State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 84 December 2009


Terry Sawyer
Setting the Scene:
the theatre drawings of William Pitt

When Viewed From a vantage point deep in the Southern Hemisphere, Melbourne in the booming 1880s seemed to its citizens to be a city with few equals. If any doubted that proposition, visiting journalists and writers enthusiastically confirmed the view that Melbourne was indeed a city of modern marvels. Built initially on the solidity of gold and later on the seemingly sturdy back of enthusiastic speculation, the wide streets of the city were lined with buildings of beauty, solidity and astonishing virtuosity. These buildings were admired then, and those that still stand are revered today. The little we know of the many of those which have been lost is gleaned from old plans and maps, contemporary press accounts and photographs of the city in its High Victorian prime. There are some buildings from this period however that will always be more adequately understood than others through the survival in the State Library of Victoria of the architectural drawings used to create these remarkable structures.
Of the many eminent architects represented in the drawing collection the name of William Pitt, parliamentarian and architect, stands high. More than 700 sheets of drawings from William Pitt's office and an additional 500 sheets from the succeeding William Pitt and Walkley office document a wide range of work. The drawings are part of a collection of over 3500 sheets which were, in 1975–6, lodged in the (then) La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, on permanent loan from the University of Melbourne's Department of Architecture and Building. The collection proved to be an invaluable tool to a wide range of scholars and in 2002, the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning donated the collection to the library.1
William Pitt was one of the finest architects of nineteenth-century Melbourne. Major surviving works as varied as the Princess Theatre, the Rialto and Olderfleet buildings, the former Stock Exchange buildings, Gordon House, the St Kilda Town Hall and the Vicarage of St Peter's Church in East Melbourne are testament to his skill and versatility. While Pitt handled the design of a wide range of building projects with aplomb, he was best known as the most accomplished and prolific designer of theatres. His theatres were prominent throughout all states of Australia and New Zealand and the drawings held by the State Library of Victoria which document them provide a unique insight into aspects of nineteenth-century cultural life and the design processes of one of the most important architects of his era.

Fig. 1. New Opera House, Melbourne, c. 1900.
Pictures Collection, Image No H2008.143.


William Pitt: life and career

‘As to his life as a citizen of Melbourne, why, the name of William Pitt became a household word in the main streets of Melbourne.’2
The sentiments of the Hon. A. O. Sachse's tribute to his late parliamentary colleague following Pitt's death in 1918 were echoed by other parliamentary members who remembered Pitt as a jovial, warm-hearted and generous man who worked assiduously as a parliamentarian. The Solicitor-General, the Hon. A. Robinson was of the opinion that Pitt was one of the most likeable and pleasant-natured men to have ever graced the city of Melbourne.3 Affectionately known as Billie or Willie in the parliament and around the race tracks and theatres of Melbourne, Pitt had been a Member of the Legislative Council and an Honorary Minister in the Bent and Irvine governments, a Collingwood mayor and councillor, a respected patron of the Collingwood Football Club and was also acknowledged for his roles with the Australian Natives Association and many sporting clubs. Pitt was a familiar figure at Flemington and Caulfield racecourses and was himself a keen sportsman with a particular interest in coursing, hunting, fishing and shooting.4
William Pitt (Fig. 2) was born in 1855 into a world of theatre, art and sports. His father William Pitt Snr was a scene painter, artist, publican and theatrical business manager, the first treasurer of the Victorian Academy of Art and as a courser he introduced the best blood of greyhounds into the colony and was a liberal supporter of the sport.5 William Pitt Snr was closely associated as business manager and scene painter with the famous theatrical entrepreneur George Coppin. Coppin managed the Theatre Royal which was one of the largest and most well known theatres in post gold rush Melbourne and rebuilt it on a grand scale in 1872 after the original theatre was destroyed by fire.6 William Pitt Snr was engaged to undertake the internal decorations to the theatre and on its completion Pitt also took up the lease for the Café de Paris in the new building.
With his theatrical and architectural connections, Pitt Snr was obviously well-placed to secure an appropriate position for a son with an interest in architecture. In 1875 the young William Pitt commenced his architectural apprenticeship with George Browne. Browne, who was himself only about twenty seven years old when Pitt joined him, had already several major works to his name including Coppin's above mentioned new Theatre Royal, the Academy of Music at Ballarat and Sir William Clarke's vast mansion Rupertswood at Sunbury. Browne was an idiosyncratic architect who invariably and rather inexplicably described his designs as being in the Byzantine style. The closest Browne came to defining his Byzantine style came in his description of his design for the Theatre Royal when he stated that the style permitted ‘both lightness and elegance in the character of the external elevation’.7 The Theatre Royal design however, with its abundant detail and miniature figures supporting a hefty cornice, now seems

