Old Government House, on a knoll overlooking the river, was the first public building to be designed and built in the new colony of Queensland – named for Queen Victoria – and retains something of a regal air.
It’s among Brisbane’s most significant heritage buildings and in its day stood in lonely splendour on the peninsula into the river now known as Gardens Point.
The area had been thick scrub and known by its traditional owners as Meanjin meaning “place shaped like a spike”.
It was cleared to grow food for the struggling Moreton Bay penal settlement which was established in 1825.
Construction of Government House was one of the first decisions of Queensland’s first parliament which voted to spend 10,000 pounds on its construction, a princely sum for a new colony of only 25,000 people.
Its purpose was to be a home for the Queen’s representative and his family, a key administrative office for Queensland, and a hub for elite social events in the colony.
Newly-appointed government architect Charles Tiffin took only weeks to complete his plans for a grand Greek revival style house adapted to suit the local climate.
He was pleased with his work and described it as “the most economical vice-regal residence in the Australian Colonies.”
Tiffin went on to design more than 300 of Queensland’s public buildings, including nearby Parliament House.
The house was completed in May 1862, for the first governor, Sir George Bowen and his wife Lady Diamantina Bowen.
The Buckingham Palace association arrived when the 8th governor, Lord and Lady Lamington moved into the building 34 years later.
They were mates with the monarch, who was their son’s godmother, and did a lot of entertaining.
The interior decor changed as each new governor’s family decorated to their own taste. It is said Lady Lamington was horrified when she arrived in April 1896, claiming “they had done up all the rooms too fearfully” but a month later she had renovated and said “in every way this is such a nice house.”
As the population increased, the house became too small to cope with the social demands and the growing guest list for vice-regal functions.
The day it was announced the last governor, Sir William MacGregor would be moving out, December 10, 1909, was the same day the University of Queensland was established with him as its first chancellor.
When he left the following June, the building and its gardens became the university’s first campus and the first classes were held in the house in 1911. There were 83 students enrolled, 23 of them women.
The drawing room became the library, and the English and biology classes were held in the old dining room but by the 1920s it was realized it wasn’t ideal for a university, which moved to its current location in St Lucia in 1945.
The Queensland Institute of Technology, which became the Queensland University of Technology in 1989, took over the site and continued to use Old Government House for classes until the 1960s.
In 1960 Old Government House was identified as a vital part of Queensland’s built heritage.
Demolition threatened until 1969 when the newly formed National Trust of Queensland identified the House in its first list of significant buildings.
Major external and internal restoration work was carried out by the Trust throughout the 1980s and the House was the opened to visitors.
There’s little point in detailing all the features of the house and its significant history as a window to the colony, as this is covered well on its own website http://www.ogh.qut.edu.au/about/.
Suffice to say, it reflects the social mores of the day. The servants were kept well out of the way, work was separated from family life and even men and women had separate quarters, with the Governor’s quarters the most elaborate.
From a visitor’s perspective, it’s definitely got a lot more to offer than the current Government House (Day 50) where it’s hard to get a peek at its past at all.
Old Government House is open for free tours Sunday to Friday, 10am to 4pm.
Information and exhibits are brilliantly set up and it’s possible to wander right through the place, little signs in each room giving an indication of their early purpose.
Over two storeys, the house is bright and airy and every room has big windows letting in the light and views of what is now the botanic gardens.
A tour of Old Government House also includes the William Robinson Gallery, which opened in 2009. Robinson, a distinguished Australian painter with works in 33 public collections in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the Vatican City, attended the QUT in 1957-62.