William McMinn was a prominent and significant Adelaide architect during the period 1868 to 1883. His designs, which included both private commissions and Government projects, displayed his ‘exceptional; ability to design’. He was also an accomplished surveyor, undertaking Government projects in the Northern Territory and for the Overland Telegraph from Port Darwin to Port Augusta.
William McMinn was born in May 1844 at Tormore, Newry, County Down, Ireland, second son of Joseph and Martha (née Hamill) McMinn. He came to South Australia with his parents, two brothers and five sisters on the Albatross, arriving in September 1850. Joseph was a bank manager; the McMinn family lived at Gover Street, North Adelaide. William’s mother died in 1861 and his father in 1874; both were buried at North Road Cemetery.
On 14 March 1877 at St Peters Church, Glenelg, McMinn married 24-year-old Mary Frances Muirhead, daughter of Henry McKinnon Muirhead and his wife Mary Jane (née O’Reilly). The McMinns had four daughters – Mary Muirhead (born 1878), Eileen Gordon (1879) (registered at birth as Ellen), Agnes Burns (1881) and Martha Frances (1882). Martha died in June 1885 aged 3.
Details of his school education are not known.
On leaving school McMinn was articled to James MacGeorge (1832-1918), an accomplished architect and surveyor with offices in Gresham Street, Adelaide. McMinn later entered the service of the Architect-in-Chief. On October 1859 he exhibited a pen-and-ink drawing, Castle of Segovia, with the South Australian Society of Arts. The judges commended his work. He won a one Guinea prize at the 1861 exhibition for ‘the best architectural drawing’.
In April 1864, aged nearly 20, he left architecture to join the first exploring expedition to the Northern Territory (led by the newly appointed Government Resident, Boyle Travers Finniss) as a surveyor. His brother Gilbert (1841-1924) followed in October. William was appointed as Surveyor in August 1865 and mapped around 15,000 acres of country at Adelaide River. Work did not go well and there was continual disagreement between the workers and the supervisors. ‘The expedition became so desperate that a group of 30 took passage in a ship bound for Singapore while William and five others bought from another ship a 23-foot boat, named it the Forlorn Hope and sailed 2000 miles to Champion Bay (Geraldton).’ (‘Gilbert Rotherdale McMinn and William McMinn’, ADB: 191) (They sailed the open boat from Escape Cliffs, Adam Bay to Champion Bay on the coast of Western Australia.) McMinn made some drawings during this time; one is annotated ‘Mr [J.P.] Stow and party in a gale, in their perilous voyage in an open boat from Adams Bay to Western Australia, Tuesday June 11, 1865’. A version of this sketch appeared in the Illustrated Melbourne Post later that year. Back in Adelaide in March 1866 McMinn gave damning evidence to the commission inquiring into the Finniss expedition.
McMinn commenced private practice as an architect and in his relatively brief professional career of nine years he carried out some significant works. He joined the office of Daniel Garlick (1818-1902) at Register Chambers in 1868 in a partnership that lasted until August 1870 when he took an appointment as Overseer of Government Works under the direction of the Colonial Architect, Robert George Thomas. During his time with Garlick, the partnership submitted a design for Prince Alfred College at Kent Town. Walter H. Bagot states that McMinn made the first sketch design for Prince Alfred College (Bagot 1958).
McMinn’s Government projects included involvement with the new General Post Office (1867) and alterations to the Supreme Court (1869). It was on the former job that he came into contact with Edward John Woods (1837-1916), who was architect to the Council of Education but also operated a private business. Later they were to become business associates.
McMinn moved away from his career as an architect in May 1870 and did not resume this work until 1876. In 1870 John McKinlay offered to mark the route for the Overland Telegraph from Port Darwin to Port Augusta, and nominated McMinn as his surveyor. The Government did not take up the offer but appointed McMinn as surveyor and overseer of works for that part of the telegraph. The work progressed slowly and in mid 1871 McMinn warned the contractors that progress was unsatisfactory. He annulled Joseph Darwent and William T. Dalwood’s contract and government parties completed the remaining 85 miles. McMinn’s action was ill-judged. On his return to Adelaide in July 1871 he was dismissed and after a long inquiry, Dalwood was compensated with a payment of £11,000 (ABD: 191).
During his time in the Northern Territory, McMinn became an investing promoter of The Morning Star Gold Mining Company at Palmerston. His fellow investors included Charles Herring of Adelaide (Register 4 October 1873: 2ef).
