Topic: Gen - St - WA
The following history, Swan Barracks, Francis Street, Northbridge is extracted from a booklet produced by the 5th Military District in 1992. It is well researched and put together for anyone to read.
Part 2, The Building
The first two storeys of Swan Barracks' central stone building, and the drill hall behind it, have the distinction of being among the oldest buildings in Northbridge.
Local builders Holman and Cousten's tender of £52,080/1/11 for construction of the drill hall was accepted on 16 August 1895. The building was supposed to have been finished by December but it was not completed until Christmas Eve 1896.
The lengthy delay must have been difficult to accept given the growing demand for the hall and the contractor's recent experience with an almost identical building.
The distinctive curved trussed roofing used on the hall, quite modern for the time, was the same as that used for another military drill hall built by Holman and Cousten in Holdsworth Street Fremantle in 1895.
The frustrating delays were set to increase when Holman and Cousten's tender of 1400 pounds for the administration building was also successful.
On its scheduled completion date of September 30, 1896, construction of the building had barely started. The tardiness appears, however, to have had little to do with the contractors.
In his historical survey and management plan of the barracks, Perth architect John Stephens says the delays may have been caused by the rejection of the original plans drawn for the administration building in 1895.
"There may have been some problem with the design of the administration buildings," he says. "New plans were drawn up in April 1896 and a tender was accepted in July, but it was not signed by the contractors until February 1897.
"Construction of the Royal Mint Building (now the Perth Mint) may also have slowed work in the less prestigious building at Francis Street.
"Limestone used for both buildings was transported from Rottnest Island, a difficult task in the winter months, and the administration building contract may have been held over until summer because of the
lack of stone."
The Public Works Department finally reported to Parliament in 1897:
"Perth - Central drill hall, completed, comprising stone administration offices and large iron drill shed and branch rooms.”
In 1900 another drill hall was built west of the existing structure. The hall was designed, and the construction supervised, by J.J. Talbot Hobbs (later Sir), a prominent local architect who was also a major with the volunteers.
(Talbot's talents as an architect were destined to be overshadowed by his talents as a soldier. He commanded the Australia Corps as Lieutenant General Hobos from 1918-19. The Artillery Drill Hall, as it became known, was demolished in 1955.)
At Federation the new Commonwealth took over the buildings, then valued at 11,315 pounds.
The present facade of the stone administration building has been part of the Northbridge landscape since completion of the third level in 1910.
When the building was finished one soldier said it resembled "Castle Greyskull", a fantasy castle of children's fiction. The parapet and robust design of the new floor certainly complemented the romantic characteristics of the earlier building, enhancing its imposing and distinctive street facade.
The next addition to the expanding complex was the two-stage construction of the red brick and stone buildings on Museum Street. The first portion, the three level building at the North West corner of the site, was built in 1905. Six years later the second stage filled the remaining Museum Street frontage as well as taking up part of the western Francis Street frontage.
These western buildings were modified significantly in 1936 to provide an entrance, staircase and fireplace for the officers’ mess on the corner of Museum and Francis Streets.
The modifications also saw the United Services Institute (USI) moved from its original rooms next to the officers mess to the second floor of the North West corner.
(The barracks' resident ghost is said to inhabit the old USI library and offices. "George" the ghost has spooked staff and USI members over the years with the occasional touch of a ghostly hand and noisy strolls along the old floor boards.)
The original plans for the east and west wings on Francis Street were also drawn in 1936 but a later sketch dated June 1939 appears to have been the basis for the building.
Wartime secrecy clouds the detail, but the east wing (on Francis Street) and the north east wing (bordering Beaufort Street) were probably built in 1941 to cater for increasing administration pressures of World War Two.
While the date of completion of the western wing (Francis Street) is not recorded, it is likely to have been finished around the time of the demolition of the Artillery Drill Hall in the later half of the 1950s.
With available space being all-but filled, construction work after 1955 was restricted to relatively minor internal alterations. Among the more notable alterations for the soldiers was the extension of the Sergeant's Mess in the late 1970s into the part of the north east wing formally occupied by an other ranks canteen. The ORs canteen was relocated to a partitioned area at the eastern end of the drill hall.
Over the years of development few rooms in the barracks have been left untouched. The building, while of significant historic value, was primarily a workplace and work needs often had to take precedence over aesthetics and nostalgia.
Swan Barracks remains, however, one of Perth's most distinctive buildings and it will remain a focal point in the memories of those tens of thousands of Western Australian soldiers who either enlisted or served there.
Swan Barracks History, Part 1, the Site
Swan Barracks History, Part 2, the Building
Swan Barracks History, Part 3, the Soldiers
Citation: Swan Barracks History, Part 2, the Building