Text by Brian Allison, Curator, Exhibitions and Public Programs, Grainger Museum, University of MelbourneContributors
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Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne
At age 22 John Harry Grainger successfully applied for a position in the South Australian Government as an assistant architect and engineer. It is unclear why he chose to emigrate but, whatever his motivation, his career decision proved to be well made. In addition to his government position he developed a thriving private practice in Adelaide. Less than 18 months later in 1878 he resigned his government position to pursue private commissions.
In 1880, while Grainger was still living in Adelaide, he won the competition to design Princes Bridge over the Yarra River in association with surveyor and architect, J.S. Jenkins. Jenkins was Grainger’s partner, but the design is considered to be Grainger’s. Grainger and his wife Rose moved to Melbourne where he completed the finished drawings and hoped to oversee the construction of the bridge. Actual building work did not start until 1885 and the bridge took another three years to be opened.
In the same year that Grainger won the Princes Bridge competition he designed a swinging bridge over the La Trobe River at Sale in Gippsland. The late architectural historian Margaret Pitt Morison described it as an ‘elegant trussed structure in wrought iron with a balanced wing span of 45 metres supported centrally by eight pivot cylinders resting on bedrock’. It is believed that Grainger’s bridge was the first to use this technology in Australia.
In 1882, Grainger entered into a partnership with architect and civil engineer Charles D’Ebro and established an office in Collins Street, Melbourne. In the same year they successfully submitted a design in a competition for a town hall in Fremantle. Later that year they won first prize for the Masonic Hall Company’s building in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. In 1884 the partnership won first prize in a competition to design Auckland’s public library and municipal offices (now the art gallery). This substantial building was designed in the French Renaissance revival style. In 1885 his business partnership was dissolved, but his professional status seems not to have been affected. In 1886 he was responsible for the design of the Georges Building and the New Masonic Hall, both in Collins Street.
In the 1890s, after health problems and the end of his marriage, Grainger worked itinerantly in South Australia and Western Australia. He eventually found success as the chief architect in the WA Public Works Department. He resigned in 1905 due to ill health and travelled on an extended journey overseas. Again the experience of travel seemed to restore Grainger’s health and energy. He moved with his companion Winifred Falconer back to Melbourne where he entered into partnership with Phillip Kennedy and John Little. Grainger, Kennedy and Little practised as architects and civil engineers and had an office at 123 Queen Street.
This last period of his professional life began with a quite prestigious success. Shortly after his arrival in Melbourne he won first prize in a competition to design a northern wing to Melbourne’s Town Hall. Although a drawing by Grainger for the exterior of the wing exists in the Grainger Museum Collection, it is believed that his practice only worked on the interior. His firm was also responsible for the design of St Michael’s Catholic Church in North Melbourne. By 1910 the firm was reduced to Grainger and Little but continued to secure significant projects. Its commissions included the State Savings Bank and Collins House (both now demolished).
Grainger became increasingly troubled by rheumatic symptoms and his health deteriorated dramatically by the outbreak of World War I. His last building design was for an extension to Coombe Cottage, Nellie Melba’s house at Coldstream in country Victoria.
Grainger’s name lived on after his death in the name of his architectural practice. Grainger and Little became Grainger, Little and Barlow and finally Grainger, Little, Barlow and Hawkins — the latter existed until 1924. Posthumous use of his name is perhaps an indication of how this highly accomplished architect and engineer was viewed by his professional fraternity.