Fig. 2. ‘William Pitt’, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (Melbourne), 9 July 1908, p 16.

more reminiscent of mid-nineteenth century Viennese architecture in its richness and sculptural intensity than anything seen in the Byzantine world.
Despite enjoying the patronage of the wealthy land owning Clarke family, Browne's good fortunes were not to last. ‘Diamond’ Browne, the nickname by which he was known in Ballarat due to his fondness for glittering jewellery, suffered a series of personal setbacks which apparently damaged his professional prospects.8 In about 1878 Browne left Melbourne for New South Wales leaving the young Pitt without a mentor but with an opportunity to court stranded Browne clients. In 1879, Pitt commenced practice in his own name and immediately won a competition for the design of a new Melbourne coffee palace with a distinctly Browne-like composition. It was the start of a brilliant architectural career which saw him win numerous competitions and valuable commissions for many of Melbourne's most prominent office buildings, residences and theatres. His success in winning commissions for prominent Melbourne buildings allowed him to control a thriving commercial office while also devoting time to his political, sporting and community interests. His career however was not without its setbacks. He suffered heavy financial losses during the 1890s depression, he shattered two fingers in a shooting accident in 1908 and in 1913 he lost his six year old son to
diphtheria.9 In July 1914, Pitt's brother-in-law, Albert Liddy who had drawn up the plans and supervised the construction of the Pitt-designed Wellington Opera House committed suicide in an office at the theatre.10 A letter from Pitt found in Liddy's pocket which castigated him for his dilatory behavior and lack of attention to his duties may have contributed to Liddy taking his own life.11

Fig. 3. Perspective of the Princess Theatre as originally designed, c. 1885.
Pictures Collection, Image No H31053.

Further unhappiness followed Pitt's death. Pitt presumably knew he was seriously ill when he entered into a new ten-year partnership agreement with his long-term business partner Albion Walkley in January 1918 as he died of cancer only three months later. William Pitt stipulated that if he was to die within the ten-year period, part of his interest in the business would pass to his son William Gordon Pitt. If it was Pitt's intention to ensure that his son enjoyed a secure professional future with Walkley, it was to no avail.
In 1925, William Gordon Pitt took Albion Walkley to court claiming that immediately following William Pitt's death in 1918 Walkley had pressured him into accepting an amended agreement which diminished his rights. William Gordon Pitt's sister and other family members who retained an interest in the William Pitt and Walkley partnership sided with Walkley. Walkley made a counter-claim against the
young Pitt, stating that he had little interest in the work and was practically useless. He successfully sought dissolution of the William Pitt and Walkley partnership.12 In November 1925, some forty five years after he had come to architectural prominence the distinguished name of William Pitt passed into architectural history.