On his return to Adelaide, McMinn resumed work as a government architect until June 1876 when he went into partnership with E.J. Woods with offices at Central Chambers, Waymouth Street, Adelaide. Woods had worked as an assistant to Edmund W. Wright and later as a junior partner. Woods was appointed as the Government’s Architect-in-Chief in January 1878 and was no longer permitted to operate a private practice. In May 1878 McMinn moved to new offices at Torrens Chambers, Victoria Square. It would appear that McMinn continued to operate the firm of Woods and McMinn although his advertisements are in the form ‘Wm McMinn, architect’. During 1883, McMinn worked in association with Isidore Beaver. (Woods relinquished his public position in the same year that McMinn died when the Government was pressed to reduce the size of the Civil Service. The firm was known as Woods and Bagot from 1905).
In 1879 McMinn served as an Honorary Secretary of the Grand Masonic Lodge, Adelaide.
Only some of McMinn’s architectural work is known with certainty. Between 1868 and 1883 he advertised for tenders for the construction of 62 buildings. These were all private contracts; his public works were in addition to this figure. The designs included private residences, churches, shops, institutes, commercial offices and hotels. His major designs included –
• Christ Church parsonage, North Adelaide (additions 1869)
• Institute and School, Mitcham (1869)
• hotel at Smithfield West (1870)
• Kapunda Institute (1870)
• new seating for Holy Trinity Church, North Terrace (built using Sydney cedar and kauri pine) (1875)
• Crown & Sceptre Hotel, King William Street, Adelaide (1876)
• new Anglican Church for Redruth (near Burra) (1877, not constructed)
• residence at 26 LeFevre Terrace, North Adelaide, for Frederic Ayers (1877-8), featuring a fine entrance porch
• nave for Church of the Epiphany, Crafers (1877-8)
• Children’s Hospital, Brougham Place, North Adelaide (1878); the original building known as the Way Wing (the upper storey was demolished in 1916)
• extensions to Montefiore, Palmer Place, North Adelaide for Sir Samuel Way (1877), with a fine Italianate entrance front and steps
• additions to the Church of England Church Offices, 18 Leigh Street, Adelaide (1877-78)
• additions to Black Horse Inn, Leigh Street (1878)
• Australasian Hotel, Flinders Street, Adelaide (1880)
• residence at 261-262 North Terrace, Adelaide, for businessman Thomas Greaves Waterhouse, in a Parisian style (1881-82)
• Kentish Arms Hotel, Stanley Street, North Adelaide (1881)
• Rising Sun Hotel and shops, Bridge Street, Kensington (1881)
• rebuilding of Wellington Inn and shops, Currie Street, Adelaide (1882)
• Manoora Institute (first stage, 1883).
Other projects have been attributed to McMinn but are not confirmed. They include:
• residence Dimora in East Terrace, Adelaide, designed for H.L. Ayers in 1882
• summer house for E.M. Ashwin at Semaphore
• additions to School Chapel, St Peter’s Collegiate School (1876)
• Queen’s Chambers, Pirie Street (c1877)
• design for nave for St Andrew’s Church, Walkerville (1878; not constructed)
• seven houses in Charles Street, Norwood (1879).
McMinn designed a number of hotels and commercial offices; the dates of these buildings do not appear in advertised building contracts. The hotels and business offices included the Supreme Court Hotel, Austral Hotel and fourteen adjoining shops in Rundle Street (1880; a large part of which was occupied by Malcolm Reid & Co. for many decades), business premises for Hugh Fraser MP in Bentham Street, offices for Messrs Reynell and Reinecke in King William Street, and a 20-roomed hotel and offices on the corner of McLaren Wharf and Commercial Road, Port Adelaide.
Some of McMinn’s commissions deserve particular mention. These include Mount Breckan, Mitchell Building at the University of Adelaide and the Vice-Regal Summer Residence, Marble Hill, near Cherryville in the Adelaide Hills, all of which were constructed in the period 1878-80.
Mount Breckan at Victor Harbor was built in 1878-79 for Adelaide merchant the Hon. Alexander Hay. Of this fine home of Gothic design, two storeys, 22 rooms and a 75 foot turret, Bagot wrote: ‘… probably the most dignified and stylistically satisfactory house of its type in Australia. Before the fire which destroyed the roof and the interior and the subsequent alterations, the staircase hall with its marble colonnade was monumental’ (Bagot 1958). McMinn’s design work was probably carried out in association with E.J. Woods.
