Brewer, one time Mayor of Norwood, politician and philanthropist, Edwin T. Smith, was a major supporter of South Australia holding a jubilee exhibition to celebrate the colony’s 50th year in 1887 (Pearce 1976; Adelaide- Exhibitions). After considerable lobbying, Smith’s proposal came to fruition. Construction of the Jubilee Exhibition Building was finished in 1887 after the South Australian government held a competition in 1885-1886 to find a suitable design to house the Jubilee International Exhibition. The Exhibition commemorated South Australia’s 50th anniversary and, as it coincided with Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, it was launched on 20 June 1887 (the completion of her 50th year). The Exhibition remained open until 7 January 1888.
Some controversy surrounded the competition as original winner E.A Scott was put aside in favour of an initially disqualified design by the practice of Withall and Wells (Scott had been articled to Bayer and Withall). Despite demands from other contestants to hold another competition, the building committee eventually opted to purchase Withall and Wells’ design, even though its estimated cost was £27,000, and £5000 outside of the £22,000 set down in the competition rules (Jensen 1980: 803). The builder was William Rogers.
Situated in the parklands on the north side of North Terrace (a site selected for its beauty and convenience), the Exhibition Building covered one acre and consisted of a three-storeyed, classical styled brick structure with stucco decorations. Large, semicircular windows separated by pilasters lined each floor and the centre of the building was crowned with a large dome. It was one of only two 19th century domed buildings constructed in South Australia. The interior was spacious and housed numerous ball rooms and theatres where extensive use was made of cast iron (both structural and decorative), plate glass, and electric lighting. The building could house in excess of 25,000 people at any one time and in order to protect the predicted large crowds, it was designed for minimum risk of fire (Jensen 1980).
In the end, construction cost only £20,217 with the only obvious differences to the appearance of the building being a tetrastyle over the three centre doors (Burden 1983: 189). Other alterations however, were performed to the structural aspects of the building to enable the lower construction fee. These alterations are said to have contravened the Building Act but it is debatable as to whether the building was deemed a permanent structure or not (Jensen 1980: 803) and therefore if the code actually applied.
During the Jubilee Exhibition an estimated 789,672 people went through the building and grounds to see the 2200 exhibitions (valued at approximately £500,000) from 26 different countries. It was largely thanks to this enormous interest that the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition was one of few major exhibitions in Australia where all the costs (approximately £66,000) were covered without having to use an emergency fund. Indeed the interest from exhibitors alone meant that the building had to be extended during the construction process.
After the exhibition closed the Jubilee Exhibition building housed numerous associations and events some of the more notable being the Art Gallery of South Australia, the South Australian School of Art, the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Show, and the School of Mines. Through the years it was utilised for an array of balls, concerts, exhibitions, and events. It housed circuses, homeless men during the Depression, and was even reinvented as a roller skating rink, an isolation hospital during the 1918-1920 Spanish flu pandemic, offices, and an examination space.
Slowly its uses became less frequent, especially when the Royal Show was moved to the Wayville Showgrounds in 1925. The building and grounds (except for the eastern wing of the main building and the northern annexe) were vested in the Adelaide University in fee simple in 1929 but by the late 1950s the building had fallen into disrepair and a plan to renovate it was being debated in Parliament. Eventually it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the University of Adelaide’s Napier Building and forecourt.
However, not everything was demolished. The lowest flight of steps of the staircase that linked the rear of the building to other levels of the University of Adelaide campus was retained underwent restoration during 2009 (Division of Services and Resources 2009).The fountain at the Rundle Mall entrance to Adelaide Arcade was originally from the Exhibition Building (‘Adelaide’s Fountains’). Cast in the late 1800s, the fountain was the smaller of two originally erected in front of the building in 1908 as a gift from the state government to the Adelaide City Council. It stood for many years at the junction of Gawler Place. However, the fountain was moved to its current position in 1996 and painstakingly repainted in colours of the Victorian era.
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