William Pitt's Theatres and the Melbourne Grid

The theatre designs of William Pitt, despite their stylistic diversity, were seen by some over time to have developed a regularity and uniformity which made them identifiable as Pitt-designed theatres. This came about in part through Pitt's familiarity with early Melbourne theatres and the pattern of Melbourne's original grid layout. In Britain where theatre was a private speculation, venues were often sited in back streets and crowded thoroughfares as suitable sites were hard to come by due to the antiquity of the city and the complicated and piecemeal land holdings. By contrast, major European theatres were generally State supported enterprises and as a result often stood impressively situated in open squares. In Melbourne large allotments were set aside by government only for important cultural and social institutional purposes. Theatre entrepreneurs were left to fight for suitable sites like any other private enterprise. Melbourne however had the benefit of being a relatively young city where some well-placed sites had been held for long periods under a single ownership. These sites offered obvious potential to theatre entrepreneurs for the construction of sizeable theatres with the capacity to service a burgeoning post-gold rush Melbourne.
The town allotments originally offered at public auction within Colonial Surveyor Robert Hoddle's Melbourne grid were of equal area but of two sizes only. The mid-block allotments facing the main east-west running streets, such as Flinders, Collins, Bourke and Lonsdale Streets were long with a relatively narrow street frontage of one chain or 66 ft [20 m] while the allotments at the corners of the secondary north-south streets such as Spring, Exhibition, Russell and Swanston Streets had street frontages of almost two and half times that of the east-west streets but a lesser depth. The width of the allotments on the principal east-west streets of 66ft tended to define the width of theatre auditoriums. The original Theatre Royal and George Browne's replacement theatre had a width of 66ft and Pitt's designs followed suit. Pitt's proposed Comedy Theatre of 1889, Harry Rickards's Opera House (later The Tivoli) of 1901 (Fig. 1) and the King's Theatre of 1907 were all 66ft wide.
The predominance of the 66ft dimensioning in Pitt's theatres produced a similarity of scale. To experienced eyes, this regularity also led to a uniformity to his theatre designs. When Harry Musgrove, the brother of the Princess Theatre co-proprietor George Musgrove, was invited to inspect the 1911 Municipal Theatre at Napier, New Zealand he commented that Pitt's playhouses were standardised so much that when he inspected it he ‘knew he was in a Pitt theatre’.13 The design produced by
Pitt for New Zealand's Wellington Opera House in 1913 would have also seemed familiar to Musgrove. By chance, the dimensions of the site chosen for the Wellington Opera House were almost identical to those of Melbourne's King's Theatre site. This allowed Pitt to virtually replicate the plan of the Melbourne theatre in New Zealand. While the Wellington Opera House was, however, a better appointed and a more structurally advanced theatre with a more modern seating plan, its street elevation bore a strong resemblance to the Melbourne theatre. The survival of the drawings for both buildings enables a more comprehensive understanding of the similarity of the two designs. A link which would not have been apparent at the time shows us that the grand elevation of the Wellington Opera House as it was constructed is almost identical to an alternative but rejected elevation prepared for the King's Theatre some six years earlier.

The Theatre and the Street

While theatres rose and fell on the quality of the entertainment presented to the public, a well-sited theatre of an imposing and distinctive architectural character could not help but contribute to its success. The long street frontages to the corner blocks in Melbourne not only allowed wider auditorium widths but also provided the opportunity to create a more prominent theatre frontage and a wider range of commercial development.
William Pitt's Princess Theatre with its elements of the towering French Second Empire style brought a new vigour and sense of revitalization to a site which was already well known to Melbourne's theatre patrons through its association with entertainment venues since the 1850s. The Argus noted that to the experts, the cleverness in the design lay in ‘devising an air of loftiness for a two storey building not at all happily placed for such effects.’ The dominance of the mansard roofs when approaching the city from the north along Nicholson Street gave the theatre a landmark status of singular prominence. In formulating the design, the visual effectiveness of the commanding Brunelleschian dome of the nearby Melbourne's Royal Exhibition buildings and the domed-roofed towers to the then recently completed Grand Coffee Palace [now the Windsor Hotel] to the south in Spring Street would not have gone unnoticed by Pitt and his clients.
In 1900, Pitt also designed a new Opera House [Figs 1 & 5] for Harry Rickards on a closely confined site in Bourke Street which retained its original 66ft frontage. As there was no opportunity to repeat the pavilion planning which had been so effective on the larger Princess Theatre site, Pitt devised a forceful elevation fronted by an extraordinarily elaborately detailed cast iron verandah at ground level and surmounted at roof level by a striking gold sphere bearing the name of the theatre's proud proprietor. It is tempting to see this sphere as having a symbolic association with the iconic sphere on Frank Matcham's famous London Coliseum theatre, now the home of the English National Opera, but Pitt's sphere predates the one at the Coliseum by about four years. The spheres on both however are designed with same intent. Within the dense jumble
of diverse facades along a city street, they are designed to distinguish them from their neighbours and give their theatres a distinctive and readily recognizable identity.

