History of Parliament House

PARLIAMENT HOUSE is one of Melbourne's best known landmarks. Facing the intersection of Spring and Bourke streets, the west facade of the building; sweeping steps, elegant lamps, grand colonnade, suggests solidity and strength.

Appearances are deceptive. Parliament House is incomplete. The generous vision of nineteenth century architect, Peter Kerr, has not been fully realised. The story of Parliament House is one of staged construction and architectural ambition thwarted.

Choosing a Site

Victoria's first Legislative Council (1851-6) took three decisions that profoundly influenced the course and conduct of parliamentary democracy in Victoria. It drafted a Constitution; it introduced the Secret Ballot; it began the construction of Parliament House.
This third decision was not easy. Arguments over the best site in Melbourne for such a building were intense. It was not until April 1854 that Eastern Hill, the current Spring Street site, was agreed upon.

As importantly, it was not until December 1855 that Colonial Engineer, Charles Pasley, handed responsibility for the design and construction of a building for the new Parliament to two architects in his office Peter Kerr and John George Knight. By 1853 a Parliament House design competition had been held. The entries were judged inadequate. As a result Pasley had himself produced an ordinary design that had been accepted by the Legislative Council.

Kerr in turn adapted and significantly improved Pasley's work transforming it. He laboured over his drawing board, working on the building on and off for the next forty years. In the process he produced more than 600 detailed sketches and designs, while his colleague Knight managed the actual site construction.

From this team effort emerged one of Melbourne's most dramatic nineteenth century buildings constructed in distinct stages.

1856: The Legislative Chambers

Almost immediately on the proclamation of the Constitution, and even as Peter Kerr was still working at his drawings, work began on the two legislative chambers.

Building at a rate that now seems extraordinary, the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly were sufficiently complete to permit the first Parliament of Victoria to meet there and begin work in November 1856. The work had taken just 10 months.

To colonial Victorians the chambers looked impressive. Two free-standing, bluestone buildings, unconnected and rising three stories tall on the highest part of Melbourne, they dominated the city.

Melburnians were even more impressed by the interiors. Classical decorations, gold-leaf, columns, statuary, burgundy carpets and seating in the Legislative Council, forest-green in the Legislative Assembly duplicating the Westminster colours, added sophistication to an otherwise callow Melbourne. Its citizens were overwhelmed.

1860: The Library

No sooner were the Chambers complete than work began on the Library. Construction of this eastern wing began in 1858 and was completed in 1860.

This had the effect of joining the two legislative chambers at the rear, thereby forming a `U-shaped' building.

Visitors to the Library remarked on Kerr's rich architectural imagination; on the impact of gas lights and tiers of books, curving staircases and a central ten-sided table, on the interior dome of the centre chamber and slanting light from the east-facing windows.
They were also impressed by the classical architectural detail found on the east facade. Faced with sandstone and classical in allusion, it was the first expression of Peter Kerr's plans for the entire building. Victorians and their Members of Parliament were pleased.

No further construction took place for another 18 years. John George Knight severed his contact with the Public Works Department, while Peter Kerr contributed designs and drawings for such buildings as Melbourne's Post Office and Government House.

1878-9: Queen's Hall and Vestibule

Stage three in the construction of Parliament House involved `filling in' the space between the two legislative chambers.

In 1876 a Parliamentary Select Committee recommended that work recommence on Parliament House and a year later a Royal Commission was formed to oversee further construction. It recommended certain changes, the most important of which was the replacement of a projected tower by a large dome and the appointment of Peter Kerr as architect in charge.

In 1877-9 work proceeded on the Grand Hall (renamed in 1887 Queen's Hall, after Queen Victoria) and the Vestibule. This had the effect of filling the empty space between the chambers and the Library.

Queen's Hall was used for parliamentary receptions and formal banquets, while the Vestibule offered a formal entry to the expanding building.

Especially noteworthy in the Vestibule was the intricate mosaic of Minton floor tiles, one roundel of which bore the words from Proverbs 11:14 `Where no Counsel is the People Fall; but in the Multitude of Counsellors there is Safety'.

1881-8: West Facade, Colonnade, and Dome

This fourth stage marked what was to become the most controversial of the construction stages. Contracts were let for the completion of the Spring Street frontage, including a 20 storey dome that would sit on top of the Vestibule.

There had been problems with the quality of the stone used on the building. Although tests in 1882 eventually approved the stone, they delayed work.

Now confronted by altered economic conditions, the Minister for Works, Alfred Deakin, cancelled the contract for the Dome which has never been built.

The west facade and Colonnade were completed in 1888.

1888-92: Steps and Lamps

Various additions were made in this period.

The entrance steps and lamps were added, while William Guilfoyle took charge of the design and landscaping of the grounds surrounding the Parliament.

Guilfoyle provided the Parliament with grounds that complemented Parliament House and provided both Members and visitors with a place for peace and relaxation.

1893: North Wing

The last work undertaken in the nineteenth century saw the partial completion of the North Wing, in effect a basement level.

And there the building stood, still unfinished. Certain modifications were made. The most took place during World War 1 when Prime Minister Billy Hughes (the Federal Parliament occupied Parliament House from 1901 until 1927, with the Parliament of Victoria residing in the Exhibition Buildings) erected a tin and wooden hut on top of the North Wing in order to have quarters where the press could not find him. It was called `Billy Hughes' Hideaway'.

1929: Refreshment Rooms (North-East Wing)

When the Federal Parliament moved to Canberra in 1927, it left a 50,000 pounds sterling gift to the Parliament of Victoria as a thank-you gesture for its stay in Melbourne. This was used to finance the construction of the north-east corner of Parliament House as refreshment rooms.

This was the last major construction work of Parliament House, Melbourne.

Further Reading

Kerr, P., 'The Melbourne Houses of Parliament', Journal, Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, 2, 1904, 66-71; 2, 1904, 131-5; 3, 1905, 66-73, 110.
Tibbits, G., 'Parliament House, Melbourne', in Australian Council of National Trusts, Historic Public Buildings of Australia, Volume 2, Cassell Australia, Melbourne, 1971, 152-62.
Wright, R., A People's Counsel. A History of the Parliament of Victoria, 1856-1990, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992.
Last Updated on Monday, 25 October 2010