The four-storey building was originally built for the National Mutual Life Assurance of Australia (NMLA) in 1884. It reflected the financial optimism of the period, just before South Australia plunged into a depression. The NMLA company had opened in Melbourne in 1869 and begun operating in Adelaide in 1878.
The Victorian elegance of this building still attracts attention. The classical design by Cumming and Davies and construction by James Shaw was described at the time as “Italian”. The roof is unique to Adelaide, “a French roof ... with a large square dome in the centre, covered with lead cut to fish-scale pattern, and surmounted by handsome cast-iron cresting and finials surrounding a look-out”.
The high standard of the stonework was also much admired. The stone was imported from New South Wales, although it is not certain whether it was “freestone” from Mossman’s quarries in Sydney or Hawkesbury sandstone.
There was also much attention to the interior, which boasts wide, handsome archways and a magnificent “hanging” spiral staircase of Kapunda marble. Before the move in 1979 this was dismantled by the Public Buildings Department and placed in storage.
The building is best known as the original headquarters of the South Australian Harbors Board (now the Department of Marine and Harbors). It was bought for that purpose in 1914, soon after the Harbors Board was established under the provisions of the Harbors Act of 1913. This act marked a significant expansion in state government functions. It provided for public acquisition of wharves, water frontages and other waterfront property and vested control of all harbours in the board.
Three-storey extensions were added to the rear of the building in 1914, followed by further extensions in 1945. The Department of Marine and Harbors moved to new headquarters at Port Adelaide in 1979. The building is now used as Government offices.