Finally, on receiving a bequest of £25,000 from Sir Thomas Elder in 1898 for “the purchase of pictures only”, the government was moved to build a proper gallery. However colonial finances were short due to the depression. The gallery’s curator, H.P. Gill, had firm ideas on housing his works of art, but so did the superintendent of Public Works, C.E. Owen Smyth. Limited funds led to him building a quite utilitarian-looking gallery. Gill had his way with some essential features, notably the skylight in the roof, which allowed the natural light to pass through “a ceiling light of ground glass … following the curve of the ceiling”.
N.W. Trudgen started building work in 1898. A basement was included as the ground fell away from North Terrace. Auburn stone was used in the basement and Murray Bridge stone above the base. The governor Lord Tennyson opened the gallery to a flourish of trumpets on April 7, 1899.
The Quiz of April 14, 1900, observed “an absence of anything that could be called artistic in the structure” yet conceded “but after all we have got ahead of Sydney so far as the outward appearance of the housing of art is concerned”. Once inside, “one forgets the rude external in the excellent appointments and arrangements of the interior”.
The original building (the Elder Wing) had to wait for another private donation to enable any artistic embellishment. Like Bonython’s donation to complete Parliament House, this was made to commemorate South Australia’s centenary in 1936. Alexander Melrose bequeathed £10,000 that subsidised government to double the size of the gallery. A new facade, entrance vestibule and the Melrose Wing were built under the supervision of A.E. Simpson. The extensions were opened in 1937.
In 1962 the premier, Sir Thomas Playford, opened a new north wing “to meet the need for additional space to display not only the special exhibitions generated for the Festival [of Arts] but those which were regularly becoming available to tour Australia in the growing cultural exchange programs”.
In 1978-79 the whole building was upgraded to accepted international standards. H.P. Gill’s beautiful old roof lanterns were kept but they now contain lighting gantries and screens to eliminate damaging ultraviolet light.