's Department store in Rundle Street in the city. He then decided he wanted to branch out on his own and travelled over to the Paris Exposition in 1889 to gain some ideas on what architectural styles would suit his proposed new department store.

His dream came to fruition when he opened his own flagship boutique department store in Victoria Square on the corner of Gouger Street in 1916, having previously traded for a while further along Gouger Street.

Part of the design of his new department store was a beautiful Italian Carrara Marble staircase, designed by English architect William Lucas, which when incorporated into the plans of the department store, made for an elegant touch.

When you think about it, Moore took quite a gamble opening a store in this part of the city, not traditionally being the retail sector area, however, his decision soon paid off, when the store received great patronage for many years.

It survived a major fire in 1948, which almost gutted the entire building - fortunately, one of the items saved from the fire was the magnificent marble staircase, which still survives in the building today. The original flat-roofed structure of the building and some of the upper floors were eventually all re-built.

The department store went on to trade until 1979, when it finally closed. In the early 1980's it was decided to transform the building into what became the Sir Samuel Way Law Court building, named for a Chief Justice of South Australia for 40 years (1876 until his death in 1916).

Today's building now features a magnificent dome on the top of the structure and the Italian Carrara Marble staircase has been re-installed.

The building is publicly accessible on weekdays (apart from public holidays) and will require you to go through court security procedures to enter.

Italian Carrara Marble Staircase Former Moores Department Store
Italian Carrara Marble Staircase Former Moores Department Store


Some amazing grand buildings around Adelaide can be visited and gazed at in awe!
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Why? A chance to not only admire but also learn more about some of our wonderful heritage buildings in Adelaide
When: Any time of the year
Phone: 08 8203 7203
Where: Adelaide, South Australia
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Your Comment
Lots of sights to see here Graeme. A comprehensive story. thank you
by Gillian Ching (score: 3|5135) 180 days ago
Very informative article Graeme. Let's hope the buildings survive forever.
by Neil Follett (score: 3|4280) 180 days ago
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