The earliest parts of the structure date from 1843. It is remarkable that these buildings have survived at all given the unrelenting complaints about the chambers by members from as early as 1858 until even the 1960s. Several times they were close to demolition.
Although there have been substantial internal and external alterations, care was always taken to retain the facade. When the building was renovated as the Constitutional Museum (now Old Parliament House) it was restored, as far as possible, to its 1875 character.
Until 1843 the Legislative Council had only five members and meetings were held at Government House.
The decision to build a Legislative Council Chamber arose following an act “for the better government of South Australia” passed by the British Parliament in 1843. The existing council was replaced by one in which the governor and seven persons nominated by the crown raised membership to 11. As proceedings were opened to the public, a suitable building for the enlarged council membership and public spectators was needed. Jacob Pitman began construction in July 1843 and finished in time for the first session of the new Legislative Council on October 10. The Observer reported that “the chamber, which with the gallery, is calculated to contain about 200 persons, was crowded to the doors by ladies and gentlemen of the first respectability”.
The new council chamber suited the needs of the few council members for a short time. However, there was a dramatic change when the Australian Colonies Government Act of 1850 provided for 16 elected members and eight crown nominees. Membership of the Legislative Council thus increased to 24 and overcrowded the small chamber.
Plans to build a larger structure were held up by “a great exodus of population to the Victorian goldfields in the early fifties [which] created such a scarcity of labour and such a rise in wages that the execution of even urgently needed public works had to be postponed”.
A design competition held in 1851 was won by Bennett Hayes before his appointment as colonial architect on January 1, 1852. In 1853, Hayes was asked to prepare plans and estimates for a House of Assembly to accommodate two chambers, one for 36 members and the other for 12, costing no more than £20,000. As the times were so uncertain, not a single tender was received. However, work was started in 1854 by English & Brown by “day work”, an arrangement whereby they received the usual builders’ profits on the labour employed and on the materials used. The government appointed a timekeeper, who kept an account of the workmen’s time and the materials. The building was completed in about July 1855 at a cost of about £17,000.
The first major addition to the building followed the new constitution for South Australia, which allowed for two elected Houses of Parliament in South Australia. This received Royal Assent in June 1856.
In 10 weeks flat a new chamber was built on the site of the 1843 building. Some of the old building was incorporated to save on construction time and expense. Contractor I.W. Perryman completed the work in time for the opening of the colony’s first bicameral parliament on April 22, 1857.
The second council chambers of 1857 and the building known as the refreshment room of 1861 seem to have been built of a similar limestone to that of the South Australian Institute of 1860 and the Treasury additions at that time. The 1864 library is of Dry Creek stone, and subsequent alterations, such as the 1876 addition to the south-west front, are of Mitcham sandstone.
In 1874 E.J. Woods’ designs for enlargement and improvements in ventilation were carried out as a temporary measure until the House of Assembly moved to the new building next door in 1889. The Legislative Council was moved to the old House of Assembly Chamber from 1894 until 1939 (see Parliament House). The building was saved from demolition by the outbreak of World War II, when it was used as an RAAF recruiting office.
Modifications and alterations continued and by the 1970s the complex was a conglomeration of sadly neglected buildings. Finally, over 1978-80 the government carried out a total renovation and converted it to the Constitutional Museum, under the direction of the newly formed History Trust of South Australia. The museum is now known more appropriately known as Old Parliament House. While the name remains, the building is now used by Parliament House as an extra space for meeting rooms and offices.