The Streetscape and the Auditorium

Many nineteenth century theatres and music halls began life as entertainment halls hidden away at the back of hotels. As a result, the building presented to the street as a hotel and an appropriate architectural style was chosen to reflect that function. This sometimes led to a stylistic discrepancy between the architectural expression of the exterior and its entertainment appendage. Theatre auditoriums were invariably richly decorated examples of the plaster modellers and decorators art designed to enliven the theatrical experience while the architecture of the exterior responded more soberly to the street. A contrast in style between the exterior and the interior was highlighted by a press report in 1886 which stated that while the exterior of the William Pitt's new Princess Theatre was one of the handsomest expressions of street architecture, it conveyed no suggestion of the completeness, beauty and splendour of the interior.14
The Princess Theatre was William Pitt's first major theatre work. Many accounts suggest that Williamson, Garner and Musgrove's scenic designer George Gordon was a substantial contributor to the design and there is no doubt that the two enjoyed a close collaboration on the project. Evidence suggests however that the responsibility for the design of the interior of the auditorium of the Princess Theatre lay solely with Gordon. Before coming to Australia in 1879 as a scenic artist, George Gordon had trained as an architect with one of England's leading theatre architects Charles J Phipps.15 Gordon carried out theatre decoration for Phipps and the decorative design of a number of Phipps works in London is attributed to him. Gordon retained a strong interest in architecture throughout his life and had a life-long friendship with the distinguished English architect Edward Godwin whom he met while living in London.16
George Gordon visited England in 1886 with the principal intention of revitalizing his scene painting skills through reacquainting himself with English scenery. While in England Gordon inspected many of the new London theatres and stated on his return that he had gathered several new decoration ideas which he planned to incorporate into the design of the interior of the Princess Theatre.17 He gave no indication however as later claimed that the trip was made especially to procure chairs, carpets and fittings to his own design for the Princess Theatre.18 The interior design of the auditorium and the novel devices such as the grottoes and waterfall features do not seem to have been formulated until after Gordon's return from England and it can only be assumed that the design of the auditorium was influenced by what Gordon saw in England. While the full extent of George Gordon's role in the design of the Princess Theatre remains unclear Pitt no doubt respected Gordon's wide knowledge of architecture and theatre design and willingly collaborated with his experienced
colleague. On opening night, both men ‘…were called before the curtain and honoured with a most attractive reception’.19
The Princess Theatre as we see it in Pitt's original perspective however did not include the dominant flanking pavilions seen in the final design (Fig. 3). The perspective depicts the building with a flat facade broken only by a dominant central projecting portico. The final plans show the building as it was constructed with the centre bay filled in and additional projecting bays at either end of the façade. The addition of the flanking bays with mansard roofs appears to have come about due to a late demand for more interior service space. The Covent Garden-like appearance of the central open portico was compromised and the grand promenade running the whole length of the building was for the most part lost. It can only be assumed that the original design reflected a draft plan which had to be modified.
It is not known who was responsible for the initiation of these changes. It is possible however that it was the apparent insistence of George Musgrove that the theatre accommodate commodious dressing rooms and a sumptuous green room for his artists that caused the plan to be altered. In her memoirs the actress Nellie Stewart made the seemingly audacious claim that while Pitt was credited with the work,‘George Musgrove really planned and imagined the whole splendid fabric, and personally supervised every detail’.20 Several accounts suggest that William Pitt might have developed the design from an original scheme devised by George Gordon, but Nellie Stewart is alone in naming Musgrove as a significant contributor to the design.21 It is easy to dismiss Nellie Stewart's account of Musgrove's involvement as a gross exaggeration heavily influenced by the fact that Musgrove was the father of her only child and the two were life-long partners despite both being married to others. The original drawings do not identify the green room, but the area later shown as the green room and dressing room spaces are located in an area of the building which was apparently under revision at a very late stage.22
In the time-honoured Australian tradition of filling in the verandah whenever extra space is required, the long continuous balcony envisaged in Pitt's presentation perspective drawing was substantially reduced in size. The enclosure of the originally open central portico and the addition of the pavilions with their dominant iron-crested mansard roofs at either end of the building radically changed the appearance of the theatre. When extra space was again required in 1901, the remaining portions of the balcony were filled in to complete the facade as we see it today.

