On May 6,1885 Mayor W. Bundey stated that it “afforded him very much pleasure to lay the stone of the first Arcade erected in Adelaide”. The design by Withall and Wells is the most important of their work to have survived. Other projects, which included Charles Birks, the Jubilee Exhibition Building and the Adelaide Racing Club Grandstand, show the use made of cast-iron for both building and decoration. Its extensive use of cast-iron, plate glass and electric light suggests the firm was very progressive and able to respond to design requirements with new construction materials and techniques.
Adelaide Arcade was opened on December 12, 1885, by the governor. The Observer described the building as being two acres deep, extending from Rundle Street to Grenfell Street. The main promenade between the shops was 24 feet wide, with a floor of Carrara marble and black and white encaustic tiles in elegant designs. The elevations to both Rundle and Grenfell streets were carried out “in the Italian style of architecture”. On the first floor, the “Corinthian order” was adopted. “An octagonal tower and dome, with the Australian Coat of Arms in front, form a very appropriate and imposing feature in each elevation.”
There were 50 shops, and “the quantity of glass in the place is enormous; the superficial area covered is certainly larger than that covered by the glass required for the whole of Rundle Street”. Much of this was polished plate glass, specially made in London because of the “extraordinary” size of the plates. Elsewhere, colonial materials were used as far as possible.
The walls were constructed of the Metropolitan Company's bricks, with Portland cement dressings. The slabs at the entrances were of Kapunda marble, the largest size that the company could supply.
“The rapidity with which the building has been erected eclipses anything previously heard of in Adelaide … The illuminating power throughout is provided by electricity.” In the arcade there were three fountains and an underground chamber fitted out for a tearoom. “The new Arcade is undoubtedly a handsome structure,” concluded the Observer.
Due to the depressed state of the economy, by late 1885 people were somewhat reluctant to lease shops and an inducement of one year’s lease rent free was offered to attract tenants. However, the depression did not stop Patrick Gay from building Gays Arcade on the site of his burnt-out furniture showroom. On August 14, 1885, the South Australian Register reported that construction was about to begin. The completion of this building brought the arcade complex to its present basic form. Gays Arcade has frontage to Twin Street, joining Adelaide Arcade at right angles. J. Cumming was the architect and N.W. Trudgen the contractor.
Both arcades suffered from modernisation of the interior ground floors in the 1950s and 1960s. The first floors remain largely original, however, and evoke something of the lost splendour of the buildings.