South Australia’s first governor, Governor Hindmarsh, wrote in May 1837: “I have but one end of my mud hut finished and all my family lay on the floor of one room while two smaller ones serve for Mrs. H. myself and a female servant.” This thatched hut was crudely constructed by the seamen of HMS Buffalo and roundly condemned as “an extraordinary uncouth and repulsive structure”.
When Gawler succeeded Hindmarsh in 1838, he complained that only half of his family could fit into the governor’s residence, the rest using tents, and that the “ consequent hindrances to the due performance of business was very great”. The hut had only one fireplace, and no kitchen, storeroom, servant’s room nor outbuilding, and swarmed with vermin. Thieves had removed essential parts of a wooden prefabricated building sent out for the governor’s use. Gawler appointed a board to investigate the theft, and to consider the erection of a new residence.
Gawler’s plans were not modest and so required the sanction of as many other officials as possible. The board, which included George Strickland Kingston, promptly split into factions over the cost to the colony of erecting such a building as against the disgrace of the existing centre of South Australian government.
The board decided that a house should be built of stone rather than brick as the government controlled a nearby quarry, and that prison labour might be used to further reduce costs. In 1839 the contractors East and Breeze started work on what was described in the South Australian as a splendid building in a commanding and delightful spot, two storeys high with 12 commodious rooms. The principal front faced south-east with a long suite of offices behind. With typical colonial pride, this was acclaimed as one of the best buildings of its kind in the southern hemisphere, “quite a palace”.
Government House was completed in 1840 and much of that original residence survives as one of the state’s oldest buildings, as well as one of its most important. Since Gawler this has been the home and headquarters of the representatives of the British Monarch who once presided over colonial government, with the original meetings of the Legislative Council held in the governor’s sitting room. The building has been intimately linked with the political history of South Australia ever since and closely connected with the affairs of the Houses of Parliament, which were built later across King William Road. The governor also continued to host formal state events, dignified social gatherings and the visits of foreign dignitaries.
The old “Government Hut” was destroyed by fire in 1841, with the loss of many valuable documents. The quality of construction of the new building was soon called into question when the whole slate roof had to be retiled in 1843. In 1855-56 Government House was doubled in size when English and Brown built a two-storey addition to the south-west of the main building. At the same time they erected a new guardhouse, gates and flagstaff. The stone came from the quarry in the vicinity of the present Torrens Parade Ground.
In 1862-63 the same contractors built the L-shaped suite of rooms to the north of the main house, and A.G. Chapman built a two-storey section for servants’ use to the west of the kitchen in 1869. Further one- and two-storey extensions in 1872-78 added such amenities as a conservatory, wash-house, billiard room and administration offices.
The Duke and Duchess of York opened the first federal parliament in Melbourne in 1901. To commemorate their visit, an alcove with 10 emblematic stained-glass windows was made and installed at the northern end of the ballroom. They were designed by E.E. Troy, who was by training a wood grainer and interior decorator, expanding into stained-glass work during the mid-1890s. Above the 10 windows are 16 small arched windows, each depicting an Australian bird. This form of Australiana was a very popular feature in many homes at this time and reflected patriotic fervour generated as a result of the Boer War and federation. These painted windows are delicate and lustrous.
The old conservatory to the west of the ballroom was converted into a smoking room and then in 1933-34 to part of the state rooms complex. A new ceiling was installed, and probably the masonry walls and French windows.
Other sections of Government House were altered in 1939 and 1952. In 1970 the portico of the 1855 section needed a total renovation. Apart from the Tuscan columns, the rest was demolished and rebuilt, replacing the wooden balustrading. These works were done by Hansen and Yuncken. The most recent reconstruction was in 1987 when a new stone boundary wall replaced the section along North Terrace.
The original stone wall enclosing Government House domain was erected by John Williams and Robert Palmer in 1849-50, using random stone from the nearby government quarry. While the southern boundary wall has been replaced, there is a section remaining on the northern and western boundaries. The wall along Kintore Avenue and part of the northern boundary was rebuilt in brick in 1937 by R.J. Nurse.
The guardhouse and stables did not last as long, falling victim to successive road-widening schemes. The 1855 guardhouse and gates were removed and rebuilt in 1874, when City Bridge Road (now King William Road) was widened. The contractor A.G. Chapman used old stone from the previous structure together with Dry Creek stone, creating an elegant and extensive loggia rendered, stuccoed and roofed with Willunga slate.
In the 1920s another widening of King William Road again affected the entrance gates and guardhouse. The scheme, undertaken jointly by the South Australian Government and the Corporation of the City of Adelaide, cut off 20 feet of the government domain along the western boundary and a corner of the intersection of King William Road and North Terrace. The acquisition meant the demolition of a garage, chauffeur’s residence, stables and the beautiful loggia section of the guardhouse, and the re-erection of the entrance gates. The demolitions caused no outcry – indeed the Register of March 24, 1926, stated that “the alteration had resulted in a decided civic improvement”.
However, there was an increasing concern about encroachment on to the government domain. The “national question” of Government House’s heritage significance preoccupied politicians, press and public alike, until the Government House Domain Dedication Act of October 13, 1927, was passed to safeguard it from future unsympathetic development plans.
With its two distinct facades of 1840 and 1855, Government House is architecturally unique. The 1840 east-facing bow-fronted wing with its shuttered windows is the finest example of a Regency mansion in South Australia and now forms the south-east corner. The 1855 Italianate wing facing south is the grand formal entrance.
The two main wings of the 1840s and 1855 have had little alteration. Apart from upgrading, the interior of the main building has lost none of its grace and formality of a 19th-century vice-regal residence.