Edwin Hubert Henderson Architect

This site is dedicated to the life and work of Edwin Hubert Henderson, architect (1885-1939). Henderson was Chief Architect of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1929-1939.

Brisbane’s GPO and Henderson

Brisbane’s architectural heritage has not fared well.   Notoriously, many beautiful colonial buildings were demolished in the 1960s and ‘70s, and proper heritage legislation had to wait until the 1990s.  It is not well known that one of the most significant buildings of the colonial era – the General Post Office in Queen Street – was very nearly demolished before the second world war; and EH Henderson had prepared ambitious plans for a modern new skyscraper to take its place. 

An unloved and truncated public building

The GPO was completed in 1872 under the direction of Francis Drummond Greville Stanley (1839—1897).  Stanley, a Scot, had trained as an architect in Edinburgh and emigrated to Queensland in 1861 where he joined the Lands Department and became Chief Clerk of Works.  He went on to become the Queensland Colonial Architect (1872-1883) and designed a number of notable buildings including the Queensland Club and the Roma Street Railway Station.

FDG Stanley (John Oxley Library)

The GPO was designed in an Italianate style, something of a departure for Stanley who was well known for his academic classical work (for example, the National Bank in Queen Street) (Appleby et al p55).  The most notable features of the design are the prominent tower and arcaded loggia (to provide shade for clients waiting to use the post office).  Prominent local, John Petrie, was the builder, using a material used Brisbane Tuff, “Porphyry” probably from Kangaroo Point for the base, sandstone or freestone from the quarry at Breakfast creek and from Helidon.   Over time the building was expanded to accommodate the telegraph and, later, the new telephone.  Additional buildings were constructed facing Elizabeth Street.

Stanley’s plan for the new GPO National Archives

Originally the GPO was intended to have a 110 foot clock tower.   However, when the clock arrived from England it was discovered to be unsuitable to be installed in a large tower because the weights and pulleys did not fit the original plans.  The tower reduced to 50 feet, its present height, and a clock not initially installed in this tower.  Later plans to return to this plan were shelved due to difficult colonial finances.  The original proposal would have lent the GPO a much more imposing presence – and its absence was unfortunate.

The GPO in 1940 National Archives J2364 2092/6

The need for a replacement was apparent almost as soon as it was complete and the clamours for a replacement went on, quite literally, for decades.   The Post Office continued to upgrade the facilities.  Brisbane the first post office in Australia and the Southern Hemisphere to use mechanical equipment for handling mail in 1925.

The challenge was that the GPO was at the same time “so graceful and pleasing without and congested within” (Courier Mail 7 Dec 1937).   In 1919, the Post Master General complained the building is “ill designed and costly” and argued for a new GPO on an open plan basis which would allow for effective supervision of staff: “the malingerer easily located and the honest worker identified” (Telegraph 24 July 2019).   The building was also widely seen as congested for use by the public.  The fact that Queensland’s Federal members of Parliament were housed in the GPO and experienced its shortcomings first hand added to the calls for change (until they moved into the new Commonwealth Buildings on Anzac Square in 1934).

Agitation and Action

While the matter was debated in the 1920s, the issue sharpened in the 1930s.  In 1936, the Daily Standard made this a matter of modernity and civic pride for Brisbane:

“A post office headquarters as much behind the times as a Cobb and Co mail delivery would be in this age of 200 miles per hour air delivery. Except for the Customs House – which was built by a State Government before Federation – and the new Commonwealth Buildings in Anzac Square, which have yet be finished, there is not a Commonwealth building in the city worthy of the name”

(14 May 1936)

In late 1936 the Government began to move, with Cabinet considering the matter and the Prime Minister (Mr Lyons) asking for plans to be prepared by the Department of Works and the Post Master General’s department. (Warwick Daily News 8 August 1936).  The Treasurer, Mr Casey, was despatched to Queensland and spent time at the post office “further proof of the Commonwealth’s earnestness in proceeding with the scheme” (Courier Mail 9 August 1936).  

The Courier-Mail in particular was sceptical that the Government would actually deliver (justifiably as it turns out).  In March 1937 the paper was speculating that Sydney may be given precedence with the announcement of the new GPO there (another Henderson project) (31 March 1937).  However, in the June 1937 budget funding was allocated for the new project. 

Henderson was in Brisbane in August 1937 for meetings about the project (Northern Herald 28 August 1937).  The new GPO would have seven stories and replace several buildings that made up the GPO complex, facing both Queen Street and Elizabeth Street.  The site was nearly 2 acres, and the total complex would comprise 240,000 square feet, a massive undertaking.  The project was so large that it would take 6-7 years to complete with a staged approach.  The Post Master-General’s Department said requirements of 100 years ahead were being taken into account, quite unlike the original building (Courier Mail 27 August 1937).  The Federal Election was in October 1937, which may have explained the activity.

