State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 72 Spring 2003


John Shirlow, 1869–1936, artist. [The Great Dome, Melbourne Public Library] [1924]. Print, etching on cream paper. H87.24/5. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Exterior view of the building with the scaffolding for the dome complete, decorated with a string of flags. [Building, 12 June 1911, p. 3]


The Dome

THE VISION of a great domed reading room for the Public Library was developed by the trustees in 1906, and the form of the room is often attributed to the Chief Librarian, E. La T. Armstrong, and the effect of his trip overseas at this time. In fact the trip came much later, but Armstrong certainly supported the idea and probably originated it. He later claimed that: ‘Mr Peebles … drew the original plans for the Reading Room, from rough sketches submitted by the Chief Librarian’.1 In April 1906 H. G. Turner, as chairman, had stated that the trustees wished to erect a ‘great central reading room … octagonal [in] design, like the Congressional Library at Washington’.2 On 30 May, the architects Reed, Smart & Tappin forwarded a plan of the existing wings with the ‘new octagonal library’ inserted in place of the Rotunda and Exhibition Hall.3
Since the original competition-winning design by Joseph Reed in 1853 the Library had been served architecturally by his firm and its successors, now Reed, Smart & Tappin. A certain amount of painting and repair work had already been done at the Library in 1896, 4 and in 1899 tenders were called for a building for the National Museum, on the Russell Street frontage of the site.5 This work, however, was set aside when the government withheld funding, and carried through only in 1906 to create Baldwin Spencer Hall.6 The death of W. B. Tappin in 1905 had left the firm in the hands of F. J. Smart, who was probably more concerned with his public profile than with the practice, for he was elected president of the Royal Victorian Institute of architects for 1907–8.7
The Reading Room project was about to proceed, but after Smart died on 10 August 1907 the trustees became nervous, and consulted N. G. Peebles, the former chief draftsman, as to whether he had the expertise to carry out so great an undertaking.8 He responded by entering a new partnership with one of Smart's sons, the engineer Charles Pyne Smart, 9 under the style of Smart, Tappin & Peebles. Soon afterwards this partnership became Bates, Peebles & Smart, by taking in E. A. Bates, surviving partner of Hyndman & Bates, and himself a former pupil in the firm of Reed, Henderson & Smart. C. P. Smart wrote on 16 December 1907 that ‘In compliance with the wishes of the Trustees we have entered into negotiations for taking another partner into our firm.’10 This was a move likely to inspire confidence at the Library, since Hyndman & Bates were the architects patronised privately by H. G. Turner, the chairman of the Trustees.
In 1907 the Premier, Sir Thomas Bent, responded to the importunities of the Public Library Trustees and promised £10,000 for the commencement of a new building, 11 to cost a further £50,000 over the next few years.12 When the reconstituted firm of Bates Peebles & Smart was established the Trustees cancelled all previous arrangements and appointed them as their architects. An attempt was made by Sir Thomas Bent to have their fees for the new building reduced to 3%, but when told that this was contrary to the usage of the RVIA he withdrew the proposal.13 By February 1908 it was reported that Bates, Peebles & Smart were preparing plans for the work.14

Schematic plan for the Reading Room, showing subject categories and Dewey numbers. This seems to be a copy or version of the drawing with which Armstrong travelled overseas, and it illustrates the perceived nexus between the new Dewey system and modern centralised planning, both favoured by Armstrong, as opposed to the traditional library organisation and rectangular plan, both favoured by Miller. Bates Smart & McCutcheon Collection, University of Melbourne Archives.


Bates, Peebles & Smart. The Public Library Museums and National Galleries of Victoria, New Reading Room, Stack Rooms etc., drawing no. 10, West Elevation. Bates, Smart & McCutcheon Collection, University of Melbourne Archives

Bates, Peebles & Smart. The Public Library Museums and National Galleries of Victoria, New Reading Room, Stack Rooms etc., drawing no. 8, West Elevation. Bates, Smart & McCutcheon Collection, University of Melbourne Archives