The Theatre and the Architecture of Association

In the Victorian period when the so-called ‘battle of the styles’ raged, many architects freely worked within a range of styles while displaying no apparent theoretical commitment to any of them. Judges for the numerous competitions for the design of
city buildings in booming late nineteenth-century Melbourne commonly had the choice of selecting a design which offered the styles of a Classical Revival, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne elevation, each presented with equal finesse and authority. The idea which underpinned the ‘battle of the styles’ was the notion that a true architecture could be created through borrowing forms from past styles because of their association with certain ideas. The Roman represented republicanism and civic virtue, Greek was associated with liberty, Egyptian held associations with permanence and wisdom while the Moorish appropriated the exoticism of distant lands with the choice in any given case being determined by what sort of symbolic imagery social circumstances seemed to call for.23
In 1889, William Pitt chose the exoticism of the Moorish style for his design of a new theatre to be built on a site in Russell Street. The theatre, which was to be named the Comedy Theatre [Figs 4 & 6], was not built but the design survives as drawings in the State Library of Victoria collection. The design brought an exotic character to the street architecture and the interior was no less spectacular. The foyers and boxes were richly detailed, and above the boxes the Victorian passion for ferneries left the domestic realm and made its way into the theatre auditorium.
The connection between the Moorish style and theatre design has long historical associations. In 1854 a building in the Moorish style was erected in Leicester Square, London for the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art. Inspired by remains at Cairo, the spectacular building brought the most complete example of the style to England. The scientific venture soon failed and the building re-opened in 1858 as a circus venue called the Alhambra Palace, its name in keeping with its Moorish atmosphere.24 The popularity of the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties as it was later known established a strong association between the Moorish style and venues connected with variety entertainment.
Nothing is known of another Pitt theatre design entered in an 1891 competition which also had a Moorish interior. The design received mixed reviews with one press report damning its ‘somewhat fantastic’ attempt at a Moorish style being scarcely suitable for the interior of a theatre while another took the opposing view describing it as being a most effective and suitable style while being a great novelty in Melbourne.25
Pitt's work on his two excursions into Moorish exoticism did not go to waste. Some ten years after he produced his drawings for the unbuilt Comedy Theatre Pitt resurrected the original drawings which he developed into the plans for the construction of a new variety theatre on Bourke Street. The new theatre was the Opera House [later The Tivoli] built for Harry Rickards which opened in 1901. The exotic interior of the proposed Comedy Theatre with its associational links to the famed Alhambra Theatre of Varieties was reborn almost without change as the Opera House interior. The design of the exterior of the theatre, however, was another matter. The very
literal and delicate Moorish exterior elevation of the proposed 1889 theatre with its large areas of minutely detailed tile work gave way to a more vigorous, adventurous and fashionable face red brick street elevation while at the same time retaining unmistakable Moorish overtones linking it stylistically to the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties.

The Theatre and the Social Order

The nineteenth-century Australian theatre, despite the following of any fashionable stylistic tendencies in architectural expression of European or oriental origin remained decidedly British in planning when it came to the segregation of the classes of theatregoer. The egalitarian planning of the French theatre where the visitors to boxes and galleries descended the same staircases was no more favoured in British colonial outposts than it was at home. Separate and widely separated entrances for the different categories of theatregoer might have been an accepted social practice within theatres but a more important reason for this differentiation lay within the dangers presented to patrons by the ever-present threat of fire. Safe egress was of vital importance.
The planning of Pitt's theatres with regard to social and fire segregation was typical of the period. In the original design of his Princess Theatre, the dress circle and stalls patrons entered the theatre through a splendid entrance on Spring Street. Dress circle theatre-goers then ascended a grand staircase to an ornately detailed crush room before entering the theatre auditorium. The gallery customers however were less generously treated. They entered the theatre through an unadorned brick archway in Little Bourke Street which had no protection from the elements. Within the theatre auditorium, the lavish decorative treatment of the boxes at the sides of the proscenium enhances the overall decorative impact of the theatre while occupants enjoy the benefits of both roominess and privacy. In Pitt's Princess Theatre the boxes at dress circle level originally provided extra convenience through the inclusion of wash basins. The boxes at the amphitheatre level however, were of a very different order. From the theatre auditorium, they appeared consistent in lavish detail to those below but unlike the boxes at dress circle level which provided spaces of privacy and quiet retreat, the amphitheatre level boxes were soon altered to house public urinals.

