Alfred Wells was the architect for a number of well known public buildings in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Adelaide and suburbs. He also practised in Broken Hill, New South Wales.
Born at Marryatville on 16 April 1859, Wells commenced his education at Thomas Caterer’s Commercial School at Norwood. In 1871 he returned to England with his family and studied in Surrey before undertaking architectural training from 1876 to 1879 with a Mr Fowler in the Strand, London (Burgess 1907). Wells returned to Adelaide to practice architecture in 1879. In 1884 he married Gertrude Pollock (Jensen and Jensen 1980) and they had two sons and two daughters. Their family home was Rathmines in Collinswood (Burgess 1907).
Wells’ first architectural position in Adelaide was in the Engineer-in-Chief’s Department under H.C. Mais. From there he moved to the office of architect Edmund Wright for a short time, then to the Architect-in-Chief’s Department under E.J. Woods and lastly to the practice of Ernest Bayer and Latham A. Withall. After Withall dissolved his partnership with Bayer in 1885 the firm became Withall & Wells. When Withall left for England, Wells continued the practice, opening a branch office in Broken Hill, New South Wales, in 1895 (Burgess 1907). Page (1986: 117) asserts that Wells was established as one of Adelaide’s leading architects by the age of 35. Louis Laybourne Smith, F. Kenneth Milne, and Henry Ernest Fuller were either articled to him or worked in his office as a draughtsman (Page 1989). Wells retired in 1926, aged 67, and passed away in 1935 (Abbott 1979).
Wells’ professional associations included Fellow and Vice-President of the South Australian Institute of Architects (SAIA). He served as a Councillor in local government when he lived in St. Peters. A Freemason, he was a member of the Lodge of Harmony No. 3 (Burgess 1907).
One of Wells’ earliest built works resulted from his successful entry in a competition to design the Norwood Town Hall on the corner of The Parade and George Street, Norwood. The competition was held in 1881 and the building opened in 1883 (Page 1980; City of Kensington and Norwood 1997: 141). Wells was then draughtsman for Bayer & Withall (renamed Withall & Wells in 1885). Withall & Wells designed the original Thebarton Town Hall that opened in early October 1885 (Jensen and Jensen 1980).
Withall & Wells designed two prominent city buildings both of which were domed and featured cast iron for structural and ornamental purposes – the Adelaide Arcade (1885), Rundle Street, for the Bray family (Abbott 1979; Marsden et al 1990: 88-9), and the ‘greatly admired’ (Page 1986: 117) Jubilee Exhibition Building (1887), North Terrace. The Adelaide Arcade continues to serve as a speciality shopping arcade. The Jubilee Exhibition Building was constructed for the Adelaide Jubilee International Exhibition of 1887 and named in honour of Queen Victoria’s fiftieth year on the throne and South Australia’s fiftieth birthday. It housed exhibits that showcased local, national and international industrial, technological, manufacturing and cultural achievements: ‘for months the exhibition was the great meeting place for not [only] the people of the city but [also] of Australians generally and hosts of visitors from the outside world’ (‘The Exhibition Building’). The Exhibition Building was turned to numerous other public and institutional uses for a further seven decades before being demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Napier building and adjacent car park and plaza at the University of Adelaide.
In the 1890s, when he was a sole practitioner, Wells was the architect for the Angas and Campbell buildings at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, North Adelaide (Page 1980). Designed in the ‘domestic Gothic style’, the Angas building opened in 1894 and was named for its benefactor John Angas, Vice-President of the Hospital Board (Register 1894; Abbott 1979). According to an article in the Register of 1 May 1894, under instructions from Angas, the building featured locally available materials.
Wells designed Eden Park (1898), The Crescent, Marryatville, for Thomas Roger Scarfe, a partner in the Harris Scarfe department store (AHPI). The site was prominent in the history of the local area and the first house had been built there in 1840 (Gunton 1983). The property changed hands several times before Scarfe purchased it in 1900. The large residence that Wells designed survives today in the grounds of Marryatville High School.
Wells’ other works included the multi-storey Brookmans Building (1897) on Grenfell Street, to which additions were made in 1914, the Commercial Travellers Club, North Terrace, the Steamship Buildings, Currie Street for the Adelaide Steamship Company and the Power Station (1901) for the Electric Lighting and Traction Company, corner Grenfell Street and East Terrace (Page 1980: 117-18; AHPI). He designed the South Australian Hotel, North Terrace, in 1894 (built 1899) (Abbott 1979), as well as banks and shops, a major commission being an extensive shop and showroom for Charles Birks (Jensen and Jensen 1980). Smaller projects were Bertram House, Grenfell Street, row houses at 102-120 Stanley Street (1906), North Adelaide, for the Adelaide Benevolent and Strangers’ Friend Society (Marsden et al 1990: 380) and several municipal buildings in Broken Hill.
Sullivan, Christine, 'Wells, Alfred’, Architecture Museum, University of South Australia, 2008, Architects of South Australia: [http://www.architectsdatabase.unisa.edu.au/arch_full.asp?Arch_ID=33]