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State Library Victoria unveils ‘jewel in Library’s crown’

Media release

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Wednesday 04 December 2019


After a 16-year closure, State Library Victoria’s original reading room and one of Melbourne’s most breathtaking heritage spaces, The Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, will reopen to the public on 5 December 2019.

The majestic 1019-square-metre space featuring 19th-century design, high ceilings and timber floor has been carefully restored to reveal the original grandeur of the hall that first opened in 1856.

Design highlights include:

·         reactivating the skylights

·         revealing the original decorative paint scheme

·         restoring the heritage furniture

·         conserving the 1920s murals.

In consultation with Heritage Victoria and under the guidance of Andronas Conservation Architecture, designers Architectus and Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects sought to reveal the raw beauty and authenticity of the hall’s original design. Their vision has been brought to life by one of Australia’s largest private construction groups with extensive experience in complex heritage refurbishment, Built.

The restoration would not have been possible without a generous $10 million donation from The Ian Potter Foundation – the largest grant ever made by The Ian Potter Foundation’s education program and the largest donation ever received by State Library Victoria.

Reactivating the skylights

Overhead skylights were essential to the original design of the hall as they allowed natural light to flow in – vital for a reading room in the days before electricity.

Despite a dramatic thunderstorm shattering the glass in 1901, the skylights remained in place until the early 1970s when a corrugated iron roof was installed. The intention was to prevent ongoing rain damage but it also completely blocked out the natural light.

The original diamond and fish scale shaped glazing bars remained however, meaning today’s design team could reinstate the original look by uncovering the skylights and re-glazing the bars – a key element in the hall’s restoration. 

To protect the skylights from weather damage akin to that of the 1900s, a clear Danpalon-clad roof has been installed over the entire hall. What some may call a trick of the trade, this creates a discrete space for the reticulation of the 21st-century heating and cooling while still admitting natural light.

Revealing the original decorative paint scheme

Layers of paint have been scraped back in selected sections around the hall to reveal the original decorative paint scheme created by Edward La Trobe Bateman in 1859.

According to architectural historian, Professor Harriet Edquist, Bateman employed the latest design ideas from London at the time. His design was greatly influenced by the famed radical design theorist and author of Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones, with whom he had previously worked.

Based on colourful stenciled patterns used in ancient Greece, the decorative paint work depicts floral and leaf forms as well as a key pattern and, according to Professor Edquist, “is one of the very early instances in the world of such decoration”.

Once the paint was scraped back and the original detailing revealed, no new paint was added (just a conservation-grade protective coating). The intent was not to re-do the decoration, but to let it stand out in its raw authenticity.

This means that some parts of paintwork may look unfinished, but that is all part of the designers’ intent. They drew inspiration from other heritage sites around the world including Neues Museum in Berlin, Park Avenue Armory in New York, Tate Britain in London and St Mary the Virgin Church in Cambridgeshire where a similar restoration approach was adopted.

According to Architectus Principal, Ruth Wilson, the idea was to reveal the scheme rather than to replicate it using contemporary paint.

“As the state’s reference library, it makes complete sense that the original paint scheme be shown here, not a reproduction. It’s very memorable and meaningful to see something so old and so real,” Ms Wilson said.

To learn more about the reveal of the original decorative paint scheme, watch this video and hear more from Professor Edquist in this video.

Restoring the heritage furniture

A selection of the reading room’s original Australian red cedar furniture will also be back in use having been restored by Coman Furniture in Bendigo. A total of 60 chairs and 11 tables (seating 60) enhance the hall’s Victorian-era style.

Martin Coman of Coman Furniture said the restoration project took 12 months to complete and the chairs alone required over 300 hours to be made ready for reupholstery.

“As would be expected, some pieces were in poor condition after a long life of service. All the tables have been leather tooled returning them to their original state and wherever possible the original French polish has been restored. 

