The association’s task was “the cultivation and diffusion of useful knowledge throughout the Colony”. It chose 117 volumes and then had them shipped out to Adelaide. The Mechanics Institute was formed when its tiny library arrived in Adelaide on the Tam O’Shanter in 1836. It held its meetings in a small wooden building on the Park Lands near the present railway station.
In 1844 The South Australian Subscription Library was formed, and in 1848 the two societies combined to become known as The South Australian Subscription Library, and Mechanics Institute. Amalgamation was necessary as the two societies were struggling with their restrictive rules, regulations and lack of books.
The combined societies met in Peacock’s Buildings, then Exchange Chamber, in King William Street, but wallowed in confusion and muddle until a bill was passed for establishing the South Australian Institute. With government intervention and control the Institute’s development forged ahead, with increased subscribers, improved conditions and, in 1859, partnership with the Philosophical Society and the Society of Arts. Act 16 of 1855-56 stated that the South Australian Institute was established under the control of a board of governors. It was to include a public library and museum, to conduct lectures on a variety of subjects, and to include by affiliation a union of all the colony's cultural societies. The existing book collection became the nucleus of the circulating library.
The expanding Institute needed suitable premises. Edward Angus Hamilton, the colonial architect, was instructed to prepare a suitable design for a site close to the railway station. In parliament in 1859, Mr Milne protested at the proclaimed site being in a hollow where the traffic was great, and proposed instead the site east of the Government Domain and fronting North Terrace, although it might encroach upon the citizens’ promenade. The motion was accepted and the contractor William Lines, who already had the tender to put in foundations, was asked to proceed at once. English & Brown built the superstructure of the building for £4839 during 1859.
The official opening by Sir Charles Cooper took place on January 29, 1861, although the building was already in use by the governors from as early as August 1860.
The new building was only the first stage: a north wall was left unplastered, but the second stage was not built (on the north) until 1906.
The design was described in the Observer of July 28, 1860, as a combination of the Venetian and Grecian orders of architecture, with a portico supported by Doric columns, arches over the lower windows supported by Doric, and those over the upper windows by Ionic fluted pilasters: “Its cornice is rich, handsome and bold without being heavy. Indeed, the building in this respect is decidedly in advance of any other building, public or private, in the colony. There is harmony of proportion and a classical stamp about the whole structure which entitles it to be regarded as an architectural gem.”
There was a 70 foot long room on the first floor, with special skylights of benefit to a museum or a gallery. Over the skylight were fitted blinds that could be moved by means of pulleys.
This building became the focal point of the cultural life of Adelaide as it housed the art gallery, public library, museum and School of Art and Design. It was the only institution in Adelaide offering anything that could be considered of technical or of further education level beyond primary level, as apart from the private colleges offering secondary education, the colony’s education system began and ended with primary school.
In 1874 a commission was set up to enquire into the Institute and Museum and concluded that it had outgrown the accommodation. Further, the library was inadequate as there was a deficiency in modern scientific works: the Institute had not done as much as might have been expected of an establishment supported by the government.
Consequently, the library was divided from the museum and appropriate new buildings were constructed: the Jervois Wing (now the Mortlock Library of South Australiana), North Wing and East Wing alongside the South Australian Institute. In 1884 the Public Library, Museum, and Art Gallery came into existence in place of the South Australian Institute. This group of adjoining buildings dramatically illustrate the development of South Australian culture and its physical expansion along North Terrace. The School of Design was still conducted by the Institute until 1909, when its administration passed to the Education Department.
Plans went ahead in 1906 for extensive additions and modifications to the existing South Australian Institute building for the different societies using the premises. C.E. Owen Smyth, the superintendent of Public Works, drew up plans for the additions in the style of E.A. Hamilton’s south section.
The staircase from the original main entrance was dismantled and a new one was built into the new north section, transferring the main entrance to the new section in Kintore Avenue. Extra accommodation provided space for the Royal Society, Royal Geographical Society and the South Australian Society of Arts. The Royal Geographical Society needed extra space because of its acquisition in 1905 of the York Gate Library from England.
In designing the ceilings for the first floor of this new section, Owen Smyth made provision for natural light to pass through these ceilings as Hamilton had done in the original part.
Some modernisation has taken place internally, the most noticeable being the 1965 remodelling of the Royal Geographical Society rooms into a lecture theatre. Otherwise, the building retains an evocative 19th-century atmosphere, complete with wall-to-ceiling shelves of books belonging to the old Adelaide Circulating Library, which closed in 1975.
The building is still controlled by the State Library but its main tenants are the History Trust of South Australia, the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, the Community Information Support Service of South Australia, and the Women’s Information Switchboard.