“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; New ideas must always use old buildings “– Jane Jacobs.
Adelaide, one of South Australia’s major cities, holds many stories. Some new, some old. The culture, values, and heritage of the precinct are strongly reflected in its architecture spanning over three centuries. The Jubilee Exhibition building was one such structure that held many stories that are now forgotten in today’s age. Completed in 1887, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, the Exhibition Building was the brainchild of architects, Withall, and Wells. It was planned in the parklands of North Terrace, due to the quaint location and convenient accessibility to the Adelaide Railway station that was part of the development plan for the event. Spanning over an area of one acre, the three-storeyed, classical styled structure had intricate stucco work on it.
The large windows stood out as strong semi-circular elements which were separated externally by pilaster work between each floor. A large dome topped the centre of the magnificent structure and the interiors called for attention due to double-height ceilings, several ballrooms, and theatres. The materials were sourced locally and were mostly cast iron, plate glass, and finished bricks. The overall aimed footfall for the building was around 25,000 people at once. The Jubilee Exhibition was held in 1887 and housed a large number of 7,90,000 visitors from 26 countries. The main hall was 150 feet long and had galleries surrounding its sides and was divided into five sections for ease in circulation. The ground floor had a lavish central space for restaurants and bars. The materials and planning borrowed from the typical Victorian style and had intricately detailed viewing galleries and overlooking spaces. The western annexe of the structure housed eight courts and the eastern annexe had a huge concert hall with a seating capacity of 800 people. The northern annexe had an agricultural hub and workshop center. Other allied functions like flour mills, armament room and servants quarters were on the rear end of the main structure. The building was unfortunately planned for such one-off events, which eventually led to its dilapidated state and unfortunate demolition.
After the exhibition, the building served as a home to many different functions, that ranged from a centre for vocational training to an isolation ward during the 1919 Spanish flu. Its last use was in 1962 as the office for the motor vehicles department and a residence for the homeless. The building was eventually no longer of use in the post-industrialization era and failed to stay relevant in modern times. Its fate was to be demolished in 1962 where one can now find the Napier and Ligertwood Building. The only tangible memory of its existence is a staircase that sits at the entrance of the new structure. The two fountains to its extent can now be seen at entrances to the Adelaide Arcade and Mall.
Adaptive reuse of heritage structures was a very new concept when the Exhibition building was demolished. This not only led to the loss of one of history’s finest pieces, but also erased a thread that held the story of Adelaide together. Several such structures stand around the same area today, with new identities and functions. Many old warehouses are now restaurants and offices. The only parts of the Exhibition building that now stands relevant and used today are the lawns enveloping the main structure that are now used by students on campus and the stairs that lead to the entrance which are restored annually. The story of the Exhibition building and the failed attempt at making it relevant to the needs of today is a classic example of many heritage structures these days. Every demolished building of historic importance is a reflection of our failed attempts to preserve our tangible heritage as a society. These structures contribute heavily to the urban fabric and not only provide tourism potential to the precinct, but also provide a sense of belonging to the people residing around it. The Exhibition building stood through colonial rule and the eventual transition of the city into a more free, liberal, and modern surrounding. It had immense character and potential to be of use even today. The unfortunate preservation attempts and lack of adaptive reuse policies led to its eventual downfall. We as a society have the privilege of taking forward fragments of our heritage so that they can stay a part of the future generations. Structures like The Exhibition building, are a piece of art, that had spaces designed to resemble poetry and history. Each element is customized to fit a particular purpose and has a story behind it. They are products of the immense vision of architects, builders, and leaders of the past.
“Preservation is simply having a good sense to hold on to things that are well designed, that link us to our past in a meaningful way and have plenty of good use left in them” – Richard Moore.