A red herring then appeared in the form of a proposal that the Library, Museum and Galleries should transfer to a new site on the Domain, leaving the existing site for the expansion of the Melbourne Hospital, and this received general approval from the Library Trustees. However, when it was determined to redevelop the hospital on its existing site, the proposal lapsed. During the year the old wooden Rotunda and Lending Library buildings were demolished to clear the site.15 It was now that Armstrong was given six months leave on health grounds, and then asked by the Trustees to inspect libraries abroad.16 Far from this being the occasion when he determined upon a domed reading room like those of the British Museum and the Library of Congress, he not only knew the Trustees’ views already, but even seems to have been able to take with him Peebles's drawings for a polygonal structure.
The circular space seems also to have been seen as appropriate for introduction of the Dewey Decimal system, which was then a matter of some controversy in the library. It implied a continuous sequence of book stacks, and it is significant that one of the architect's drawings — most probably the one which travelled with Armstrong — is an unlabelled plan in which the subject matter of each bay is described in Dewey terms, beginning with 010–099, General Works, beside the entrance, and completing the circuit with 900–999, History, with the back door falling, appropriately enough, between Science and Useful Arts. E. Morris Miller, then a junior assistant in the Library, was also travelling from February 1908, on unpaid leave. He met up with Armstrong in Edinburgh, and unsuccessfully argued against a round scheme and tried to persuade him to visit what he considered to be the more advanced rectangular library buildings in Germany17 — a rectangular plan probably implying a non-Dewey system, for Miller was one of its opponents.
Armstrong, undeterred, showed Peebles's initial plans to various librarians, including Sir Edward Maunde-Thompson, head of the British Museum, who expressed great interest, and queried only the adequacy of the ventilation and natural lighting. The outcome was that the skylights were enlarged beyond what Peebles thought strictly necessary, 18 perhaps sowing the seeds of future troubles with leakage. Peebles obtained a design for a dome in reinforced concrete from John Monash, of the Reinforced Concrete and Monier Pipe Construction Co, whose position in the matter may have been enhanced by the fact that he had been a contemporary of Armstrong at Scotch College. And this was not all they had in common, for Monash himself had been seized with enthusiasm for the Dewey system while on a visit to the United States.19 In May of 1908 Monash submitted a tender of £18,692 for the work. Later, when the architects queried the price, he argued for it by Comparison with steel, and quoted costs per square for other concrete roofs he had constructed.20 This prime cost sum of £20,769 for the concrete work was incorporated as a condition of tendering.21
There had already been concerns amongst Melbourne builders, led by J. W. Swanson, about the increasing use or prime costing within contracts, 22 removing significant elements of the building from competition, hamstringing builders, and presumably elevating prices. However, Monash had been at pains to foster the
general impression that the Monier Company had in effect the sole rights to build in reinforced concrete, and it seems, from a later report, that his position, was reinforced by his relationship with the Portland cement manufacturer, David Mitchell.23 It would have been natural to assume that the Monier Company must do the work. However, this was a monopolistic proposal which would remove about 30% of the

New Reading Room, plan of dome glazing, by Bates, Peebles & Smart [Bates, Smart & McCutcheon Collection, University of Melbourne Archives]

job from competition, and it attracted the wrath of G. A. Taylor, editor of Building, and that of competing concrete interests. On 12 February 1909 Taylor fulminated:
The specification for the Melbourne Public library, to cost about £70,000, has the amount of £44,255 included for a number of prime cost items, …no less a sum than £20,769 has to be included for reinforced concrete work…. Reinforced concrete is a construction which any intelligent builder can carry out provided proper specifications were prepared. There is no patent that can tie the best methods of reinforced concrete to any one firm.
Taylor prudently stated that ‘we do not for one moment consider the architects in charge of the Public Library would countenance an allegiance to any particular firm’ but argued that the proceeding in this case ‘lends colour to the allegations that a monopoly in reinforced concrete is being conserved in the interests of a certain firm.’24
In fact it would be hard to come to any other conclusion, and Peebles, when interviewed by Building, did little to refute it:
‘Not one single firm has been “tied up”.’
Regarding reinforced concrete that was open. There were only three firms who could do the work.
‘Who are they?’ asked our representative
Mr Peebles replied: ‘The Reinforced Company, the Expanded Steel people.’
‘And the third?’ asked our representative.
Mr Peebles replied that at the moment the name had slipped his memory.25
On 17 February 1909 the Trustees received a deputation from the Master Builders Association. One of the Trustees was Sir Thomas Bent (no longer Premier of the state), and he successfully moved ‘That tenders be called for the whole building in one contract, the architect to submit specifications, as might be necessary, to safeguard the interests of the Trustees’.26
Monash apparently felt personally slighted, as well as concerned by the implications for his business of the further erosion of the Monier monopoly, and he wrote a petulant letter to Peebles, who responded unctuously:
The idea of a man of your vast intellect and attainments, unimpeachable honor and social standing, being in any way affected or disturbed by fancied humiliations and the puerile calumnies of a few of the members of the Master Builders Association is simply preposterous, as is also your anxiety with regard to the future of your business affairs. I am confident that your business instead of decreasing will increase ten fold as a result of what you term the ‘recent crisis’. I am very sensible of the great amount of time and energy you have expended in connection with the library job, and deeply regret that your efforts were not rewarded with the success

