The Torrens building was designed to meet the needs of the Public Works and Registrar-General’s departments. It was conceived as a huge building and covers an entire town acre on the corner of Victoria Square and Wakefield Street. The government bought the land in 1876 and Melbourne architect Michael Egan won a design competition for the buildings.
Egan had recently designed a £140,000 government building in Melbourne and won the University of Adelaide design competition. The Mitchell Building designed by William McMinn incorporates many of his ideas.
The South Australian Register of December 1,1877, described Egan’s Torrens proposal as being for a handsome, substantial-looking building, by no means monumental, and simple in style. Egan reported that the street frontages were in the Italian style, and designed to fit in with the Supreme Court, the General Post Office and other public buildings facing the square. There was no tower as this was unnecessary “in sight of” the post office.
The complex formed a quadrangle with a central court. The frontages to Victoria Square and Wakefield Street were faced with “freestone” (ashlar sandstone), but to save money the sides were rendered brick. The internal walls were plain brick. The first storey was described as Doric, the second as Ionic, and the third as “simply pilastered”. The windows of the ground floor were arched and the upper ones square headed. The central feature of the facade to Victoria Square was finished with the Royal Coat of Arms.
The architect-in-chief, Edward John Woods, carried out Egan’s design for the new government offices, with some improvements and modifications. The foundations and cellars were built of Glen Osmond stone by Robert Huckson. James Shaw built the superstructure for £55,795 and the building was occupied by December 1881.
There have been many internal alterations, as well as additions to the back of the building and “temporary” additions within the quadrangle. However the main facades on Victoria Square and Wakefield Street are much as they were built.