By December the Courier was again chastising the Commonwealth:

“There are many citizens of Brisbane who have grown grey since a Commonwealth Government promised to provide Queensland’s capital city with a new General Post Office. The opening of a completed new General Post Office may be the main event of Brisbane’s sesquicentenary in 1974! The conditions under which the public is now required to do its Christmas postal business and postal employees are required to perform their onerous duties are disgraceful” .

(7 December 1937)

The air of unreality about the project continued when the Town Planning Association suggested that planes should be able to land on the new GPO to drop off mail.   The Deputy Director of Posts and Telegraph (Mr A B Corbett) doubted the roof space was sufficient and commented that:

“I am afraid the splash of water when flying boats alight might inconvenience people in Queen St.  As overseas mail would be carried by huge flying boats it would be necessary to provide a pool, which of course, could also swerve as a swimming bath .

(Queensland Times 2 October 1937)

This episode prompted a peeved letter from the Queensland Director of Works (James Orwin) to his Director-General in Canberra (21 February 1938).  He complained:

“I have to advise that there is in Brisbane a Town Planning Association, mainly composed of persons with little or no knowledge of the subject, but who are always ready to criticise Commonwealth projects.  The principal mover in this direction is one who glories in the name of Inigo Jones; unfortunately, unlike his namesake, he possesses no architectural ability.  Mr Jones and his Association occasioned this Branch quite a lot of trouble in connection with the Commonwealth Offices, Brisbane, by criticising the design and making suggestions through the public press, also by practically demanding to see the plans and interviewing Members of Parliament, with a view to achieving the wishes of the Town Planning Association”.

National Archives J86 1952/1762

Mr Orwin was quite cross about the media commentary of Mr Corbett asking that he not make public details of the project, no doubt to avoid encouraging the Association further.

By earl 1938, the project was on track.  The Director-General of Post Services announced the project would begin the 1938/9 financial year with a budget of £400,000.   The Post Master General commented that:

“The architectural character of the existing buildings cannot be preserved, but steps will be taken to ensure that the design of the new buildings will be of a high standard.”

Telegraph 9 February 1938

The same day, the Courier blasted the delay:

“The present building was erected more than 60 years ago to serve a city of only 30,000 people. It was condemned as inadequate as long ago as 1889. The staff employed in it numbered no more than 180. Now it numbers 1240. Measured by standards of public convenience, of working conditions for postal employees, and of business efficiency, the accommodation provided in the present building is a disgrace to the Postmaster-General’s Department and is an affront to Queensland and its capital” .

(9 February 1938)

In April 1938, Henderson was at work with plans and the public was told that matter was “being given detailed consideration” (Warwick Daily News 29 April 1938).  The 1938 budget saw £75,000 pounds allocated, followed by a visit by the Post-Master General to Queensland (Maryborough Chronicle 2 June 1938).   In August Henderson delivered a second revised design.  However, by September the allocated budget had been cut to £50,000. 

Courier Mail 25 August 1937

The Minister for Postponement-General

The Federal Labor Opposition had taken to calling the Post-Master General the “Minister for Postponement-General” in relation to this project, with The Worker commenting

“We have been discussing a proposal to build a new general post office in Brisbane since Federation, and, if God is good to us, we shall probably be still discussing it 50 years hence. .

(15 November 38)

But by early 1939, the project was completed defunded due to the need for defence funding.   However, with Robert Menzies becoming Prime Minister in April 1939, his new Post-Master General (and close ally) Eric Harrison visited Queensland in April and made a promise to bring the matter to Cabinet after meeting with MPs from all parties (Warwick Daily News 5 May 1939).   However by June Cabinet had deferred the matter.

Menzies himself came to Brisbane and was asked about the matter at a function on 29 June for the Chamber of Manufactures.  He stated:

“I put it to you, gentlemen, which is more important to-day – the preservation of the security of Australia or the provision of a new post office in Brisbane.

The Federal Government was concentrating on defence not because it believed that war was inevitable but because it believed that expenditure on defence was an insurance against the ever-present risk of war he said” .

(Courier Mail 30 June 1939)

A committee that had been formed to advocate for a new GPO had a “sparsely attended meeting in the Lord Mayor’s room” and adjourned indefinitely after failing to get commitments from the business community to financially support a new GPO (Courier Mail 13 July 1939).

Over the next 20 years, more promises were made.  In 1946 the Postmaster General inspected the GPO and stated that “when the new building was erected the present Renaissance facade would have to go, it would be impossible to retain in in a modern building. (Ipswich Times 15 May 1946).  In 1948 Prime Minister Chifley flagged that it might be possible to commence work soon.

The local member, George Lawson MHR, was a lonely figure continuing to raise the issue.  The Courier captured the sense of resignation:

“Against a background of muffled laughter, Mr Lawson (Lab. Qld) asked “can the Minster state when the building of a new GPO in Brisbane will begin.

Mr Anthony, Postmaster-General, said “Every Postmaster General for decades has been asked this and every one has promised to do either something or nothing. At the present time, I cannot see any prospects in view of building a new GPO in Brisbane” .

Courier Mail 15 March 1950
George Lawson MHR, Member for Brisbane 1931-1961

By 1952, the Director of Posts and Telegraph was stating that a replacement was “20 year distant”. (Telegraph 8 May 1952). 

