Edmund Wright is closely associated with the architecture of colonial Adelaide having designed landmark public buildings on several of the city’s principal streets as well as significant suburban residences. He has been referred to as the ‘Wren’ of Adelaide (Jensen and Jensen 1980).
Wright was born in Fulham Park, London, on 4 April 1824 (Howell 2005). His father, Stephen Wright, was Master of Ordnance (artillery) at the Tower of London. The family had French relatives, and as a child Wright spent holidays in France which possibly influenced his taste for the ‘French Renaissance architecture ... [that] he was to display in many of his designs’ (Page 1986: 54).
As a youth Wright was articled to a Mr Stow, Borough Surveyor of the London suburb of Bermondsey, from whose office he graduated as architect, surveyor, and engineer. Appointed Clerk of Works at Yarmouth for the British government (Leong 1980), he later sailed to Bermuda to construct an iron lighthouse, and to Canada where he was concerned with building and engineering work. Returning to Bermuda to regain his failing health, he travelled subsequently to London from where he sailed to South Australia to join his brother Edward (Morgan & Gilbert 1969; Jensen and Jensen 1980). He arrived in the colony on 15 May 1849.
Wright’s first advertisement for his architectural services in South Australia was published in the Register newspaper in June 1849. Commissions must have been slow because between 1849 and 1860 Wright accepted various positions including as a clerk for the Mt Remarkable Mining Company, a surveyor with the Union Land and Building Society and the Alliance Assurance Company, City Surveyor for the Corporation of Adelaide and as agent for the Imperial Fire Insurance Company (Page 1986). Wright also spent a brief period of time on the Victorian gold diggings.
In June 1851 Wright took over the practice of architect Henry Stuckey, who had died in the previous May. A little over a year later, on 26 October 1852, he married Agnes, Stuckey’s widow with whom he raised a step-daughter and four children of his own. He bought and extended the cottage which Stuckey had been renting at 26 Palmer Place, North Adelaide (Page 1986). Later this became the site for the Walkley house, designed in 1955 by prominent Australian architect Robin Boyd.
In 1860, Wright formed an architectural partnership with E.J. Woods. In March 1866, the architect Edward Hamilton joined Wright & Woods to form Wright, Woods & Hamilton architects. In 1869 Woods left the partnership. Woods later recalled that he and Wright got on very well and indicated that he regretted the dissolution of the partnership, which occurred on account of Bishop Short’s request that he (Woods) should devote himself to the construction of St Peter’s Cathedral at North Adelaide (Page 1986). In 1879 J.H. Reed joined the partnership that became Wright & Reed architects. In March 1886 J.G. Beavor also became a partner and the name changed to Wright, Reed & Beavor (Leong 1980). Not long after, on 5 August 1888, Wright died (Howell 2005).
Wright’s inability to secure work immediately on his arrival in the colony meant that he found time to write to the Register under many aliases to discuss various issues that he thought were architecturally important (Jensen and Jensen 1980). In addition to being a correspondent he held seats on various boards, including mining companies (Page 1986). In July 1857, he was elected as an Alderman on the City of Adelaide Council. Two years later in January 1859, he became Mayor for ten months, resigning in November 1859 (Morgan and Gilbert 1969, Leong 1980).
Wright contributed to several professional bodies. He was an inaugural member of the Society of Architects, Engineers, and Surveyors (founded 1858) and Vice-President of the South Australian Institute of Architects (SAIA) (founded 1886). In 1859 he read a paper to the Society of Architects, Engineers and Surveyors in which he revealed his evolving architectural philosophy for the colony. He discussed the similarity of the South Australian environment with parts of Italy and proposed arguments for the adoption locally of Italian styles of architecture. He preferred flat to steeply-pitched roofs, and held that large, lofty, well-proportioned rooms promoted summer cool. On the whole he did not favour the Gothic style but preferred a ‘Gothic-Italian mixture’ as was evident in northern Italy (Page 1986: 61).
Wright was an early advocate for a professional association that would protect the public from untrained practitioners and eliminate unethical practices such as fee-cutting and the preparation of plans ‘on spec’. Just weeks before his death he addressed his colleagues at an Architects’ Annual Dinner expressing his regret that a Bill to protect architects and the public had not yet passed through parliament. He also encouraged the introduction of a comprehensive examination system prior to architects being permitted to practise (Jensen and Jensen 1980).
