Walter Torode was a fine master builder who embraced technical innovation, designing also a number of significant buildings in and around Adelaide.
Torode was born on 17 September 1858 at North Adelaide, son of Henry Kaines Torode, and his wife Sarah, née Sperring. His father was a cabinet maker who had emigrated to South Australia from Guernsey in 1854. Torode also had an uncle who was a brickmaker, giving a strong family background in trades. In 1873, Torode was indentured to be a carpenter and joiner at William King’s steam sawmill in O'Connell Street, North Adelaide, finishing his apprenticeship in 1879. He married twice, first in 1881 to Sophie Minnie Gellentien, who died in 1913. The following year Torode married Ida Edith Lower. Described as ‘vigorous and genial’, he was a deacon of the Brougham Place Congregational Church, and was active in the Wattle League during the World War One, and in the Sunday School movement. Cricket played a major part in his early life, as did bowls later. His enthusiasm for new technology spilled over into his private life, and aeroplanes and motorcycles figure prominently in his recollections. His second wife died in 1928, and Torode moved to Melbourne. There he entered into a token partnership with Alex Gairn of Collins Street, but no work of substance emerged. In 1935 he retired to Sydney where his three daughters lived, and died there on 28 January 1937. He was cremated at the Rookwood Cemetery.
From the outset of his career, Torode seized on the business opportunities offered by the Adelaide Hills railway, opened in 1883, which converted the rustic villages of Aldgate and Stirling into fashionable resorts for the Adelaide gentry. Leasing quarries at Heathfield, Aldgate, Stirling West, and Burdett on the River Murray, Torode specialised in contracts for large Hills houses and some public buildings under the direction of a number of prominent Adelaide architects. He refused to let sub-contracts, employing day labour exclusively. At the age of thirty he had already established a flourishing business, based on commercial self-sufficiency, entrepreneurial flair, and a reputation for superior quality work in a range of building materials.
By the turn of the century, Torode was in the vanguard of the South Australian building industry, his versatility and reliability winning him a succession of large and prestigious contracts in the City of Adelaide and nearby. He built the Allan Campbell building at the Adelaide Children's Hospital (1896), the Elder Conservatorium at the University of Adelaide (1897), the Stock Exchange of Adelaide (1900), the Lady Chapel and western towers of St Peter’s Cathedral (1901), the Anglican church of St George the Martyr at Goodwood (1902), St Paul’s Anglican church at Port Adelaide (1905), the Presbyterian church at Woodville (1906), extensions to the Unley Town Hall (1907) and Ruthven Mansions (1913), and buildings for Pulteney Grammar School (1920).
His high profile owed much to self-promotion; he published at least two booklets illustrating his work, How to Build (Adelaide 1904) and At Home (Adelaide 1917).
Always fascinated by new developments in technology, Torode was among the first Australian builders to grasp the structural potential of reinforced concrete, employing it in a small way in commercial buildings in the City of Adelaide as early as 1907. The following year he built himself a concrete house in Unley which still stands, employing cavity walls cast in situ, with perforated steel sheet reinforcement. Also in 1908, Torode built a substantial concrete bridge and several buildings at Anlaby station, near Kapunda. By 1909, he had adopted the use of imported asbestos cement sheeting for linings, and stucco render to disguise external cast concrete surfaces. There followed a number of contracts for concrete houses in metropolitan Adelaide over the next two decades, and Torode's structural system was adopted by the South Australian Railways for low-cost cottages. However there were technical limitations to his knowledge of concrete construction, and the durability of some of his work suffered from his inexperience. Some of the early concrete buildings are poorly reinforced, and in some structures the reinforcing rods were too close to the surface, and have corroded. Either because concrete did not find favour with clients, or because Torode recognised its technical limitations, he built very few concrete houses after 1916.
On the occasions when Torode produced his own architectural designs, he demonstrated a fondness for the Picturesque, and for Arts-and-Crafts motifs which were philosophically opposed to the mechanistic technologies he adopted. His own homes, which also served as display houses for business promotion, reveal an eclectic mind at work, ranging rapidly across a variety of structural techniques and stylistic influences. The most remarkable of his houses is Amphi Cosma, built at Wayville in 1914. Innovative in its reinforced concrete structure, daring in its octagonal plan, it is a minor landmark in the history of Australian domestic architecture, yet scarcely practical as a family home. Its principal stylistic influence appears to be the mid-nineteenth century octagonal houses of American designer Orson Fowler.
Prominent though he was in his day, Torode had little identifiable influence on succeeding generations. His building methods reflected the current state of a rapidly evolving industry in which many others were active, and his own designs were derivative and somewhat archaic. His greatest technical achievement lay in successfully applying the demanding new technology of reinforced concrete to buildings on a domestic scale, but, significant as this achievement was, its outward expression is to be found today principally in a number of relatively insignificant suburban houses. Nonetheless, Torode commands respect for his flexible response to new technology, his success at vertical integration of the building industry, and his consistently fine craftsmanship.
This entry is derived from Bell, P. (2006) ‘Walter Charles Torode (1858-1937), master builder’, Heritage South Australia Newsletter, Department of Environment and Heritage, Edition 29, September: 12-13.