Innovation: the sliding roof and grottoes

In 1886 William Pitt designed a sliding roof and ceiling system for Princess Theatre to allow the poisonous gases produced by the hundreds of gas jets in the theatre to escape to the sky. In a short biography of William Pitt in Victoria and its Metropolis presumably provided by Pitt himself, the claim was made that the combination of the sliding roof and sliding ceiling together had never been introduced in any part of the world.26 Pitt's claim of a world-first has received scant attention. While there were pioneering sliding roofs to London's Canterbury Music Hall and the London Pavilion and other venues

Fig. 4. Proposed Comedy Theatre, Russell St, Melbourne. Lateral section, 1889. Pictures Collection, WD THE 7 Sheet 13.

Fig. 5. Part elevation detail of New Opera House, Melbourne, c. 1900.
Pictures Collection, WD THE 13 Sheet 28.

such as the Hippodrome in Paris, the Politeama in Florence and the Metropolitan Concert Hall in New York which all predate Melbourne's Princess Theatre, none appear to have employed the combination of a sliding roof and a sliding ceiling as used by Pitt.27 The Princess Theatre model precedes anything similar in Britain, and the same arrangement does not appear to have been used in America before the construction of Globe Theatre (later the Lunt-Fontanne) in New York in 1909–10.28
The earliest drawings of the Princess Theatre held in the State Library of Victoria collection, do not show this remarkable opening roof innovation. The first drawing documenting the sliding ceiling appears some three months after construction of the theatre had commenced.29 The reason for the introduction of this no-doubt costly ventilation system at this late stage is not known. An examination of the original drawings however indicates that a serious error was made in the documentation of the ceiling layout in the initial drawings. The dimension of the dominating central circular ventilating dome shown in a cross section of the theatre was not consistent with the dimension shown in the plan and as a result, the surrounding ceiling layout was affected. It appears at this time, the opportunity was taken in a redesign to introduce the novel ventilating system.
While Pitt was responsible for the production of a workable solution for the new ventilation system, the impetus for its introduction into the theatre may have come from the proprietors of the new theatre or their scenic designer George Gordon. J. C. Williamson, Arthur Garner and George Musgrove and Gordon all had strong associations with the English theatrical world and could not have been unaware of the sliding roof dome at Edwin Villiers's Canterbury Music Hall.
Williamson, Garner and Gordon were all in London in 1876 when the Canterbury Music Hall opened and George Musgrove visited England in 1879. J. C. Williamson was again in London in March 1885 where he attended the opening of The Mikado but left before construction began of Edwin Villiers's second music hall, the London Pavilion, in May 1885. George Gordon was at this time in London but the first drawing for the sliding ceiling for the Princess Theatre was produced in Pitt's office before Gordon's return to Australia.
Other novel measures in addition to provision of the sliding roof were taken to alleviate the heat in the Princess Theatre. Advertisements which promoted the theatre as the coolest theatre in Melbourne not only highlighted the ventilation benefits of the sliding roof but also promoted the cooling effects within the auditorium of miniature grottoes with little waterfalls which were revealed when painted circular panels above the proscenium were raised.30 Ferneries and grottoes were a great mid-Victorian enthusiasm and the devices no doubt had some psychological effect. While ferneries were also included in William Pitt's later Comedy Theatre design (Fig. 6), the measure of the efficiency of the primitive form of evaporative cooling introduced at the Princess Theatre can only be judged on the fact that the experiment seems never to have been repeated in any other Pitt theatres.
Although the replacement of gas lighting with electric light markedly improved the quality of air in theatres, Pitt invariably used sliding roofs in his later theatres. With the advent of air conditioning the sliding roofs no longer satisfied any practical need and most have been destroyed or forgotten.

Innovation: fire protection

As an architect specializing in theatre construction, William Pitt was well aware of the importance of fire resisting construction as hundreds of people had died in theatre fires overseas. Numerous theatre fires also occurred in Australia, but usually when theatres were unoccupied. In his design for the Princess Theatre, the drawings show that Pitt originally chose conventional brick arching for the vaulted floors. By May 1886 however the drawings indicate that Pitt has changed his mind and incorporated iron arching in place of the brick. A later examination of the building revealed that Pitt had chosen the German Traegerwellblech corrugated iron arching which had come into general use in Australia in about 1883.31 Pitt again made extensive use of the material in his design of

Fig. 6. Proposed Comedy Theatre, Russell St, Melbourne. Part longitudinal section, 1889.
Pictures Collection, WD THE 7 Sheet 12.

