Alfred Barham Black turned from engineering to architecture and contributed variously to South Australia’s development from the late 1870s through to the early twentieth century.
Black was born in Wigtownshire, Scotland (Burgess 1907) on 7 October 1858 to George Couper Black and Ellen Black. He arrived in South Australia in 1877 and in 1891 married Jessie Howard (née Clark), amateur artist, and third daughter of John Howard Clark, editor of the Register (Burgess 1907; North 1979). They had four children, their oldest daughter Dorothea Foster (Dorrit) Black (1891-1951), a renowned landscape artist, is acclaimed for ‘her outstanding role as a pioneer and proselytizer of modernism in Australia’ (North 1979: 302). The family lived at Bell Yett, on the corner of Warland Road and Hallett Road, Burnside (Burgess 1907). He died on 12 February 1933.
Black attended schools in Edinburgh, Scotland, and in Taunton, Somersetshire, England. When his studies were complete he spent about twelve months studying modern languages in Europe, before taking up Civil Engineering for three years in London (Burgess 1907; Page 1986). After arriving in South Australia Black worked for one year as a draughtsman in the Surveyor General’s Department (Burgess 1907), and then for two years with the architect Rowland Rees. Rees taught him ‘the rudiments of the profession’ (Page 1986: 119) and he went on from there to work in the office of Thomas English.
Black’s talents with civil engineering and his recent architectural experience led him into a partnership with architects and land surveyors Beresford & Bowen in the early 1880s (Page 1986: 119). The firm Beresford, Bowen & Black was located in the Old Exchange, Pirie Street, and was responsible for laying out and constructing dwellings in residential subdivisions in metropolitan Adelaide (Burgess 1907; Page 1986). In 1884-85 Black undertook an extensive overseas trip to Asia, America, Europe and England and returned to South Australia to join with H.E. Hughes as the senior partner in Black & Hughes. He established himself as a sole practitioner in 1889 (Burgess 1907) but from 1911 to 1913 he worked with Henry Ernest Fuller as Black & Fuller. He practised independently in the last phase of his career from 1914 to 1928 (Willis 1998).
Black was present at the inaugural meeting of the South Australian Institute of Architects (SAIA) on 20 September 1886 (Jensen and Jensen 1980). According to listings in the architects journal Salon in 1914 and 1916, he was a Fellow of the SAIA, and served the Institute first as Honorary Treasurer, then as Honorary Secretary. He was Vice-President between 1914 and 1915 and a Council member in 1916. Black was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) (‘Officers Members’ 1916). He was also a member of the Council of the South Australian Institute of Surveyors (Burgess 1907) and had a long association with the Adelaide Orpheus Society (Burgess 1907).
Black’s early projects included work surveying and laying out the privately financed Holdfast Bay railway line with Rowland Rees (Page 1986; Donovan and Painter 1990) and a second placed competition entry for a sewerage and drainage scheme for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (Burgess 1907). Black & Hughes won several competitions including the Port Augusta Town Hall (1886) (Jensen and Jensen 1980) and the Mount Gambier Institute additions (1887). Adelaide’s Mutual Life Association (Page 1986), Grenfell Street, was designed by the contractor J. Jude of Blackman & Sulman, Sydney (Jensen and Jensen 1980), and erected under the supervision of Black & Hughes. Black & Fuller won the design for a new hall in Mount Gambier in 1904 (Burgess 1907).
Black was commissioned to design and erect ‘superior residences’ on one and a half acres in Grote Street, Adelaide, for Mr Ruthven Smith (Burgess 1907). Black & Fuller later worked for Ruthven Smith on the design and supervision of a block of ‘mansion flats’ which materialised as a five-storey ‘modern’ building, the Ruthven Mansions (1911-13) at 15-27 Pulteney Street, Adelaide (Register 1915). The second stage (1915) was built abutting the first. Listed on the Register of the National Estate in 1987, Ruthven Mansions is historically and architecturally significant for its early attempt to establish high quality inner city apartments in Adelaide. This building was among the earliest buildings built in South Australia of structural steel and reinforced concrete, and the first residential/non-hotel building to incorporate electric elevators. It is a ‘rare surviving example of an eclectic multi-storey design in Adelaide, featuring Oriental, European and Australian influences’ (AHPI). In 1980 a group lead by architect John S. Chappel bought Ruthven Mansions and restored the building (Page 1986; AHPI). It now houses apartments as well as ground floor shops, a tavern in the basement and an arcade providing access to Rundle Mall.
Ruthven Smith commissioned Black to design the Empire Theatre (1910) on Grote Street, Adelaide. The Empire was the last live theatre to be designed and built in Adelaide prior to the rise of motion picture theatres. It survived for live performances until 1952 when the site was taken over for the Peoplestores building (Page 1986: 177). Other examples of Black’s projects included a factory and warehouse (c.1922) in Gawler Place, Adelaide, a five-storey office building (c.1924) in Flinders Street, Adelaide, and a residence (c.1926) in Hazelwood Park, South Australia. He was supervising architect for one of Adelaide’s interwar tall buildings, the ten-story Temperance and General Life Assurance Society Ltd Building (T & G Building) (c.1924), designed by K.A. Henderson (Melbourne) for the Australasian Temperance & General Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited. Black & Fuller designed extensive additions to a factory/warehouse/workshops (c.1927) for Campbell & Worthington Ltd on Port Road, Thebarton, South Australia, and a residential cottage (1928) at Murray Park, Magill, South Australia (Willis 1998).
Black’s commission for the Gothic style crematorium at the West Terrace Cemetery was an adaptation of the design of the City of London Crematorium and incorporated the latest in furnace designs from Henry Simon and Co. of Manchester. An archaeological dig commissioned in 2005 by the Adelaide Cemeteries Authority exposed the basement and footprint of what is Australia’s first modern crematorium in the Wakefield section of the cemetery (‘Remains of Australia’s oldest crematorium’ 2006).
Black’s projects spanned several decades and benefitted from the availability of new materials and technologies. Two stand out: Ruthven Mansions that introduced South Australians to a new ‘design for living’ in the form of apartment housing (Page 1986), and the modern crematorium at West Terrace.
Sullivan, Christine, 'Black, Alfred Barham’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=29]