Construction work on the Newspaper Room, ground floor of the Domed Reading Room, showing the octagonal columns favoured by Monash, and the conical octagon column heads, resembling those used in the nearby Sniders & Abrahams building. Gelatin silver photograph. H9217. La Trobe Picture Collection.

Truscon Company, London. ‘Dome of the Public Library, etc. Melbourne, Australia. Kahn System of Reinforced Concrete. Details of Corner Ribs’. Source: D.A.L. Saunders. ‘The Reinforced Concrete Dome of the Melbourne Public Library, 1911’, Architectural Science Review, II (I March 1959), p. 44


‘Timbering for ribs’, 3 April 1911, showing the formwork within which a main dome rib will be cast. Thorpe Clark Collection. H93.39/22. La Trobe Picture Collection

they merited. You have at least however the consolation — slight though it be — of knowing that you will receive an adequate fee for your consultations. I will take this opportunity of tendering you my sincere and heartfelt thanks for the very valuable hints on re-inforced work and the very great assistance you have given me in the preparation of the contract. I keenly appreciate the invariable courtesy and patience you have extended to me throughout and you may rest assured that I shall ever do my very utmost on your behalf.27
This did not prevent Peebles from becoming friendly with the successful tenderers, the Swanson Brothers, who subsequently commissioned architectural work from him.
The tender of J. W. & D. A. Swanson for £66,914 was accepted in June, 28 and work commenced immediately.29 Swansons proposed not to use the Monier system, but that of the Trussed Concrete Steel Company (Truscon), and work commenced immediately. Most of the reinforced concrete drawings, which date from about 1909

Part-section of dome with Monier reinforcement as designed by John Monash, 1908 (labelled as designed J.M., 4.7.08, traced by J.A.L. [Lynch?], 6.7.08, and marked ‘superseded’). John Thomas Private Collection.

and are anonymous or are signed ‘J A L’, look as though they must be of local origin, though there is no indication whether drawn by a staff member of Bates, Peebles & Smart, or by the local Truscon representatives Elliott McLean & Co. In fact it seems likely that these are the original Monier Company drawings, and, although the initial J is not confirmed, that ‘J A L’ is the Monier employé Alex Lynch.30 One gets the impression that in most of the framing the members as constructed are in accord with the Monier forms and dimensions, and that it is only the reinforcement which has been changed by Truscon. Indeed, given the speed with which construction began, this might be seen as inevitable.
The engineering drawings for the dome itself are different in format, date mainly from the second half of 1910, and bear the signature of Nic K. Fougner, chief engineer of the Trussed Concrete Steel Co. of Westminster. Saunders has noted a drawing of 30 June 1910 which is endorsed ‘Rec'd & forwarded 1st July 1910. W.W.

New Reading Room, type details of reinforced concrete girders & columns, showing the proposed Monier system reinforcement, which was to be set aside for the Truscon/Kahn system. Bates, Smart & McCutcheon Collection, University of Melbourne Archives

Harvey’, and he surmises that Harvey, then in London, was the ‘engineer acting on behalf of the architects’, referred to in a later report. This is supported by a letter from Harvey to Bates, Peebles and Smart of 25 October 1910 in which he says ‘I have pointed out that this [arrangement of the ring bars] is very well suited for the intermediate ribs it brings the bars inside the line of thrust at the angular rib …’.31 Harvey was a former Monash employé, having joined him as an assistant engineer in 1905 and then in about 1907 became resident engineer in the Adelaide office (the South Australian Reinforced Concrete Co), where he remained until about November 1909.32

Thorpe Clark Collection. ‘Lintel at top of stanchion, pocket for rib of dome’. 25 May 1910. showing the ring at the base of the dome, with the socket where the rib is to connect. This is important becasue it shows the reinforcement of the ring beam to be conventional bars, probably similar to Monash's design, rather than Kahn's bars. H93.39/25. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Monier reinforcement for the beams of the Reading Room, signed by J.A.L. [?Lynch?], 2.3.09. John Thomas Private Collection

The Kahn system, showing the bars bent at 45° for shear reinforcement. International Library of Technology, vol 34D, Stone & Brick, &c (Scranton Pennsylvania) 1922 [1906-1912] 45, p. 15.

