The history of the State Library of Victoria

How to research the history, development, architecture, collections and management of the State Library of Victoria.

Introduction

The forecourt spans the full width of the block from Little Lonsdale Street to La Trobe Street. Since the Library opened in 1856, the forecourt has been altered a number of times, not without public outcry. Joseph Reed's original design of a fountain with mermaids spouting water into a pool was not realized.

The first Library trustees fenced off the land around the Library and it remained closed until the redesign of the site in late 1938. The bronze lions were installed in the 1860s. In 1873 cast iron gates were installed. During the mid 1870s the planting of the forecourt was re-planned. Gasoliers were installed in the forecourt either side of Sir Redmond Barry in 1891, by F. G. W. Richard, a metal worker.

The alterations in 1939 included the diagonal flights of steps, wing walls and edging, the terracing of the lawn and the formal plantings of lilly pillies and melaleuca styphelioides to a design by Public Works Department architect, Percy Everett.  

The forecourt underwent another refurbishment in 1998. 

For information about the statues in the forecourt, see Statues and murals.

Engraving of proposed Melbourne Public Library, 1865

Engraving of proposed Melbourne Public Library 1865, H33925

Sources for changes in 1998

The Age, 29 April 1997, ‘The dirt on the library lawn', Metro section, p.C3. Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm. Copy also held in Local History File entitled ‘Melbourne (Vic.) Libraries. State Library of Victoria. Forecourt'.

The City of Melbourne is working with the State Library to develop a design to improve the appearance of the forecourt bounded by Swanston, La Trobe and Little Lonsdale Streets. Includes photograph.

The Age, 30 April 1997, ‘Rolling out the green carpet', p.A20.
Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm. Copy also held in Local History File entitled ‘Melbourne (Vic.) Libraries. State Library of Victoria. Forecourt'.

Brief letter from Helen Tait, Chief Executive Officer, State Library of Victoria, regarding the deteriorating condition of the Library forecourt

The Age, 2 May 1997, ‘Unanswered questions', p.A14.
Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm.
Copy also held in Local History File entitled ‘Melbourne (Vic.) Libraries. State Library of Victoria. Forecourt'.

Brief letter from Jim Sinatra, Professor of landscape architecture, RMIT, in response to Helen Tait's letter (30/4) about the redesign of the forecourt. He raised concerns about what will happen to the ‘historic sculptures' and the remaining healthy lilly-pilly and paperbark trees

The Age, 6 May 1997, ‘Going back to the future?', p.A14.
Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm.
Copy also held in Local history file entitled ‘Melbourne (Vic.) Libraries. State Library of Victoria. Forecourt'.

Brief letter from Gail Moraro and Philip McIntyre raising concerns over the redesign of the forecourt. Responds to Helen Tait's letter (30/4) regarding the roots of the melaleucas causing damage to paving and drains. They ask if history is going to repeat itself sixty years after the 1938 proposal to redesign the forecourt. The 1938 proposal met with a concerted public campaign challenging the accepted design. They express hope that the public will be involved in the plans. In 1939 ‘...as a result of the public campaign, lilly pillies and melaleucas with an underplanting of grevilleas, were planted. This unique planting has been acknowledged as the most significant example of the planting of Australian trees in a formal public space from the inter-war period...'

The Age, 5 December 1997, ‘Will the future leave history on the shelf?', Metro section, p.C3.
Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm

Article looks at the proposed changes to the Library including the forecourt and reading rooms. Includes photograph of forecourt under renewal   and plans. States that new trees planted to replace those that have been removed will be Angophora costata and Celtis australis.

The Herald-Sun, 20 September 1997, ‘Library courts a new future', p.4.
Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm. Copy also held in Local History File entitled ‘Melbourne (Vic.) Libraries. State Library of Victoria. Forecourt'.

Article announces major overhaul of the State Library forecourt. The transformation involving the removal of 28 trees and the repair and cleaning of statues, begins this week. Includes four photographs of the façade and forecourt in 1889, 1939, and 1997

Melbourne (Vic.) Libraries. State Library of Victoria. Forecourt
Local History File - ask at La Trobe Information Centre desk.

Includes copies of newspaper articles, illustrations and other material relating to the 1997 redevelopment of the forecourt of the State Library of Victoria.

Sources for changes up to 1939

Allom, Lovell, Sanderson, Pty, Ltd, 1985, State Library and Museum of Victoria buildings: conservation analysis. Melbourne, Allom, Lovell, Sanderson, pp 52-55.

History of the forecourt, from Reed's 1853 unrealized design of a romanticized fountain with mermaids spouting water into a pool, to changes in 1865, 1873, 1876 and 1939.

The Herald, 2 September 1938, ‘New National Gallery entrance', p.1.
Family History & Newspaper Room - on microfilm.

Reproduction of a perspective drawing by the Chief architect of the Public Works Department, Percy Everett, showing the proposed design for the main entrance to the National Gallery and Public Library.

Shows what the forecourt will look like once the ₤5000 approved by the State Cabinet last night for beautification and improvement has been spent.

The Argus newspaper

Available online to 1954 via Trove.

Landscaping of frontage to State Library of Victoria, 1937-9 a series of 25 photographs by R H Fowler, [online]

Redmond Barry's Coat of Arms

Redmond Barry, the Library's founder, had his own familial coat of arms placed on the exterior wall of the Library, beneath the portico, directly above the main entry on Swanston Street.

His family motto is 'Boutez en avant' ('Thrust forward').

Redmond Barry Coat of Arms

La Trobe Journal No 73 Autumn, p.112

Mascarons

Above the doors at both the Russell Street and Swanston Street entrances are images of human faces.

This style of ornamentation is a mascaron. Generally it doesn't depict an actual person but is decorative.

The mascaron at the Swanston Street entrance is visible in the earliest photos of the Library, prior to the portico being constructed.

Such features can be seen on many 19th century Melbourne buildings.

Mascaron above door Swanston entrance.

Decorative mascaron above the door at the Swanston Street entrance to the Library