‘I think everyone remembers how it feels to walk into Government House and to experience first-hand, the scale and the beauty of this heritage building,’ tells the Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau AC.

For Victoria’s first Lieutenant-Governor, Charles La Trobe, things looked considerably different, but still made an impact. In 1841, the site was parkland and had been an important meeting place and camping ground for local Aboriginal people. La Trobe saw great potential, as its highest point could provide one of the few vistas visible to Melburnians looking south of the Yarra River. And so, he set it aside for a future Government House.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that the Colonial Government called for design submissions, but the winning entry (an Elizabethan-style building J. G Knight and Kemp) was considered too costly. Another decade later, competition 2.0 saw a French Baronial-style building by Reed and Barnes chosen, however, estimated at £45,000, it was also deemed too expensive.

Cue the economic boom of the Gold Rush… In 1871, Inspector General of the Public Works Department William Wardell (of Melbourne’s St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral and Gothic Bank fame) was commissioned to create a purpose-built Government House for Victoria. John James ‘JJ’ Clark, who designed the Old Treasury Building, and Peter Kerr, who designed the Victorian Parliament House, worked under Wardell to draw the designs, which were ‘of Italian architecture’. Constructed by Martin and Peacock between 1872 and 1876, the building cost the colony £200,000, including furnishings.

Victoria’s Government House, built in 1876, in the Italianate style. The tower, with the arcaded lookout and decorated cornice, is 44-metre high, excluding the flagpole which is 13.7-metres. The grounds today span 11 hectares, with 18 hectares having been transferred to Domain Park (now Kings Domain). Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

‘We are fortunate that the House was built in the 1870s, following the Gold Rush,’ says the Governor. ‘Victoria is the beneficiary of a purpose-built Government House, the largest in the Commonwealth still to this day, of which the State Apartments form the most significant wing, including the Ballroom.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Governor of Victoria, Linda Dessau AC and her husband Anthony Howard QC in The Conservatory. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Conservatory is an extension of the State Drawing Room and features views of the west lawn and the city skyline. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Small award ceremonies, musical recitals, international welcomes and community receptions are held in the State Drawing Room. The portrait is of novelist Mrs Campbell McInnes (later Angela Thirkell) (1912) by John Collier. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Most of the furniture was custom-made for this room in 1876 and the large casement windows to the left open out to the Fountain Court. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The State Chair is the focal point of the Ballroom. The arched back rail features a crown and has  ‘Advance Victoria’ carved underneath. It includes lions’ heads carved on the arms, the cross of St George (England and Wales), the cross of St Andrew (Scotland) on the legs, and the floral emblem of Ireland, the shamrock, on the skirt of the seat. it is only ever used by the Monarch or the Monarch’s representative. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Three original crystal chandeliers, by Oslers of Birmingham who supplied Buckingham Palace, are striking features of the Ballroom. Converted from gas to electricity, the chandeliers each have more than 1,000 pieces of crystal. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Under the current Governor, the ballroom has been utilised for a trailblazing IDAHOBIT reception, Red Cross blood drive, Circus Oz workshop, yoga class for International Yoga Day, rock concert for teenagers who need support, and reception for The Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their visit last year, to name but a few events. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The ballroom and adjoining Minstrels’ Gallery access room were originally white, redecorated in their current striking ‘Hopetoun blue’ colour scheme in 1889 for the arrival of Lord and Lady Hopetoun, the former was the first Governor-General of Australia. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

At 42-metres long and 16.7-metres wide, the Ballroom is bigger than the ballroom at Buckingham Palace. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The majority of the artwork is loaned from and rotated by the National Gallery of Victoria, with the Governor seeking to showcase a diversity of artists including women, indigenous and younger artists. To the left is an artwork, ‘Painting at Kalkutjara’ by Pantjiti Mary McLean, woven into a tapestry (1998) by Irene Creedon. To the right, is Sally Smart‘s ‘Diary (Joey and I)’ (1991). Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The Ballroom was restored in the 1960s – 700 books of gold leaf were used to decorate the ceiling alone! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

The State Dining Room features a telescopic table, seating 54 people, it’s almost the length of a cricket pitch. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

Brian Dunlop‘s ‘Sesquicentenary portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II’ (1984) in the State Hall. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

State Dining Room details, including the portrait ‘A Lady in Grey (Portrait of Mrs. McCubbin)’ (1900), by Frederick McCubbin. ‘I am always proud when I see local and international guests studying and appreciating the broad range of Victorian art on display,’ tells the Governor. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.

When the House was completed The Argus newspaper reported: ‘The shell may be a trifle rough, but the kernel is a sweet one. To the stranger the interior of Government House is one series of surprises’, praising the ‘superb’ entrance hall, staircases ‘rich in the wealth of the ironworker’s art’, and windows of ‘exquisitely frosted glass’. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files.


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