During his career Wright was successful in many architectural competitions including ones for the design of the City, also known as the Torrens Bridge (1851), the Brougham Place Congregational Church, North Adelaide (1859), the Adelaide Town Hall (1863), the General Post Office, Adelaide (March 1866) and Parliament House (23 July 1874). No move to erect the City Bridge was made until 1854 and the architectural profession was then astounded by the news that Wright’s winning design had been discarded by Government Architect William Bennett Hays and his department who had designed an iron bridge to be ordered from Britain.
The Town Hall competition, for a building to be constructed on the corner of King William and Pirie Street, was won during the time Wright was Mayor (1858) so he declined the prize (Page 1986: 70). However on 20 January 1863, sometime after finishing his Mayoral term, a second competition was held in which Wright & Woods’ plans won. The new Town Hall was built in 1863-66 (Morgan & Gilbert 1969) and inaugurated on 20 June 1866. Design work for the Brougham Place Congregational Church at 196-210 Brougham Place, North Adelaide, commenced in 1860, in collaboration with Edward Hamilton. However, Wright & Woods supervised its construction. Wright also designed the General Post Office (1867-72), on the corner of King William and Franklin Street, in collaboration with Hamilton (Page 1986).
Wright and Melbourne-based architect Lloyd Tayler collaborated on the design of Parliament House in 1873. However the building of the new House of Assembly did not begin until 1883, under the supervision of Edward Woods, and was not completed until 1939, and without the originally proposed tower and dome (Marsden et al 1990: 247). The building on the corner of North Terrace and King William Street, Adelaide provides the state with an imposing Corinthian colonnaded facade sitting atop a pediment of marble.
With Woods, Wright designed a number of banks in the Renaissance style: the National Chambers for the National Bank of Australasia (1864-5), 22-26 King William Street, Adelaide, the Bank of Adelaide building (1878-80), 81-87 King William Street, and the Bank of South Australia (1878) (now Edmund Wright House), 59 King William Street.
Wright won the competition for the design of the former Bank of Adelaide Head Office at the corner of King William Street and Currie Street in 1878 (Marsden et al 1990: 101). The south-west corner was erected to the design of Wright and Reed and completed in 1880. While the western section, with an entrance to Currie Street was designed by architects McMichael and Harris, and added in 1940 (Morgan & Gilbert 1969).
The Bank of South Australia was designed by Edmund Wright in collaboration with Lloyd Tayler of Melbourne. Simple, graceful, and possessing a sturdy elegance it displays Classical and Renaissance influences (Page 1986). The interior is highly decorated in the palatial Rococo Victorian manner (AHPI). It received much publicity in 1971 when it was marked for demolition and saved by a successful public campaign, being renamed Edmund Wright House following its purchase by the State Government (Marsden et al 1990: 99).
Wright’s designs for several large houses in a ‘simple but well-proportioned style for the Adelaide suburbs, include Linden at Burnside, The Olives, at Glenelg, for his brother Edward’ (Page 1986: 93) and the Princess Royal Homestead (1864) near Burra in the state’s North. James Cudmore, a pastoralist, commissioned Wright to design a 30-room mansion, Paringa Hall (now part of Sacred Heart College), on eleven acres on Brighton Road, Somerton Park, in the style of a Renaissance chateau.
During Wright’s 39 years in South Australia, he created a substantial and significant body of work. Spanning civic, ecclesiastical, domestic, and commercial architecture for city and country, his preference for the architectural vocabulary of the French and Italian Renaissance is reflected in a number of his designs. His finest architectural works display a scholarly neo-classicism, which is inconsistent with much of his other work (Jensen and Jensen 1980). Influenced by childhood memories of French and Italian domestic architecture and his work in French Canadian cities prior to arriving in South Australia, Wright worked in what has been termed the ‘Victorian Free Classical’ style (Apperly et al 1995: 59). Examples of his works in this style include the Adelaide Town Hall and the General Post Office. Demonstrating the breadth of his architectural palette, Parliament House was designed in the Victorian Academic Classical style and reveals ideas about architecture that was appropriate for late nineteenth century civic buildings (AHPI). As mentioned; his designs for banks in South Australia were in the Renaissance style.
Edmund Wright’s name is perpetuated in South Australia in the name of the bank that he designed with Lloyd Tayler. The Edmund Wright Heritage Awards administered by the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage between 2003 and 2005 were named for him.
Sullivan, Christine, 'Wright, Edmund William’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=17]