The Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne is the only surviving nineteenth century great hall which is still used for its original purpose.
Melbourne had already staged several exhibitions before this building was erected for the 1880 Melbourne Exhibition. At this time, Melbourne was immensely wealthy and wished to advertise this to the world.
Judge Redmond Barry suggested the Carlton Gardens as a site for the new exhibition because of its proximity to the city and its elevation. In 1878 an Exhibition Bill was passed. This established a management structure to plan and execute the exhibition and have control over the building whilst the exhibition was in progress. Trustees would have control at all other times. There were to be no more than seven trustees of whom two should be members of the Melbourne City Council.
A competition to choose a design for the new building attracted eighteen entries, the winner being Joseph Reed who received £300 prize money. Reed advertised for building contractors and seventeen applied. David Mitchell won the contract with his quote of £61,407. This was the biggest project he had ever undertaken.
Reed and Mitchell were two very talented men who have left this city with a wonderful legacy. Amongst buildings designed by Reed are the Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street, the Bank of New South Wales in Collins Street, and the Melbourne Public Library. Mitchell built the Menzies Hotel, the Scots' Church in Collins Street, and the Presbyterian Ladies College in East Melbourne.
Reed's Exhibition Building design was ecclesiastical in shape and was described as being a 'temple to industry.' Its dome was styled on Brunelleschi's Dome in Florence. Due to time restrictions, the building is less ornate than the original plan intended. Mitchell must have been a good project manager. He employed 400 men to construct the building which was completed in sixteen months. At his steam powered brickworks in Richmond, Mitchell manufactured the bricks for the Exhibition Building.
The banks declared 19th February 1879 a holiday and the "Argus" newspaper estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people witnessed the Governor, Sir George Ferguson Bowen, lay the foundation stone. Bowen was presented with an 18 carat gold trowel, decorated with emblems representing Victoria and with the Southern Cross depicted in diamonds.
At 67 metres high, the Exhibition Building was the highest landmark in Melbourne and the gas lit Great Hall was 152 metres from east to west. The base of the building was made of bluestone, and the dome was constructed of brick. The exterior was finished in light coloured cement stucco with dark green trim.
What we see today is only a small part of what was originally built. There was a temporary annex on 1,000 square metres which was demolished when the exhibition was over. The Exhibition opened on 1st October 1880, with 33 countries exhibiting. Victoria had the biggest display followed by Germany with five separate display areas. Most exhibits were for sale, but could not be collected until the exhibition closed on 30th April 1881. By then, 1.3 million visitors had attended. They saw the first typewriter and the first lawn mower. The famous painting 'Chloe' was purchased by surgeon Tom Fitzgerald. Museum Victoria has some 200 items which were purchased by the collector John Twycross of Elsternwick.
At the close of the exhibition the management was handed back to the trustees. Under the chairman, Dr. Louis Lawrence Smith, the Exhibition Buiding was kept viable. For the exhibition in 1888 new annexes were built extending back to Carlton Street. Electric lighting enabled the exhibition to be open at night time, and there was a lift to take people to the dome.
At times the Exhibition Building has been used for quite different purposes. In 1919 it was used as a temporary hospital for patients with Spanish influenza. In 1921, the Australian War Museum opened in the North East annex and the World War 1 dioramas now in the War Memorial in Canberra were first displayed there. In 1942 the Royal Australian Air Force used the buildings and grounds as barracks and in 1949 a migrant reception centre was established. It has also been a venue for university examinations. The most important event held at the buildings was the opening of the First Federal Parliament in 1901.
For the 100th anniversary in 1980, the title 'Royal' was bestowed on the building. A conservation assessment by Alan Willingham led to a restoration of the building in 1985-1989 and in 1996 the custodianship was transferred to Museum Victoria. Charlotte Smith, a senior curator at the museum showed us the history of the Royal Exhibition Building in photos taken over the years. As one of the finest buildings in Australia, it is worthy of its new Heritage status.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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