William Pitt 1855 – 1918
- William Pitt 1855 – 1918
William Pitt 1855 – 1918
William Junior, was born two years later, on 4 June 1855.
In 1872, when he was just 25, Browne had designed the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street for George Coppin.
William Pitt’s first major project came in 1879: he was associate architect for the Melbourne Coffee Palace in Bourke Street.
‘There is no other such house in Australia; there are few to beat it in the whole wide world,’rhapsodised The Bulletin when William Pitt’s Princess Theatre opened in Melbourne in 1886. ‘It is rich in marble steps, peacock blue plush, mimic waterfalls, refreshment rooms and Neapolitan ices – not to mention an open air lounge and a sliding dome. The latter arrangement enables one to gaze at the blue canopy of heaven and make astronomical surveys between acts. When the dome slides it is like being at a picnic without the earwigs.’
‘The Princess Theatre is Pitt’s most outstanding building in the luscious French Second Empire style,’ wrote architectural historian Philip Goad more than a century later. ‘William Pitt had such an extraordinary talent for eclectic invention that it seems hardly credible that the same architect designed the Melbourne Stock Exchange, the Rialto Building and the Princess Theatre.’
William Pitt’s father was a British-born scene painter and publican who migrated to Melbourne in 1853. His son, William Junior, was born two years later, on 4 June 1855. Pitt Senior managed the Olympian Hotel, attached to George Coppin’s Olympic Theatre in Lonsdale Street and he was also involved with Coppin in his Cremorne Gardens amusement park on the banks of the Yarra in Richmond. Pitt Senior was the first treasurer of the Victorian Academy of Arts and he exhibited his paintings in its shows. At the time of his death in 1879 he was licensee of the popular Café de Paris at the Theatre Royal, which was decorated with his paintings.
William Pitt Junior was educated at Hofwyl House Academy in St Kilda and at G. H. Neighbour’s Carlton College. He served his articles with the fashionable and flamboyant Melbourne architect George ‘Diamond’ Browne. In 1872, when he was just 25, Browne had designed the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street for George Coppin. In 1875, the year Pitt joined his practice, Browne was commissioned by W.J.T. ‘Big’ Clarke, an enormously rich pastoralist and businessman, to design the Academy of Music in Lydiard Street, Ballarat.
William Pitt’s first major project came in 1879: he was associate architect for the Melbourne Coffee Palace in Bourke Street. It was the city’s first temperance hotel and one of its tallest buildings. The following year he designed the Falls Bridge which connected Queen Street with the Melbourne’s southern suburbs.
Pitt’s first theatrical commission came in the in the early 1880s: alterations to the Colosseum music hall in Bourke Street and the erection of the Victoria Hall behind it. In Sydney Pitt prepared plans for a New Queen’s Theatre in York Street and for extensive alterations to the Opera House, but these did not proceed; neither did his 1883 design for a Comedy Theatre in Russell Street, Melbourne.
In 1884 Pitt was commissioned by George Coppin to design a ‘model tenement for working class families’ at 22-34 Little Bourke Street. It was not a success and Coppin turned it into Gordon House, a lodging house for homeless men. Today the graceful Gothic-influenced complex is Oakford Gordon Place, a business and leisure centre.
Pitt had just turned 30 when he received the commission that established him as the greatest Australian theatre architect of his time. ‘The Triumvirate’, J.C. Williamson, Arthur Garner and George Musgrove, engaged him to design a new Princess Theatre to replace the barn-like former Astley’s Amphitheatre that had stood in Spring Street, Melbourne, since 1854. The Princess was revolutionary: a large, handsome playhouse, with a gloriously extravagant French Baroque exterior that set it apart from all its contemporaries. Later Williamson claimed some of the credit: ‘I speak with the fullest knowledge as to the construction of [a] theatre, because before the Princess was rebuilt in 1886 I spent weeks with the architect going through the plans…’. And Nellie Stewart, loyal to her lover, claimed, ‘Mr Pitt was credited with the work, but George Musgrove really planned and imagined the whole splendid fabric, and personally supervised every detail. The acoustic qualities were perfect; the commanding view and seating wonderful; and the stage, stage appointments, and lighting, a revelation.’
The Princess (or Princess’s, as it was then known) boasted open balconies on its Spring Street frontage, a grand marble staircase leading to an sumptuous circle foyer, waterfalls and fern grottoes on either side of the proscenium, and auditorium ventilation aided by a sliding roof, claimed to be the world’s first. The Princess opened on 18 December 1886 with Nellie Stewart in a revival of The Mikado.
Over the next few years, using the popular ‘Venetian Gothic’ idiom, Pitt designed many of the boom period buildings that helped create the image of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ – the splendid Federal Coffee Palace on the corner of Bourke and King Street (1887), the grand original Stock Exchange building in Collins Street (1888-89) and the ornate Rialto and Olderfleet buildings in Collins Street (1890).
In 1891 Pitt was in a consortium of architects that worked on the Cyclorama in Little Bourke Street. Huge circular buildings designed to display minutely detailed 360-degree panoramas of historical events, cycloramas were popular forms of ‘educational’ entertainment in the pre-cinema era. Parts of the exterior of Pitt’s cyclorama – there was another in East Melbourne – have survived: it has been recycled several times and now houses Georges apartments.
Pitt financed a prospecting expedition to the Kimberleys after gold was discovered there in 1885 and was reported to have purchased around 810,000 hectares near Cambridge Gulf in Western Australia but, like thousands of others, he suffered badly in the Depression of the 1890s. Nevertheless he survived and eventually paid all his debts.