A comparison with Monash's original drawings shows that even in the dome his dimensions for the concrete were kept virtually unchanged, but the Monier reinforcement was replaced by Truscon's Kahn bars. In some parts, such as the ring beam around the base of the dome, photographs taken during construction show that conventional bars were still used, though whether they adhered to Monash's original design is unclear. The Kahn bar was an odd conception, consisting of a basic rolled bar of T-section, with slits run along the flanges so that strips could be bent out from them and wrapped around the adjoining reinforcement. The reinforcement is said to have been imported from the USA, 33 but this may be a misconception, for though the Kahn system was American in origin, it was marketed by a separate British company which, as was common at the time, would have had rights throughout the British Empire. Whether the reinforcement was actually made in Britain or in America is in fact unclear. The concrete was hand mixed by a crew of twenty men, hoisted up the central tower with a winch, discharged into chutes leading to the final location, and there placed by hand.34 Saunders devotes some thought to the reason why Bates, Peebles and Smart decided to use the Kahn system, but the evidence suggests that it was not their decision. Rather it was Swanson Brothers who chose the Truscon company, and the price formed a part of their successful tender.

Assembly of trussed bars in one of the radial beams of the Reading Room floor. Source: Truscon: Fifty Years: a Short History of the Trussed Concrete Steel Company Limited, 1907–1957, London, 1957, p. 7


Untitled photograph showing the placing of the concrete, ca. 1911. At the centre is John Richard Thorpe Clark, an employé of the builders, Swanson Brothers, who made a collection of photographs of the building in progress. Thorpe Clark Collection. H93.39/27. La Trobe Picture Collection.

On 26 October 1909 the foundation stone was laid by the Governor of Victoria, Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael. Another controversy flared during the course of the contract, for the state government wished Victorian marble to be used for the entrance and staircase, specifically the Buchan marble from near Orbost. But because of uncertainty about the viability of the as yet untried quarry, and the quantity available, ‘Australian’ marble was specified. Swanson Brothers now proposed to use marble from New South Wales, not because of any practical problem at Buchan, but because they thought the cost ‘unreasonably high’.35 Ultimately the Victorian stone from the Buchan quarries was used, 36 but what price adjustment was made is not known.
In May 1911 the form of the dome itself was becoming dramatically visible to the public:
Already the huge shape is outlined by the necessary timbers, and hundreds of loads of concrete materials are being stored in readiness for commencement. As soon as sufficient material is in hand, the work of mixing and filling will commence, and will continue day and night without interruption until the whole dome is completed.37
According to Smart the mixing was all done by hand, and
For the purpose of placing the concrete a platform was erected above the central lantern light and carried by the centering below. An electrically operated hoist conveyed the mixed concrete from the basement of the building to this platform where it was dumped … and immediately shovelled by hand through hoppers in the floors of the platform discharging into the heads of chutes by means of which it was conveyed by gravity to the point required on the dome.
On completion the timber centering was left in place for four months, then gradually eased off by slackening wedges on top of the timber trusses, after which the dome deflected just under five millimetres.38 George Taylor of the magazine, Building, who had been so hostile when the Monier monopoly was at issue, was now full of enthusiasm, and wrote of the dome as ‘The Greatest on Earth’.39 In 1912 the closing phases of construction were entered, and tenders were accepted for the electric light installation, lifts, and the chairs and fittings.40
Possession was taken of the completed reading room in October 1913, and on 14 November it was opened by the Governor-General, Lord Denman. The dome was (if only for a short time) the largest such structure of reinforced concrete in the world, 34.75 metres in diameter and the same in height.41 In span, however, it was far exceeded by the 54 metre trussed concrete roof already completed at the Dennys Lascelles Austin Wool Store in Geelong in 1910–11. Even as a dome, and indeed as an architectural concept, it was very soon completely eclipsed by Max Berg's Jahrhunderthalle or Centennial Hall at Breslau in Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) of 1912–13, a saucer dome of 64.55 metres diameter.
The plan was less than ideal in terms of staff accommodation. The heating was by means of furnaces which warmed air drawn in by fans from the roof, and often failed to work properly. The books in the open stack were difficult for the public to reach and required ladders. On one occasion a piece of plaster fell from the roof and knocked a visitor unconscious, and when he recovered sufficiently to look for his assailant he was barely restrained from assaulting the Chief Librarian.42 There were also problems of leakage in the concrete skylight frames, and these defects resulted in drastic action by the Public Works Department, which in 1959 lined the inside of the dome with fibrous sheets, and the exterior in copper, blocking the lights and destroying much of the original interior character.43
Miles Lewis