“Missing pieces such as carvings, end panels and turnings have also been made, polished and fitted to retain the integrity of each piece,” Mr Coman said.

The heritage tables have also been discreetly fitted with power points for the convenience of visitors.

State Library Victoria Building Redevelopment Project Manager, Margaret Ford, said this is just one example of the ways in which the Library has sought to meld heritage authenticity with 21st-century technology throughout the redevelopment.

“We’re a 21st century library, so it was important to us to combine these historic elements with modern facilities. The restored furniture, along with the paint reveals, allow visitors a glimpse into how the space would have looked in the 19th century.” Ms Ford said.

Conserving the 1920s murals

Two of Melbourne’s most significant murals from the 1920s have also undergone significant conservation treatment so they can once again be enjoyed by Library-goers.

Located above the marble staircase and in the entrance-way to The Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, these large oil paintings on canvas were treated by Andrew Thorn and Anca Nicolaesu from Artcare in collaboration with the Library’s conservation team.

On the upper west wall of the marble staircase and above the entrance to The Ian Potter Queen’s Hall, the mural War by Harold Septimus Power depicts Australian soldiers on the Western Front and in Palestine during World War I. Unveiled on 12 February 1924, it details battle scenes in the dark foreground, with the wider battle field and sky in the lighter background.

On the east wall and above the stairs leading to the La Trobe Reading Room is Napier Waller’s mural Peace after Victory, commissioned by the Library Trustees in 1929. This lighter classical scene of pastoral life is symbolic of peace, and is populated with figures in Greek costume, a mounted knight in armour and figures bearing trays of fruit.

Thorn explains that while conservation work was carried out in 2002, unexpected problems such as a bloom on the surface of the oil paint complicated the project, preventing it from being completed until now.

To learn more about the conservation of the murals, watch this video.

Quotes on the overall project from the design and construction team

Quote attributable to Architectus Principal, Ruth Wilson: “For this project, we have a firm philosophy of revealing the heritage aspects of the building rather than replicating them. For us, the history of State Library Victoria is most engaging when you can actually see how old things are and can appreciate their original state. Working with Andronas Conservation Architecture we developed this philosophy into a design approach that reveals elements like the original decorative paint schemes, original timber flooring and re-use of furniture. One of the many groups we consulted with throughout the design and construction of the project was Heritage Victoria who were supportive of this approach.

“Schmidt Hammer Lassen have designed many of the world’s leading 21st-century libraries, and they are at the forefront of exploring everything a library can mean for today’s cities.  Architectus brought this rich experience to Melbourne, and this meant that the Library received the best international thinking with a team that lives and breathes the local context, and can deliver the project to the highest quality.”

Quote attributable to Schmidt Hammer Lassen Partner, Elif Tinaztepe: “Our work is deeply contextual, so we dedicated ourselves to studying this historical institution and understanding its important place in the cultural landscape of Melbourne. Our aim with the transformation of State Library Victoria was to allow the heritage spaces to stand out in their raw beauty while complementing them with a strong contemporary design line to help carry this beloved institution into the future. Respecting the authenticity of the spaces and existing design elements was our guiding principle.

“Spaces have been revealed and made directly accessible, allowing visitors to move through the library more intuitively, exploring and uncovering all of its treasures. State Library Victoria is the ultimate memory institution, its role as custodian of the past and curator of the future is vital. With new facilities, it will also act as a hub for creation of new knowledge for generations to come, as libraries should.”

Quote attributable to Built Director, Vic and SA, Ross Walker: “After delivering the Palais Theatre, Flinders Street Station and now State Library Victoria, Built is very proud to be able to hand back these heritage icons to the state of Victoria. Complex heritage refurbishment works are the kind of jobs we at Built thrive on, allowing us to use our specialist skills and experience to overcome challenges and restore important cultural areas back to their former glory.”