Marble Hill is also in Victorian Gothic revival style and was built at much the same time as Mount Breckan. The contract for its construction was approved on 10 February 1878 (Advertiser 24 February 1879: 16) and building commenced in July of that year under the supervision of James Shaw. The residence had 26 rooms (40 were originally planned) and extensive verandahs and balconies on its eastern and northern sides. The property included a coachhouse and caretaker’s residence. The residence was complete and ready for occupation in June 1880.
The Mitchell Building, originally referred to as the ‘First Building’ of the University of Adelaide, was built in 1879 to a design by McMinn. It has been described as his ‘greatest triumph’ (ADB p.191). Bagot wrote of this building: ‘… the carved and moulded stone and woodwork and the wrought iron and brass fittings are of the highest quality, a quality previously unknown in Adelaide and still unsurpassed in technique and craftsmanship’ (Bagot 1958). The stone carvings were the work of the master sculptor William J. Maxwell.
The design process for the Mitchell Building was not without some controversy. A design competition was held and a winner was chosen in February 1877. James MacGeorge was awarded first prize; it proved to be an unpopular choice and brought forth complaints from the unsuccessful entrants and the press. The architect who was most upset was Michael Egan of Melbourne, who had been awarded second prize. It soon became apparent that the winning design was not in accord with the conditions of the competition.
The University Council had discussions with Egan and agreed that he should be appointed architect. Egan produced a design fitting for the university’s first building. However, the council then decided that it could not afford to implement his ambitious plan. Egan was surprised at the change of plans although he said he had already been informed that the Design Committee had engaged another architect who had not competed in the original design competition. Egan, by all accounts, had been treated poorly. He had undertaken a deal of work and now his efforts were to be wasted.
Michael Egan was already well-known in Adelaide. His Italian style design for the Torrens Building in Victoria Square had been accepted in 1877 and was accordingly built with minor alterations by the Architect-in-Chief, E.J. Wood. The contractor was James Shaw (Pascoe 1901), an experienced builder both in Australia and New Zealand. Shaw was subsequently engaged by McMinn to build the Vice-Regal residence at Marble Hill.
The new architect for the University’s building was McMinn who had competed in the design competition with E.J. Woods but had withdrawn. However, Woods and McMinn became the advising architects to the Design Committee and so must have gained a good idea of the kind of building that would be appropriate, and affordable. Egan had been in regular contact with Woods and McMinn and was understandably upset about McMinn taking his place.
McMinn was given the credit for the final design, yet it is remarkably similar to Egan’s Gothic style design. The cost was well over McMinn’s estimate and the proposed budget of £11,000. Messrs Brown and Thompson were awarded the contract for £24,736 (Marsden, Stark and Sumerling 1990: 267-68).
William McMinn became an experienced architect through working with architectural firms in Adelaide, and was one of the few of his generation who never practised outside of South Australia. Walter H. Bagot (Bagot 1958), writing of another Colonial architect, Edmund William Wright, makes an interesting observation regarding McMinn’s abilities. ‘A more exuberant example [of house design] is the former Paringa Hall, Somerton, built for Mr A.F. Cudmore, now a Roman Catholic College [Sacred Heart College]. With its tower, many bow windows and rusticated stucco quoins, all typical of the late 19th century, the effect is pompous rather than dignified. William McMinn would have handled it with much more refinement.’
Walter Bagot praised McMinn’s ‘exceptional; ability to design’, saying ‘his choice of detail is consistently appropriate and well executed.’
William McMinn was in declining health in the last couple of years of his life and died of heart failure on 14 February 1884 at his sister’s residence in Molesworth Street, North Adelaide, aged 40; he was buried at North Road Cemetery. George Loyau writing just a year after McMinn’s death gives one of the few surviving clues as to the person: ‘…he will be long held in affectionate remembrance by many friends to whom his estimable qualities and amiability had endeared him’ (Loyau 1885).
His wife, Mary Frances, and their four young daughters survived him. Mrs McMinn subsequently moved to Mitcham; she died at Parkside on 8 December 1929 aged 76 and was buried at North Road Cemetery with her husband and daughter Martha.
Geoffrey C. Bishop
Bishop, Geoffrey C., 'McMinn, William', Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2015, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=105]