Looking East to Government House

This week we look across from the summit of what was then Emerald Hill to the nearest hilltop to the East. There we could see, back in 1876, the completed Italianate style mansion sitting atop of that far hilltop – Government House.

Government House had a sweeping and commanding view of Old Melbourne across the Yarra to the North-west, Richmond a little closer and to the West the thriving new estate of Emerald Hill. Even today if one looks from Bank St in South Melbourne directly East, you could see Government House – if not for the Shrine of Remembrance being placed directly in its line of sight.

Victoria was originally founded as the Port Phillip District of New South Wales. It became a separate colony in 1851.

Victoria’s first Government House was a prefabricated timber dwelling erected in what is now known Jolimont. ‘Latrobe’s Cottage’ as it came to be known was eventually transported to its current site on the corner of Dallas Brookes Drive and Birdwood Avenue. It was originally erected in Jolimont in 1839. Located between the Shrine of Remembrance and the Botanical Gardens now, the building still holds many of Latrobe’s personal possessions.

In 1854 Toorak House was leased by Sir Charles Hotham and became the second residence to be occupied by the Governor. It was built in 1849 by well known Melbourne Merchant James Jackson. The suburb of Toorak took its name from this house which is now owned by the Swedish Church. Mr Jackson is believed to have developed the name from local indigenous dialects from words meaning ‘black crow’ or ‘reedy swamp’ – hardly likely to please today’s well heeled ‘Toorak’ denizens. The design was, as was popular at the time, Italianate and its designer was said to be a Samuel Jackson. The property was home to 5 Victorian Governors up until 1874 when a new residence was leased – Bishopscourt in East Melbourne – until today’s Government House as we know it was completed in 1876.

‘Bishopscourt’ was and still is located in Clarendon St, East Melbourne and is largely of bluestone construction in a style or gothic architecture. Designed by Newson and Blackburn it was completed in 1853, and apart from its brief stint as Government House (1874-1876) it has always been the residence for Melbourne’s Anglican diocesan bishops and Archbishops. It has always been considered ‘ugly’ and most unattractive.

The area now known as ‘The Domain’ which includes the Domain Gardens, Government House and its grounds and the Botanical Gardens was ‘set aside’ in 1841. Construction of first rendition of Government House commenced in 1872 and as stated was completed in 1876.

The building was purpose designed for the Governor of Victoria – unlike the previous properties. Architects, William Wardell engaged JJ Clarke to supervise its design and construction. William Wardell Architects also designed St Patricks Cathedral (Catholic) and JJ Clarke designed the Treasury Building.

Reflecting prosperity and sophistication, the building was said to be the largest Government House in the then British Empire. With the economic boom provided by the Gold Rush of the times, the fledgling colony was transformed into a glamorous and breathtakingly beautiful city for the nineteenth century.

The Victorian Government House was the initial residence of Australia’s first governor General after Federation in 1901 up until 1930.


The grounds were originally landscaped as one parkland that included the Domain, the Botanical Gardens and Government House. Horticulturalist Joseph Sayce offered a design as a gift, which was accepted and commenced development of in 1873.

With meandering paths, curved carriageways and exotic plant varieties contributed by William Guilfoyle, the Director of the Botanical Gardens and curator of the project, the lush semi-tropical foliage and exotic plant varieties still exist today.

The building itself is immense and consists of the State Apartments, the Grand Ballroom, the State Drawing Room, the Conservatory, the State Dining Room and the State Hall.

The Ballroom holds upwards of 800 people, cocktail style. In it is placed the State Chair for the Monarch or Monarch’s representative. A mezzanine level to the South end of the Ballroom is designed to hold musicians playing at State functions. With its ornate ceiling of 27 separate sections and its original chandeliers converted from gas to electricity this is truly a Grand Ballroom.  The State Dining Room features Belgian etched glass windows. A Spanish mahogany table seats 54 guests, and with the high, very ornate ceiling this is a spectacular dining setting.

The State Hall completes this spectacular building with its unique barrel vaulted arched design. The Conservatory is an extension of the Drawing Room providing a view of the west lawn and the Melbourne City skyline. The State Drawing Room itself holds 100 people and is used for community and small award ceremonies.

Combined tours of Government House and Latrobe’s Cottage are undertaken on Mondays and Thursdays from 10am until 12.15pm. Tours are specifically for 30 plus people and must be booked through the National Trust website.

As can be seen all of ‘Old Melbourne’ is linked – in architecture, in vision and in prosperity. Walk the Domain and look across to Emerald Hill and the Yarra, to the MCG – 100 years ago your view would have been uninterrupted. Feel those passing you, who lived their lives here. This is a rich and rewarding history. And Government House is an incredible reflection of our prosperous yet frenetic past of early Victoria. Absorb it – this is Melbourne.

This is heritage.

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Balance Architecture recognises the importance of the preservation of Historical Architecture. We specialise in the renovation and restoration of Heritage Buildings.

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