Ironically, by the 1970s Australia Post had already removed many of the mail sorting from the GPO – 100 years later.  The building was renovated at a cost of  $700 000, including the installation of a new clock in the Post Office pediment.  Ironically a  Post and Technology Museum was opened in the Telegraph Wing, perhaps indicating the best use of the building.   Today, the GPO is still a retail post office but hosts a coffee shop and a number of shops.

Henderson’s Design

The context of the GPO is worth considering.  The construction of Anzac Square across from Central Station was intended to create a monumental public space.  John Smith Murdoch, Henderson’s predecessor as Chief Architect, outlined the design in 1916-17 which called for State and Commonwealth office buildings facing Anzac Square in the stripped classical style (East 2018:8), a plan which was eventually executed in 1930.  Extending the square from Adelaide Street to Queen Street was long talked about to create an orientation from the GPO to the Shrine of Remembrance and Central Station (which would await the construction of Post Office Square decades later in 1984).   Given this, the design of the GPO potentially facing an expanded Anzac Square was important – it would play an anchoring role at one end of this space. 

The National Archives contain two designs for the new GPO by Henderson – one in April 1938 and the second in August 1938.   Both designs are distinctly modern – but with different architectural impulses.

April 1938 design for Brisbane GPO by Henderson National Archives BP277
April design Parcels Office fronting Elizabeth Street

The April design features long horizontal bands of windows across the façade of the building – a touch of the international style.  A few Deco embellishments like the two flagpoles give the building style and yet it is a simple design. 

Detail of April Design
April design entrance

The August design is vertical – more of a skyscraper design with long vertical bays on windows, a stepped massing, and a prominent clock tower (perhaps a nod to Stanley’s original design).   The August design is a return to Henderson’s stripped classical style and is more imposing than the April design.  The treatment of the windows is close to that of the Sydney GPO design.   

August 1938 Design for Brisbane GPO National Archives BP277
August design Elizabeth Street elevation
August design entrance

Both designs called for a building of around 130 feet in height facing Queen Street, but the additional of the tower in the second added approximately 20 feet to the height.   Before the second world war, Brisbane had a height restriction of 132 feet (40 metres) for “fireproof buildings” (East 2018:13), so both designs were at the limit.  Perhaps the tower might have been allowed because it was not occupied space.

August design clock tower

It is unclear what led to the change in design.  Henderson was in Brisbane in August 1938 for conferences with local post office officials so perhaps he was responding to feedback on the earlier design.  We know that plans were prepared in 1934 – but the only copies were mislaid by the Postmaster-General’s Department (the subject of quite extensive and icy correspondence in 1936 when the loss was discovered). 

The April design has similarities to the then new and ultra-modern Courier Mail building located diagonally opposite the GPO at 300 Queen Street.  Completed in 1937, this building was designed by an alliance between a local firm, Atkinson and Conrad, and the Melbourne firm of Stephenson and Meldrum.  The design was:

The first prominent example in Brisbane of the modern conception of architecture where form follows function without any attempt to clothe it in meaningless ornament.  Relying on simplicity that approaches austerity, it is an exemplification of modern thoughts that strips away non-essentials and concentrates upon the choice of materials and their proper application (Courier Mail 4 May 1937).

The Courier building had “large stainless windows in pronounced horizontal rows, suggesting the ribbon windows of the Functionalist style… these horizontal lines were offset by the strong vertical lines of the tower, which rose from both street elevations” (East 2018:117).   Henderson’s design certainly would have complemented this building.  It was built with the contemplation of facing the expanded Anzac Square.

Courier Mail Building (East 2018)

The August design had more in common with another new building in Queen Street – the Penneys Building at 210 Queen Street. Also designed by Atkinson and Conrad (later Conrad Gargutt), the Pennys building was similarly streamlined with strong verticality, but perhaps with more Deco flourishes then Henderson’s design (particularly the fins along the parapet).

Pennys Building 1950s (East 2018)

Certainly the second design would have created a more imposing presence at the end of an expanded public square.  The two story height of the existing GPO would have been replaced by a seven story building with a clock tower.  This height would have better reflected the neighbouring Commonwealth Bank headquarters (demolished to create Macarthur Central) and the Colonial Mutual Life Building (now the Manor Apartments).   

Conclusion

The Commonwealth did return to potential designs for a new Brisbane GPO after the war, but is unclear whether Henderson’s design remained in contention.  Events, or perhaps of a lack of events, then passed this project by.

Henderson, like any architect, was subject to the ability and willingness of his client (the Commonwealth) to fund projects.  And the Commonwealth’s budget is the subject of many competing pressures.   The Brisbane GPO would be Henderson’s largest unrealised project apart, perhaps, from his full design of the National Library in Canberra, of which only a small part was actually built.   Whilst this is a pity for Henderson’s body of work, Brisbane’s heritage is the richer for the retention of the GPO building as an example of our colonial history.

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This entry was posted on March 28, 2021 by in Works.

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