Perth General Post Office (Perth GPO)
To say that the General Post Office took a long time to build would be an understatement. The Commonwealth Government first bought the land in 1911, and Western Australia’s Principal Architect, Hillson Beasley, drew up plans for a magnificent five-storey Post Office “in the classical style”.
Construction started in 1914, but the soil proved too sandy for work to continue, and the outbreak of World War I finally stopped all progress for a number of years. When work resumed, with the added complication of industrial disputes, the design of the Post Office had to keep changing to reduce costs. The most obvious alteration is that the top two floors are brick, not stone, and there is no stone cladding on the sides.
The General Post Office finally opened on 26 September 1923 after nine years of construction, and at the massive cost of £400,000. The new street in front of the building was named Forrest Place in honour of Western Australia’s first premier. Forrest Place was pedestrianised in the late 1980s and the Padbury Buildings on the eastern side of Forrest Place were demolished.
Today, Forrest Place is Perth’s main town square and is dominated by the neo-classical General Post Office. In 2016 Australia Post closed its doors for the last time, and the impressive building is now home to a fashion retail giant.
For every society, and in every age, there has been a need for distance communication. Before the age of the Internet, and before that the telephone, in European cultures this role fell to the Post Office. From the start of the Swan River Colony, the harbourmaster was responsible for all post services. In 1835, a General Post Office (GPO) was established in St Georges Terrace, although it took until 1841 for a Postmaster General was appointed. A new GPO was built on the Terrace in 1890, although lack of funds meant it had to be equipped with the fitout from the older Post Office. In 1900 there were 175 post offices across Western Australia, and control over these was passed to the Commonwealth Government following Federation in 1901.
It was clear by 1910 that Perth’s GPO was too small to undertake all its functions, so in 1911 the Commonwealth purchased a large block of land to build a new one. WA’s Principal Architect, Hillson Beasley, visited Melbourne, where he worked with his Commonwealth counterpart, John Smith Murdoch, to design the new General Post Office. Plans were drawn up and a contract agreed with C. W. Arnott in July 1914 at a cost of £232,700. These original plans were for a five-storey building, in addition to a basement.
Construction commenced mid-1914, and immediately experienced a delay due to the sandy soil on the site. Even so, the foundation stone was laid by Minister for Home Affairs W. O. Archibald on 8 October 1915. World War I led to a significant delay in construction, especially since the steel needed was subject to an embargo by the British Government. It wasn’t until 1920 that an alternative supply of steel was sourced from Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP).
William Hardwick succeeded Beasley as the Government’s Principal Architect in 1917 and oversaw the project from that point until its completion in 1923. Over the course of construction, the design of the building was modified several times, largely in an effort to reduce costs. Even then, construction was delayed due to a six-month engineers’ strike.
In 1921 it was decided to add a further two storeys to the top of the building for use by other Commonwealth departments. These additional storeys were to be faced in brick rather than the stone used for the façade, but by this point it had been decided to not clad the rear and side walls either.
The General Post Office was officially opened on 26 September 1923 after nine years of construction, at a total cost of £400,000. The final building was nine storeys, including the basement and roof ‘flats’, sitting on 1,600 piles The façade up to the first floor was Mahogany Creek granite, with the floors above being in Donnybrook freestone. Massive Ionic columns rose to a height of three floors and supported an entablature, with the words ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ at the fifth floor level. The curtain wall behind the columns was pierced with windows and double doors opening on to balconies
The floors throughout were covered with herring-bone pattern jarrah blocking, while six elevators (four for passengers and two for goods) were provided. Mail was driven along a roadway on each side of the building to the back, while larger parcels were handled in the basement.
The entire ground floor was entirely for public service, while the first was used by the Post Office staff and management. The second floor was for more senior management, including the Deputy Postmaster General, senior inspector, and various other departments. On the third floor was the telegraph and telephone department. The next two floors were for the use of the Federal Taxation Department, the Commonwealth Public Service Commissioner, Treasury, Pensions, and the like. The top main floor contained a dining room, library and lounge for those who worked in the building.
The new street in front of the building was ceremonially opened on the same day, and named ‘Forrest Place’ in honour of the late Sir John Forrest, Western Australia’s first Premier. At its opening, the Post Master General said:
“Perth had now one of the finest buildings the Commonwealth had erected in any of the capital cities. It might have taken a long while to build, but it had been worthwhile, because it was a magnificent structure. It was not merely a post office, but a building in which the whole of the activities of the Federal Government in the State would be housed. In this particular, Western Australia was unique, because no other State had all those activities in the one centre. It was not a building for today only, but a building intended to meet the future development of the State.”
Forrest Place was closed to traffic in the late 1980s as part of the Forrest Chase development and the Padbury Buildings on the eastern side of Forrest Place were demolished. The widening of Forrest Place created a space which remains Perth’s main town square and is dominated by the neo-classical GPO. In 2016 Australia Post closed its doors for the last time at the 1923 building, and the GPO looks set to become home to a fashion retail giant.
‘News and Notes,’ West Australian, 9 June 1890
‘New Post Office,’ West Australian, 5 May 1920
‘The New G.P.O.’ Daily News, 25 September 1923
‘New Post Office,’ Daily News, 27 September 1923
Andrew C. Ward & Associates, ‘Perth General Post Office: Conservation Analysis and Conservation Management Plan’ (November 1991)