The present Supreme Court building was not designed as such, but as a Local and Insolvency Court. Plans for this court house were begun when the government announced in 1865 that a new General Post Office would be built. The site for this included the 1851 Post Office, and the Police, Local and Insolvency Courts. Plans were drawn up to house these courts on Town Acre 408 at the south-west corner of King William Street and Victoria Square.
The Police Court building on King William Street was completed first, then the Local and Insolvency Court building, with an imposing facade facing Victoria Square.
Robert George Thomas was probably the architect. He was appointed second in charge of the Department of Engineer and Architect in 1866, and was colonial architect from 1868 to 1870. George Thomas Light may also have had some role in the designs, in relation to the original plans of 1865. These included a third court (which was never built) to the south, beyond the main stairway.
There were the usual construction delays over poor-quality workmanship and other squabbles between the government and contractors. Initially all the foundation walls were constructed “out of a square line”. Work started in 1866 and was completed in 1869.
Brown and Thompson won the tender to construct the superstructure in cut-stone. These were busy years for them as they also built the new General Post Office. The main facades of the court are Tea Tree Gully sandstone (once described as Glen Ewin freestone) as they owned McEwin’s quarry at Tea Tree Gully. The more modest south and west elevations were of bluestone.
Even during construction the new building drew high praise for its imposing Palladian-style facade to Victoria Square. The judges, who were cramped and unhappy in the existing Supreme Court building, in the words of R.M. Hague became “consumed with envy, and decided they would much prefer it to the one they were occupying”. They soon had their way, and during 1868 the new building was extended and adapted to suit their Honours and court officers. One such major extension was the addition of a colonnaded arcade at the rear.
Yet the judges were not satisfied and decided that the building would not be suitable until renovations were completed. In the meantime, from 1869 it was occupied by the Local and Insolvency Court. In1873 the Supreme Court and the Local and Insolvency Court moved across King William Street, exchanging buildings.
Perhaps the most accomplished and best known of South Australia’s chief justices was Sir Samuel Way, who presided over the Supreme Court from 1876 until his death in 1916. During his term minor changes were made to the building, such as the addition of handsome wrought- iron gates in 1875. The problem of three judges for only two courts was never properly resolved because an additional courtroom was built in 1919 and a fourth judge was appointed in the same year.
Many of the later internal alterations and additional buildings were made in an equally unsuccessful attempt to cope with the increased number of judges and the dramatic increases in court business and staff, especially during the 1920s and 1950s. The pressure was finally eased by the creation of the Sir Samuel Way Law Courts, which were opened in 1983.
Fortunately, most of the original layout and many of the historical features within the building have survived, or are being restored, and the facades are almost intact.