the Rialto building in Collins Street in 1890. Pitt also used metal lathing to plaster walls and ceilings in the Rialto which substantially improved the building's fire resistance.32 William Pitt was among the earliest architects in Australia to use expanded metal lathing. In 1890 he gave a testimonial for the material supplied by Sydney agents Trapp, Stirling and Company who imported the material into New South Wales before producing it locally.33 Pitt stated that had been nearly three years since he had first used the material but made no mention of where he had first introduced it into his work
Despite his willingness to embrace new building technologies, William Pitt did not use reinforced concrete construction although it offered great potential in resisting fire. In February 1913 Pitt rejected a proposition from John Monash's Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Company that the adoption of the company's reinforced concrete structural system would prove advantageous in erecting a warehouse for Pitt's long-term clients Spinks and Alley. Pitt rejected the proposal due to his belief that building in reinforced concrete was a slow method of construction.34 A few months later, the company made a further approach in relation to a proposed
theatre in Melbourne for which Pitt was a joint architect with the Sydney architects Kent, Budden and Greenwell. The Sydney architects, who appear to have been the design architects for the theatre, were much more amenable to the Reinforced Concrete & Monier Pipe Construction Company's proposal but only if the company's proposition was reasonable enough to influence their clients but nothing came of the proposal and the whole scheme was eventually abandoned.35


In the Victoria of the 1880s, the combination of unbridled optimism and a seemingly unlimited supply of money drove an architecture of astonishing diversity. While the grand scale and opulence of Melbourne architecture has long been seen to some extent as such a local phenomenon to have its own name as Boom architecture, it is stylistically a colonial outpost of the late Victorian England aesthetic expression in the architecture of the laissez-faire.36
In 1889 the retiring President of the Victorian Institute of Architects Sir George Verdon noted with some satisfaction that architects had been permitted to spend more in costly construction and ornament than would have found favour with proprietors a few years ago. It was an age of eclectism in architecture, and Vernon further observed that eclectism was more extensive in Australia than most countries.37
Pitt, like the majority of his architectural contemporaries, moved easily between architectural styles. His monumental Princess Theatre carries the French Second Empire style with conviction, the picturesque Rialto and Olderfleet office buildings are delicately scaled and detailed essays in the Commercial Gothic and his Moorish red brick and stucco design for Harry Rickards's Opera House brings a bold vigour to the streetscape. Pitt's many competition successes indicate that he was not only a skilled designer but also an astute judge of the architectural climate. Pitt's undoubted ability to consistently produce high quality and well-planned architecture in a number of styles stood him in good stead in architectural competitions. Few architects of the period were able to match Pitt's ability to successfully produce such diverse designs and his surviving architectural drawings in the Commercial Gothic mode in particular stand out for their assured massing and detail. While there are no depictions of works in the Queen Anne style in the Pitt architectural drawing collection, the State Library of Victoria holds a beautiful presentation watercolour of a building in the style from an entirely different source. The work is Pitt's second-prize winning design in the Federal Coffee Palace competition of 1886 and its accomplished Queen Anne manner is a further testament to his architectural versatility.
Pitt's theatre work in the first two decades of the twentieth century sometimes lacked the invention and fluency of his nineteenth-century work. While his King's Theatre in Melbourne of 1907 and the Wellington Opera House of 1913 were no doubt

Fig. 7. Proposed J C Williamson Theatre, Sydney, 1914.
Pictures Collection, WD THE 26 Sheet 35.

excellent and beautiful theatres, their stuccoed conservative classical elevations with mansard towers seem uncharacteristically unadventurous. These works however seem to be only a temporary lapse of form. Two projects designed in 1914 further demonstrate Pitt's ability to respond to a change in a period when the rich opulence of Boom period architecture had lost favour. His Hoyts De Luxe Picture Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne and the proposed J. C. Williamson theatre in Sydney (Fig. 7), for which Pitt names himself as the designing architect while technically being only a joint architect with the Sydney architectural firm of Kent Budden and Greenwell, are accomplished works in the Federation Free Style.
William Pitt was a sensitive, perceptive and naturally gifted architect with a keen appreciation of the need to keep abreast of the constantly changing aesthetic landscape over his professional career of nearly forty years. His Princess Theatre, Gordon House, and the Rialto, Olderfleet, former Stock Exchange buildings are vital survivors from a period of booming optimism where a youthful generation of architects, many Australian-born, set aside the more measured architectural decorum of the previous generation of architects. These works are lasting reminders of his skill and versatility and the survival of the drawings which document their creation allows us to more fully understand the architecture. These buildings are however no more than noble fragments from a lifetime's work. The many buildings of great beauty from the Pitt office which were never realized or have been lost live on through the survival of the hundreds of drawings in the Picture Collection of the State Library of Victoria. The collection is a valuable resource in the understanding of nineteenth-century architecture and an outstanding testament to a remarkable architectural career.


