As Superintendent of Public Buildings from 1886 to 1920 Owen Smyth, although not an architect, was deeply influential in the design, construction and maintenance of South Australia’s public buildings. He insisted on the use of Australian and British-made materials (Dungey 2006) as a practical application of his patriotism.
Charles Edward Owen Smyth was born at Ferrybank, County Kilkenny, Ireland on 1 January 1851 to Stephen Smyth, a naval architect from Devon, and Emma Gaynor (nee Owen) of County Merioneth, Wales. He was educated at Erasmus Smith School in Dublin, Ireland and in his youth travelled a great deal, visiting America, Canada, India and the South Sea Islands before voyaging to Australia (‘Death of Mr Owen Smyth’ 1925). In 1873 he arrived in Victoria, where he gained employment with a speculative builder as a foreman and manager (Dungey 1990). After travelling to Queensland he sailed to South Australia, arriving in 1876. He married Bessie Sanderson Davison in 1879 and they had two sons and a daughter. After he retired in 1920 Owen Smyth travelled back to England intending to live there but he returned to South Australia in 1923, writing a series newspaper articles on his memories of the Public Buildings Department and its staff. He resided in his Hazelwood Park residence until his death on 1 October 1925 aged 74 (‘Mr Owen Smyth Dead’ 1925).
Following his arrival in South Australia, in May 1876 Owen Smyth joined the civil service as a clerk to Edward J. Woods, Architect to the Council of Education. When Woods was appointed Architect-in-Chief in January 1878 Owen Smyth became his professional clerk. One of his early tasks was to handle, successfully, a dispute between the Kapunda Marble Company and the government over the Parliament House contract. In 1886, following much debate with the architectural profession, the Architect-in-Chief’s department was abolished and Owen Smyth was appointed the Supervisor of Public Buildings (‘Death of Mr Owen Smyth’ 1925), ostensibly to superintend the awarding of public building design and construction contracts to private architects by way of competitions. However this did not eventuate as Owen Smyth continued to do all the works himself, calling them either extensions or maintenance (Freeland 1971). Following his retirement in 1920 the Works and Buildings Department was renamed the Architect-in-Chief’s Department, a title it held until 1960 (Page 1986).
Public buildings supervised by Owen Smyth include several on North Terrace, Adelaide: the Exhibition Building (1887), which was designed by Withall and Wells, the South Australian Museum (north wing) and the Art Gallery of South Australia (‘Mr Owen Smyth Dead’ 1925; Marsden et al 1990: 272-73). He oversaw the drawings for the South Australian School of Mines and Industries building, now known as the Brookman building, that opened on North Terrace in 1903 (Aeuckens 1989: 38; Marsden et al 1990). This carefully detailed edifice in red brick with limestone dressings is located in a commanding position at the eastern end of the North Terrace cultural boulevard and exemplifies Owen Smyth’s concern ‘with designing the finest buildings possible within financial constraints’ (Marsden et al 1990: 272). Owen Smyth supervised construction of the Thebarton Police Barracks, Port Road, Thebarton and he designed the Margaret Graham Nurses Home (built 1910-11) on Frome Road, Adelaide, for the Royal Adelaide Hospital (‘Mr Owen Smyth Dead’ 1925; Marsden et al 1990). Outside of built works, Owen Smyth is credited with originating the idea for ‘extensive improvements in the layout and beautification of the park lands bordering on the Torrens’ (‘Public Servant and Patriot’ 1925) and the transformation of North Terrace.
For his services Owen Smyth received the Imperial Service Order (ISO) in 1903 and was made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1920. He was the founder of the Royal Society of St George (Adelaide Branch) and a Freemason, belonging to the Duke of Leinster Lodge, No. 363. His ‘strong personality’ was noted on the eve of his retirement in 1919, when he was described as being ‘Thorough in his work and rigid in his ideas of duty’ (‘Mr Owen Smyth Dead’ 1925).
Owen Smyth was a civil servant who had the public interest at the heart of all he did.
Christine Sullivan and Julie Collins
Sullivan, Christine and Collins, Julie, 'Smyth, Charles Edward Owen’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=24]