In 1873 the South Australian Institute and Museum advertised a design competition, pointing out that only one portion of the complex was to be erected for the present and that the foundations were already in. However, the government called for an investigation into the whole South Australian Institute and Museum question, as well as the oddity of designing a building to suit the foundations already laid.
The commission recommended that the South Australian Institute be separated from its two offspring organisations – a national library and museum.
Robert George Thomas won the competition for the design but it is not certain how much of his original plans were changed, as in 1876 the colonial architect George Thomas Light and his assistant William McMinn made “some suggestions, which if adopted, would totally alter the character and arrangements of the proposed buildings”. Their plans were considered “superior to the original prize design”.
The foundations laid in 1873 were taken up as being unsuitable and relaid by late 1876.
In 1877 new plans were prepared that must have incorporated some of McMinn’s ideas. The board of governors still had not decided which design was to be implemented when a premature release of the plans by Light, to the newspaper, Frearsons, upset them. The drawing by the artist C.B. Richardson showed the west elevation notably different from the eventually built design.
When tenders were called again the only proposal received, from Brown & Thompson, was more than double the envisaged cost and so the plans were altered. At this time the new colonial architect, Edward John Woods took office and further modified the plans between December 1877 and June 1878.
R.G. Thomas and E.J. Woods had both been involved in the design controversy for the General Post Office, which was completed in 1872. When the General Post Office was being built, R.G. Thomas was the colonial architect, making drastic modifications to the design by Wright & Woods. Now that Woods was colonial architect and Thomas the designer, perhaps with an old score to settle, Woods altered Thomas’ plans citing cost as an excuse. The final design of the west wing was based on Thomas’ plan but the hand of both McMinn and Woods was evident.
There was one more setback when it was suggested that the site could be used for the new Parliament House. After a barrage of petitions against this idea and another Royal Commission into the proposed sites for the new Parliament House, the building finally got under way in 1879. However, there were more delays when it was found that the foundations of 1876 were not in a satisfactory state.
The superstructure was eventually built by Brown & Thompson for £36,395, but during August 1880 further modifications were made to the plans. The building was finally opened on December 18, 1884.
A contemporary description gave the architecture as Romanesque:
“The walls are built of hard brick with facing of Sydney freestone, with bands, columns, and other parts of Manoora stone of a darker shade, which will harmonize rather than contrast strongly with the general tone of the facing . . . The window and door openings are deeply recessed and semi-arched; those in pavilion wings at each end and in the staircase turrets are divided by mullions treated as columns or pilasters . . . the whole building is surmounted by a bold cornice and parapet, above which rise the roofs, that over the Library being constructed with a clerestory containing the windows which light the room from above.”
The exterior is of fine dressed stone. The interior is unique in South Australia, with its lofty central space, galleries and ceiling-high bookshelves, reflecting the “grandly contemplative” cultural attitudes of the time. The interior details and fittings – the bookshelves, carved timber tables and chairs, door surrounds, handrails, balustrades, timber beams supporting the roof lanterns and the iron lacework – also demonstrate excellent workmanship. Sydney architect Clive Lucas has stated that “as a mid-Victorian public library interior it is arguably without equal in Australia”.
In 1984, one hundred years after its opening, the Jervois Wing underwent major refurbishment and the upgrading of services for archival purposes. This work was undertaken by Danvers Architects. It was reopened in mid-1986 as the Mortlock Library of South Australiana.