Some further examples of Pitt's architectural drawings were acquired from the Berry Auction Sale, Australian Book Auctions, 7–8 April, 2008. Figure one (p. 77) was one of those purchased from the sale.


Victorian Parliamentary Debates, 9 July 1918, vol. 149, p. 7.




Leader, 1 June 1918, p. 17.


Licensed Victualler's Advocate, 28 January 1879, p. 8.


Mimi Colligan, ‘William Pitt snr’, in P. Parsons, ed, Companion to Theatre in Australia, Sydney: Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp 443–4.


Argus, 30 Oct. 1872, supp., p. 1.


Ballarat Star, 28 Dec. 1889, supp., p. 1.


Argus, 2 Oct. 1908, p. 5; Death Certificate of Stanley Melbourne Pitt.


New Zealand Truth, 21 March 1914, p 2; New Zealand Truth, 18 July 1914, p. 5.


New Zealand Truth, 18 July 1914, p. 5.


Argus, 5 Feb. 1925, p. 9; Argus, 13 March 1925, p. 9; Argus, 18 Nov. 1925, p. 17.


Harry Musgrove, ‘Stage Secrets’, Table Talk, 2 September 1926, p. 9.


Daily Telegraph, 19 December 1886, p. 7.


T W H Leavitt, ed, ‘Arthur Garner’, Australian Representative Men, Melbourne: Wells and Leavitt, 1887, vol. 1, unpaginated.


Table Talk, 22 March 1889, p. 6.


Argus, 30 Sept. 1886, p. 5.


Argus, 20 Dec. 1886, p. 7. Harry Musgrove Snr, ‘Stage Secrets’, Table Talk, 2 Sept. 1926, p. 9.


Age, 20 Dec. 1886, p. 6.


Nellie Stewart. My Life's Story, Sydney: J. Sands, 1923, p. 76.


Age, 20 Dec 1886, p. 6; Australasian, 25 December 1886, p. 1226; West Australian, 7 June 1897, p. 2.


See Allom Lovell & Associates Pty Ltd, The Princess Theatre: an appraisal of the conservation constraints, Melbourne: Allom Lovell & Associates, 1986, fig. 31.


Alan Gowans, in Charles L. Eastlake, A History of the Gothic Revival, New York: Library of Victorian Culture, 1979, p. x.


R. Mander and J. Mitchenson, Lost Theatres of London, London: New English Library, 1976, pp. 11–24, passim.


Australasian Builder and Contractors News, 25 July 1891, pp. 66–7; MS 13293 Box 3867/5. Elizabeth Pitt Album, Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria.


Alexander Sutherland, ed, Victoria and its Metropolis, Melbourne: McCarron Bird, 1888, vol. II, p. 529.


For the development of sliding roofs in theatres see Terry Sawyer, ‘Theatres of Influence: the remarkable music halls of Robert Edwin Villiers, Theatre Notebook, vol. 62, no. 3, pp 144–62.


New York Times, 9 Jan 1910, Part vi, p. 9.


Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning Collection, WD THE 15 Sheet 16 dated 10 June 1886.


Argus, 20 December 1886, p. 7.


Miles Lewis, Australian Building: a Cultural Investigation, electronic resource,, pp 8.05.5; 8.05.7.


Victorian Heritage Database, electronic resource,;743.


Australasian Builder and Contractors News, 15 November, 1890, p. 362.


Alan Holgate, John Monash's engineering work prior to World War One, electronic resource,∼aholgate/jm/bldgtext/bldgs19.html#spinks.




J. Mordaunt Crook, The Dilemma of Style, London: John Murray, 1989, p. 128.


Australasian Builder and Contractors News, 16 February 1889, p. 150.