Quote attributable to Built Construction Manager, Brendan Richards: “The complexity of the heritage refurbishment works and the quality to which they have been restored by our specialist trades and craftsmen make this a momentous feat. Working with State Library Victoria to deliver this project has been a positive and rewarding experience. Such an engaged and passionate group of stakeholders truly set this project up for success.”

-- Ends --

Notes to Editor

About The Ian Potter Queen’s Hall
Celebrating the city’s status as a UNESCO City of Literature, the majestic 1019-square-metre space houses more than 10,000 pieces of Australian literature including poetry, drama, young adult fiction, books in languages other than English and the Library’s significant chess and bridge collections. A tranquil reading room by day, the hall will be transformed into an opulent venue for special events at night. Accessible via the heritage marble staircases from the Swanston Street entrance, or via a lift. Its restoration has been made possible by the largest grant ever made by the Ian Potter Foundation of $10 million.

History of The Ian Potter Queen’s Hall
First opened in 1856, the reading room and foyer below comprised the original Melbourne Public Library. It was expanded and renamed the Queen’s Reading Room on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1859, then expanded again and renamed Queen’s Hall in 1864. After the magnificent domed reading room was completed in 1913, the hall was used by the Museum of Victoria until the 1970s when it was returned to the Library, renovated and used to house the arts collection. Since 2003, the hall has been closed to the public, as it waited to undergo a major refurbishment.

About State Library Victoria
Established in 1856 as 'the people’s university', State Library Victoria is Australia's oldest and busiest public library and the fourth most-visited library in the world. A place of learning and discovery for all Victorians, the Library houses items that showcase Victoria's cultural life, past and present, and makes them available through a range of services, exhibitions and cultural programs. It is home to more than five million items, including more than two million books, journals and magazines, thousands of newspapers as well as historic manuscripts, music, pictures and ephemera, with a focus on material from Victoria. Each year, more than 70,000 heritage items are added to its collection.

About Architectus
Architectus is a top-tier Australian architecture and design studio specialising in commercial, education, interiors, public, residential, transport, urban design and planning. The company’s insightful and human-centric design approach is combined with a collaborative ethos to create unique places that are exemplars of elegance, function and sustainability. Significant projects include the State Library Victoria Redevelopment, 1 Bligh Street, Sydney, Canberra Metro, Queen Elizabeth II Courts of Law, and the Art Gallery of NSW Sydney Modern Project as Executive Architect in support of Japanese architectural and design firm SANAA. Architectus operates as a single studio with its creative team based in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

About Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects
Schmidt Hammer Lassen Architects, part of global architecture and design firm Perkins and Will, is one of Scandinavia's most recognized and award-winning architectural practices. The company was founded in Aarhus, Denmark in 1986 and is led today by partners Morten Schmidt, Bjarne Hammer, Kim Holst Jensen, Kristian Lars Ahlmark, Chris Hardie, Rong Lu, Mads Kaltoft, Kasper Frandsen, Elif Tinaztepe, Nathan Smith, Tiago Pereira, Rasmus Kierkegaard, and Sanne Wall-Gremstrup. The firm provides skilled architectural services all over the world, with a distinguished track record as designers of international, high-profile architecture. Cultural and educational buildings, offices, commercial, retail, and residential buildings, often in mixed-use developments and complex urban contexts, are cornerstones of the firm's output. The practice has extensive global experience in the design of libraries and other public and cultural landmark buildings, and its innovative, sustainable, and democratic approach to architecture has attracted global attention, winning more than 100 national and international awards. For more information, visit www.shl.dk

About Built
Established in 1998, Built has grown to be one of the largest private Australian-owned construction groups. It offers a total solution for clients with the expertise and resources to tackle any project from large construction new builds to small and complex fitouts in live environments. With a strong culture and approach founded on its Built Worthy standard, the company counts many of Australia’s and the world’s most recognised brands amongst its national client base, proudly achieving a high repeat client rate of 70%. To find out more, visit www.built.com.au