The last two decades of Pitt’s life were immensely productive: town halls in St Kilda and Brunswick, St Peter’s parsonage and the Victoria Brewery in East Melbourne, the Leitrim, Markillies and Lord Clyde (Waterside) Hotels in Melbourne, warehouses for Foy & Gibson’s, two docks on the Yarra, grandstands at Flemington, Caulfield and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, plus sundry shops and showrooms, mansions and factories.
But it was his extraordinarily prolific theatre work that set Pitt’s practice apart. The avalanche began in 1898, when he was commissioned to make major alterations to the work of his mentor, George Browne. Pitt reworked the interior of Ballarat’s Academy of Music into the superb playhouse that is still serving its community as the much-loved Her Majesty’s Theatre.
For J.C. Williamson, Pitt rebuilt the auditorium of the Alexandra in Exhibition Street, Melbourne; it reopened in 1900 as Her Majesty’s. The following year he designed the New Opera House in Bourke Street for Harry Rickards. It was a typical British music hall, intimate and inviting. Commentators were concerned that its acoustics were perhaps too good, as some ‘indistinctness’ might be preferable for the saucier acts. The Australasian noted the extreme rake of the dress circle, ‘designed apparently to minimise the inconvenience of the matinee hat. Building a theatre in order to beat the matinee hat is rather like burning down a house to boil an egg, but the seats are delightfully comfortable, and the innovation is not unpleasant.’ The theatre was renamed the Tivoli in 1912. The auditorium was extensively remodelled in 1956, but, a decade later, the whole place went up in flames.
Pitt designed His Majesty’s Theatre in Auckland in 1902 and was responsible for rebuilding the burnt-out auditorium and stage of Her Majesty’s in Pitt Street, Sydney, which reopened in 1903.
In 1904 Pitt reworked the auditorium and stage of the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street, Melbourne, which, like the Academy of Music in Ballarat, had been designed by his mentor, George Browne. In 1908 he designed the new King’s Theatre in Russell Street for William Anderson. In 1911 he supervised a major refurbishment that gave Hobart’s Theatre Royal a new, larger auditorium and improved audience facilities. In 1914 he rebuilt the auditorium of the Theatre Royal in Adelaide and provided Wellington, New Zealand, with its superb Grand Opera House. Pitt’s 1914 scheme for an elaborate new theatre for J.C. Williamson’s in Bathurst Street, Sydney, was abandoned when war broke out.
Pitt had the distinction of designing one of this country’s first specifically designed cinemas. It was little more than a vast, ugly shed, built in 1909 for the pioneer cinema entrepreneur T.J. West on the corner of City Road and Sturt Street in South Melbourne. And Pitt’s last completed commission was another cinema, Hoyts Picture Theatre in Bourke Street, Melbourne, which opened in April 1915; it was later renamed the De Luxe and then the Esquire.
Over the years Pitt’s style changed little. His theatres were fashionably ornate but comfortable, and even the largest provided a satisfyingly intimate exchange between audience and performer. Their design reflected the then accepted strict social divisions: the more affluent patrons made their way through glittering foyers to their upholstered chairs, while the less well heeled entered discretely through side doors, and climbed stark staircases to reach their hard benches in the ‘gods’, or peered from behind the forests of supporting pillars that were inevitable in those pre-cantilever days. Only Pitt’s Hoyts Picture Theatre reflected a more democratic approach: a single entrance and no pillars – but this was a purpose-designed cinema, not a playhouse.
But Pitt was not only an extremely busy architect. He loved sport. For many years he was a leading coursing judge and a prize-winning marksman. As Patron of Collingwood Football Club he built the first grandstand at Victoria Park free of charge. He served as a Collingwood city councillor from 1888 to 1894 and was mayor in 1890-91. He represented the council on the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works in 1891-92. He was a member of the Melbourne Harbour Trust from 1894 to 1913, and its chairman from 1901 to 1905). A staunch protectionist and Federationist, Pitt represented the seats of North Yarra and, later, East Melbourne in the Victorian Legislative Council from 1891 to 1910. He was chairman of committees from 1908 to 1910. He was vice-president of the Victorian Institute of Architects in 1887-88. He was also prominent in Freemasonry and an active member of the Australian Natives’ Association.
‘A stout, warm-hearted, genial man with generous mutton-chop whiskers,’ ‘Billie’ Pitt died in Melbourne on 25 May 1918 at his Abbotsford home, ‘Mikado’ – named for the production that had opened his celebrated Princess Theatre three decades before. His practice was continued by his associate, Albion H. Walkley, who had joined him as an assistant in 1900. Walkley later shared his expertise with the young Charles Neville Hollinshed when they designed the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne (1928) and rebuilt the burnt out interior of that city’s Her Majesty’s (1934). Hollinshed went on to work on many more theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand.
A large collection of Pitt’s plans is preserved in the State Library of Victoria. Many of his fine buildings can still be seen in Melbourne but, sadly, little of his theatrical work has survived. The theatrical storehouse he built behind Her Majesty’s in Melbourne is now the Chinese Museum. The exterior and grand foyer of the Princess in Melbourne and the interior of Her Majesty’s in Ballarat are fine examples of his work, but the one remaining complete Pitt theatre is not in Australia: it is the beautifully restored Grand Opera House in Wellington, New Zealand.
Frank Van Straten 2007
Mimi Colligan: ‘William Pitt Senior’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Philip Goad: Melbourne Architecture, Watermark Press, 1999
Diane Langmore: ‘William Pitt’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 11, Melbourne University Press
Ross Thorne: ‘William Pitt Junior’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995