Interior of the Domed Reading Room under construction. Gelatin silver photograph. H9218. La Trobe Picture Collection.


Interior of the completed Domed Reading Room. La Trobe Picture Collection.



E. La T. Armstrong & R. D. Boys, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906–1931, Melbourne, 1932, p. 53.


Allom Lovell Sanderson Pty Ltd & Victoria, Public Works Department, Heritage Group. State Library and Museum of Victoria Buildings Conservation Analysis (2 vols, Melbourne 1985), I, p. 39, ref Argus, 23 April 1906.


David Saunders, ‘The Reinforced Concrete Dome of the Melbourne Public Library, 1911’, Architectural Science Review, 2 (March 1959) p. 39. On p. 41 Saunders reproduces what he believes to be the plan in question.


Building and Engineering Journal, 19 December 1896, supplement, np.


Building, Engineering and Mining Journal, 30 September 1899; folder C Melb Uni 48–10.


Allom Lovell, State Library Conservation Analysis, I, p. 31, 50.


Journal of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, March 1907, p. 7.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 5–6.


Saunders, ‘Joseph Reed Architect Melbourne 1852–90’ (typescript), p. 23.


Quoted in Saunders, ‘The Reinforced Concrete Dome of the Melbourne Public Library, 1911’, p. 40.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 5.


Building, 18 February, 1908, p. 15.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 6.


Building, 18 February, 1908, p. 15.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 8.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 9.


E. M. Miller [ed. Derek Drinkwater], ‘Some Public Library Memories, 1900–1913’, La Trobe Library Journal, IX, 35 (April 1985), p. 75–6.


‘The State Library Building’, La Trobe Library Journal, II, 6 (October 1970), p. 32, quoting E. La T. Armstrong, ‘Fifty Years of the P.L.V.’ (MS 5583. La Trobe Australian Manuscript Collection, SLV).


Geoffrey Serle, John Monash: a Biography, Melbourne 1982, p. 171.


Saunders, ‘The Dome of the Melbourne Public Library’, p. 41.


Building, 12 February, 1909, p. 17, 19, 21, 22.


Building, 18 February, 1908, p. 15.


Building, 12 February, 1911, p. 45.


Building, 12 February, 1909, p. 17.


Building, 12 February, 1909, p. 22.


Building, 12 March, 1909, p. 44.


Peebles to Monash, 25 May 1909, National Library of Australia, as conveyed to me by Alan Holgate, 2003, but also quoted less extensively in Serle, John Monash, p. 166.


Building, 12 June, 1909, p. 26. See also MCC application 1403, 16 June 1909, for the reading room and stack room.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 10.


For whom see Serle, John Monash, p. 136 et seq.


Saunders, ‘The Dome of the Melbourne Public Library’, p. 42.


Details kindly supplied by Alan Holgate, 2003.


Saunders, ‘Joseph Reed’, p. 24.


Saunders, ‘Joseph Reed’, p. 24.


Building, 13 March, 1911, p. 19.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 11.


Building, 12 May 1911, p. 44.


C P Smart in Concrete and Constructional Engineering, April 1914, quoted in Saunders, ‘The Dome of the Melbourne Public Library’, p. 44–5.


Building, 12 June 1911, p. 50.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 18.


Armstrong & Boys, The Book of the Public Library, p. 21–2.


The State Library Building‘, p. 34.


Allom Lovell, State Library Conservation Analysis, I, p. 59, ref Saunders, ‘The Reinforced Concrete Dome’, p. 46.