Thirteen designs were entered in the competition, with several from outside South Australia. According to the South Australian Register of June 4, 1866, it was obvious that none of the designers had kept in mind that the building was not to cost more than £20,000 but had taken the liberty of going beyond it.
The early building works caused much controversy when the designs were changed after being tabled and approved by the government. Finally four architects had some influence on the final design. Edmund William Wright and Edward John Woods, who were in partnership, won the design competition but were asked to change the design to the required scale. Edward Angus Hamilton and Robert George Thomas jointly submitted a design that came second and both architects possibly made later alterations to the winning design in line with their own, as Hamilton had now become a partner with Wright and Woods, and Thomas had become colonial architect in January 1868.
There were also disputes with architects and contractors over the questionable quality of the building stone and extra costs of the foundations. The controversy raged from public meetings to parliamentary debates, ending in a formal inquiry by a select committee that released a report in October 1867.
When another controversy arose concerning the design of Parliament House, the South Australian Register of September 25, 1875, published a letter from Woods, who was annoyed by the publicity given only to Wright for the GPO. While he did not want to take credit from Wright as the senior member of the firm, he claimed that “both with the planning of the competition drawings and preparing the general and working drawings for the original contract I had more to do than any other person”. He described himself as one of “the aggrieved architects of the Post-Office”.
The building contractor and his workers were even more aggrieved. Thomas Farr was awarded the contract to build the superstructure. Within the first week Wright stopped all building work, arguing that the stone was inferior to the sample he had been shown. Farr promptly resigned, as use of the recommended Glen Ewin stone would increase the overall cost beyond £80,000 – way beyond his quoted contract price. Work stopped for six months, men were thrown out of employment and dispute reigned. Fresh plans were called for, and new tenders. As colonial architect, Thomas made some radical modifications, including greatly reducing the proposed height of the tower. This brought the expected cost back to about £50,000, although Glen Ewin stone was still used and the final architectural appearance was not diminished.
The initial contractor for the foundations was Thomas English (who soon afterwards retired, the firm becoming Brown and Thompson). Despite the cost of the foundations exceeding the tender by several hundred pounds, the firm was then retained to complete the building. It was a major project: in 1867 the workers on site included 18 stonecutters, 10 carpenters, four smiths and 15 labourers. It became the most expensive building constructed by the government to that date.
The foundation stone was laid on November 1, 1867. It was a royal affair carried out by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and watched by thousands of citizens. Adelaide’s elite filled the dress circle erected for the occasion. Reserved second-class seating and unreserved seating were also provided for “lesser folk”. There were 16 tiers to accommodate 3500 people, such was colonial pride and imperial loyalty in 1867.
There was further celebration four years later when the building was at last opened on May 6, 1872. Its final cost was £53,258 9s. 2d.
A description of the GPO appeared in the South Australian Register of January 4, 1872. Frontages were given as 150 feet to King William Street and 160 feet to Victoria Square, with a height 57 feet 6 inches from the pavement to the balustrading: “The elevations, which present an imposing appearance, are in the Anglo-Italian style executed in cut freestone from the Glen Ewin quarries. The main portion of the walls, which are very massive, is of Glen Osmond stone.”
There were two storeys, the first consisting of a series of Doric columns standing on pedestals, between which were semi-circular headed windows. Between the storeys was “a bold cornice” extending entirely round the structure. The order of the second storey was Ionic, with “square-headed windows, panelled architraves and projecting heads, on carved trusses supported on columns with carved capitals of freestone. A bold modillion cornice and entablature, surmounted by a balustrade, crowns the whole.”
The front was finished with cast-iron balustrading supplied by G. Wyatt: “The gates are handsome in design and have been manufactured by Mr E. Fischer, of Flinders Street. They are wrought iron, running on friction rollers; coloured bronze and slightly ornamented with iron gilding. At the south east of the building, a splendid square tower rises to the height of 158 feet or 179 feet 6 inches to the summit of the flagstaff.”
