Ayers came to South Australia in 1840 soon after the colony was founded. He worked at first as a law clerk then moved into financial circles. He was secretary, then managing director, of the South Australian Mining Association of Burra, and chairman or director of several banks.
Ayers enjoyed a political career spanning almost 40 years. He was a member of the Legislative Council from 1857 until 1893, and was premier and chief secretary several times during the 1860s and 1870s. His home was the venue for significant social functions connected with his public life, including some renowned parties and two balls each year.
Ayers’ daughter, Lucy Josephine Bagot, recalled those social events: “The Ball Room had folding doors of solid cedar, and other similar doors allowed four rooms to be made into one, so that there was ample space. The floor of the Ball Room was also of cedar and had such a wonderful spring in it that I would not have blamed all the parsons in Adelaide if they had danced on it every Sunday night. Before dances were given the whole floor was washed with milk, which gave it a smooth surface.”
The origins of the house date from about 1846, when it was first built of brick. Ayers transformed the premises into an elegant bluestone mansion with circular-fronted rooms and Kingston-style porticoes.
The first record of the original house appeared in the Corporation of the City of Adelaide’s first rate assessment book for 1846. This mentions a brick dwelling with a well on the western half of Town Acre 30, which had been purchased by Robert Thornber on March 15, 1845. Thornber appears to have built the house then sold it to William Paxton on August 21,1846.
Paxton extended the house during his occupation. The assessment book of 1849 recorded that additions were being made to the five-roomed dwelling. By January 1852 it was described as a nine-roomed brick house with verandah, domestic offices, stables and coach house, with two and three-quarter acres enclosed as garden and paddocks. Its assessed rateable value had risen from £63 (in 1848) to £270.
Henry Ayers moved into the house through an informal agreement on July 13, 1855, officially leasing the property from Paxton from July 15, 1861. The two men seem to have reached an agreement that Paxton would pay for the improvements Ayers decided upon. In his diary for January 1858, he wrote, “commenced addition of Library and Bedrooms to House, North Terrace”. The basements were probably also built then.
In August 1859, Ayers “commenced extensive alterations and additions to House”, including a large drawing room, and other rooms, to the east. The South Australian Register of November 19, 1859, mentioned that Mr Farr was carrying out these works. Ayers House then began to take on its present form, with bluestone additions entirely shrouding the original brick house.
Ayers finally bought the property, house and the whole of Town Acre 30 on June 13, 1871. Still not content with the size of his mansion, he engaged architect George Strickland Kingston to design and oversee the construction of a coach house and stables, plus other additions. He added an upper floor with bedrooms, and also built the western bow-fronted dining room to complement the eastern wing. The coach house and stables were of the same material and grand proportions as the mansion.
Gavin Walkley described the architectural merits of the final mansion: “The rooms, particularly those for entertaining, are of fine, generous proportions, suitable to the status of the owner. There is a Georgian elegance in the semi-circular fronts to the east and west wings, but the heavy, almost crude porches are in marked contrast. Mouldings and other architectural details reveal Kingston’s lack of basic training. But the building as a whole commands respect by reason of its honesty of construction in massive bluestone and for the distinguished part it played in the Colonial Adelaide scene.” Ayers died in 1897 and the house was vacant until about 1918.
In 1901, the Duke of York’s entourage stayed there briefly during a visit to Australia for the Fderation celebrations. The Governor’s wife, Lady Audrey Tennyson, described it as a beautiful house, the best in Adelaide, conveniently close to Government House. The entourage paid £100 for the week’s use, but she said everybody was angry at the charge as the several owners under trustees would each get only a small amount and they were all rich. She wrote: “The old grandfather, Sir Henry Ayers, who left it to be sold among his children, dropt all his h’s and left £700,000 to be divided, so they might have given it for the week. It has been empty four years ever since his death.”
Between 1918 and 1926 the property was used variously for the rehabilitation of returned servicemen, and as offices and clubrooms by the Returned Servicemen’s League. The western “paddock” was let to the promoters of a dance hall, the Palais de Dance or Palais Royal. The government bought the mansion in 1926 and it was used to accommodate Royal Adelaide Hospital nurses.
In 1972-73 the government renovated and redeveloped the property as headquarters of the National Trust of South Australia, and as a restaurant complex. Five rooms in the mansion were converted into an elegant formal restaurant known as Henry Ayers Restaurant. The stables, coach house and harness room became a bistro, originally called Paxton’s Restaurant but changed in 1985 to The Conservatory after a conservatory was added by Danvers Architects, now known as Henry's bistro.
The National Trust operates the Ayers House Museum in the Western side of the building, including the magnificent State Dining Room. The Ayers House Museum is open daily for guided tours.