Inside, the central hall was greatly admired. The two entrances from King William Street and Victoria Square were arched, with deeply coffered ceilings. There were steps of Mintaro slate. The public hall was 90 feet long by 35 feet wide, running the height of two storeys, part of the roof being 65 feet from floor to ceiling. This was paved with Mintons encaustic tiles in simple patterns and lighted by a half-dome roof, the sides of which were formed in glass. The ceiling was enriched with panels and centrepieces containing ventilators, “the whole impressing the visitor by its taste and beauty. We very much question whether there is a more handsome public vestibule in any of the Australian colonies”. At half the height was a gallery running all around supported on ornamental cast-iron trusses with balustrading to match.
The tower clock was installed in 1876. The big bell weighed about 2½ tons. A substantial and expensive scaffolding had to be built over the footpath to introduce the bells and clock and bell machinery through the coffer windows of the bell chamber as there was no other opening large enough in the tower.
In 1891 plans were drawn up for a new north wing on King William Street to be added to incorporate a new telegraph office. J.J. Leahy was the successful tenderer, and work began in August 1891. The cost was £16,469.17s and it took a year and seven months to provide the extra 41 rooms.
The new building was constructed in Murray Bridge freestone backed with brickwork. The additions of 1891-92 were expertly blended with the 1872 building and there is only a subtle difference in the colours of the stone in the two buildings.
The GPO is a major feature of the King William Street townscape and, with the Town Hall opposite, provides an impressive twin towers vista from Victoria Square.
TELEPHONE EXCHANGE SITE, FRANKLIN STREET
To the rear of the Post Office Museum in Franklin Street is a two-storey bluestone and brick colonnaded building. It appears to date from between 1866 and 1872, when it was built as police cells. The building had minor alterations in 1872, but was vastly remodelled in 1884 when converted into a two-storey building graced by a colonnade facade of bluestone and brick. Remains of the former cells are still visible. The original stonework can be seen inside the colonnade loggia and part of the flagstone floor is still visible.
Associations with the Police Department go back to 1848-51, when the whole of Town Acre 237 was set aside for a substantial government complex containing the Post Office, the Metropolitan Police Station, and the Police and Local Courts. The contractors were Robert and Samuel Mills, and the complex was due to be completed in 1850. However it was 38 weeks late and was finally finished in mid-1851.
The Delisser map of 1861 shows that the combined Police Station and Post Office took up practically the whole of Town Acre 237. An inner courtyard was probably used jointly by both departments. The Police Station occupied the south and western end and the Post Office the north and eastern side of the town acre.
By 1866 postal and telegraphic operations had expanded to such a degree that larger premises (the new GPO) were urgently required to suit the scale of operations. It was agreed that postal operations would stay on site, with part of the Police Station offices on the south-western side being demolished. Town Acre 408 on the south side of Victoria Square was chosen for both the Local and Police Courts. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police Station moved into the earlier Post Office building on the north-eastern side of the town acre, where it stayed until the General Post Office extensions of 1891. When the old post office was altered in 1872 the old police cells at the rear were converted into bedrooms, offices and a kitchen.
Up until 1884 there is no record of a second floor being part of this colonnaded building. There are clues to the fact that renovations to this building and others alongside were made in architectural drawings titled General Post Office, Adelaide, additions and alterations to outbuildings, especially drawing No. 2 held by the Australian Archives and the Federal Department of Housing and Construction dated October and November 1884.
Some surviving plans show that this building was converted for use as a carpenters shop, an ironmongery store and water closets. A second storey was built to contain an instrument store, instrument fitter’s workshop and an office. New rooms were built at the rear. The colonnade was also added in 1884.
Part of this bluestone building was again subjected to alteration and demolition in 1891 to its northern end when there were additions and alterations to the GPO site. A new brick building was built, cutting through one of the four colonnades.
In 1907 Charles Edward Owen Smyth, the state government architect, drew up plans for a three-storey telephone exchange in Franklin Street for the federal government. He designed extensions to it in 1912. During these extensions the southern end of the two storey colonnaded building was demolished.
The surviving colonnaded building is just a few steps off Franklin Street and busy King William Street. Tucked in behind the existing General Post Office buildings, it is hidden from public view and its secluded location may have contributed to its survival to the present day.