84 William Street, Melbourne  

Building History

The Queensland Building

The Queensland Building shortly after its completion in 1913. (State Library of Victoria Picture Collection)

The Queensland Building, situated near the top of a rise in William Street, was built for the Queensland Insurance Company in 1913. It has beautifully carved stone ornamentation on its well-proportioned and imposing façade, and with neighbouring Scottish House and the Australian Club, it forms a group of three majestic Victorian and Edwardian buildings that line the east side of William Street south of Little Collins Street. The elegant façade of the Queensland Building reflects the grandeur of the period in which it was built, when Melbourne dominated the commerce and trade of the nation, and the city was the capital of the newly formed Commonwealth of Australia.

Queensland Insurance Company

The Queensland Insurance Company was established in 1886 by the mercantile and shipping firm of Burns Philp & Company Ltd. Established as a marine insurer, it initially traded as the North Queensland Insurance Company: its name derived from the region where much of its clientele was based.

Due to expansion further afield, it was renamed the Queensland Insurance Company in 1907, by which time it had diversified into fire and accident insurance. A narrative on the Queensland Insurance Company is incomplete without some historical background of the origins of Burns Philp. James Burns (1846-1923) emigrated from Scotland as a young man and arrived in Queensland in 1862.

James Burns Robert Philp
James Burns
(Reproduced from
The History of Burns Philp)
Robert Philp
(State Library
Library of Queensland)

Burns, with his business partner Robert Philp (1851-1922), also a Scotsman, established Burns Philp in 1883 and developed it into a flourishing shipping and mercantile business based at the Port of Townsville. But with most of its overseas cargo arriving at Sydney, where is was then trans-shipped to Townsville, Burns soon decided to relocate the firm’s headquarters to the New South Wales capital. His business partner, Robert Philp, remained in Townsville, where he managed the firm’s northern Queensland operations.

From its modest beginnings in Queensland in the late nineteenth century, Burns Philp grew to have expansive merchant and shipping activities throughout Australia, South East Asia and, in particular, the South Pacific: where its extensive shipping services resulted in it colloquially being referred to as ‘The Hudson Bay Company of the South Pacific’. The Queensland Insurance Company, as a marine insurer, complemented the business activities of Burns Philp, insuring its large shipping fleet.

The first Melbourne branch of the (North) Queensland Insurance Company opened in May 1888 in premises at 15 Queen Street. The decision in 1911 to build a new Melbourne branch for the insurer dovetailed with the expansion of Burns Philp into Victorian shipping, with the new building intended to provide office accommodation for both the insurer and the shipping company. A site was purchased at 84 William Street, north of Collins Street, which was occupied by a bluestone warehouse erected by an Andrew Towns in the early years of European settlement of Melbourne.

Williams St, Melbourne c1913

William Street, Melbourne c1913. The Queensland Building, partially visible right of centre, is the tallest building in this block between Bourke and Collins Street. (City of Melbourne Art & Heritage Collection)

The site chosen was a strategic location for the insurer, with it only a little more than a block from the Queen and Collins Streets corner, which was the centre of Melbourne’s financial district. The site was also in close proximity to other insurance companies including AMP (Australian Mutual Provident) and MLC (Mutual Life & Citizens), both of which had offices at the intersection of Collins and William Streets. The site was also convenient for Burns Philp, as it was close to the docks and the mercantile district at the western end of the city, and to customs house at the foot of William Street at the Flinders Street corner. Close by were many offices of other shipping lines including McIlwraith, McEacharn & Company, who built neighbouring Scottish House in 1907 as their Melbourne branch; and around the corner in Collins Street were the offices of Huddart Parker and the Adelaide Steamship Company. Burns Philp’s new premises coincided with the expansion of its shipping interests in Melbourne and also served as a contact point for negotiations with the Commonwealth in this city, where, at that time, Federal Parliament was sitting.

Butler & Bradshaw

The architectural firm of Butler & Bradshaw were commissioned to design the new Melbourne premises for the Queensland Insurance Company. Walter Butler (1864-1949) was born in Somerset, England. His architectural training was in Britain, where he worked for the architect JD Sedding, and mixed with those associated with the influential Arts & Crafts Movement of the late nineteenth century. This design movement, which centred on the artist William Morris and the architect Richard Norman Shaw, attempted to re-establish the skills of craftsmanship that had been diminished by mass production and industrialization in the nineteenth century.

On arrival in Australia in 1888, Butler continued working as an architect, forming over the years partnerships with Beverley Ussher, George C Inskip, Marcus Martin, Ernest Bradshaw, and his nephew Richard Butler. Most of these professional partnerships were short-lived, the longest being with his nephew. From the 1920s, possibly due to a deep personal setback brought upon by the death of his only son, Butler relinquished all but his elite clients to his nephew and took a secondary role in the practice.

Walter Butler is acknowledged as an architect of great talent. His many works for wealthy pastoralists and businessmen include Newminster Park (1901) near Camperdown for A S Chirnside; Kamillaroi (1907), Toorak, for Clive Baillieu, and extensions to Edzell (1917), Toorak, for George Russell. As the architect to the Diocese of Melbourne from 1895, Butler designed extensions to Bishopscourt (1902) in Clarendon Street, East Melbourne; St Albans Church (1899), Armadale; Wangaratta Cathedral (1907), and a porch and tower to Christ Church (1910) at Benalla. For Dame Nellie Melba he designed the Italianate lodge and gatehouse at Coombe Cottage (1925).

Butler also designed several notable commercial buildings. In addition to the Queensland Building, he designed Collins House (1910) in Collins Street and several branches for the Union Bank of Australia. Perhaps his best-known work in Melbourne is the Mission to Seamen (1917) in Flinders Street, which is credited with being one of the earliest Spanish Mission-style buildings in this city.

Less is known about Ernest Royston Bradshaw. He was born in Dunedin, New Zealand and was an architect and civil engineer. Butler and Bradshaw were in partnership from 1907 until 1916, when Bradshaw volunteered for the AIF (Australian Imperial Force). Bradshaw served on the Western Front and after returning to Australia lived in Sydney for the remainder of his life, where he was Deputy Director of the Allied Works Council during World War II. Given Butler’s reputation for controlling the facets of design and detailing in his practice, it seems probable that little of the design of the Queensland Building can be credited to Bradshaw.

Queensland Building

The Queensland Building

Drawing of the façade of the Queensland Building by its architects Butler & Bradshaw. (Melbourne University Archives)

The Queensland Insurance Company had hoped that its new building would help stimulate business for its Melbourne branch, which had been underperforming for several years. Butler & Bradshaw designed a seven-storey building, plus basement, for the insurance company; its façade inspired by Renaissance palazzo (palace) design. The façade of a palazzo has three distinct elements: base and attic levels that are heavily ornamented, and intermediate floors faced with less decoration. The Queensland Building is one of a number of buildings designed in this manner including Centreway Arcade (1911) and the Auditorium Building (1913) in Collins Street, and the Commercial Travellers Association Building (1913) in Flinders Street.


It has been a long practice with insurance companies to build imposing buildings to attract policyholders. Grand, if not monumental, insurance chambers were erected throughout Australia’s principle cities in the nineteenth century for this purpose, with this trend reaching its zenith in the 1890s with the completion of commodious buildings in Sydney and Melbourne for the Equitable Life Assurance Society of the USA. For many years after the completion of the Equitable Building in Melbourne, it was regarded as the benchmark of quality commercial architecture in this city.

The Queensland Building measured up well, if not exceeded the standards set by the Equitable Building. In an article titled ‘An Up-to-Date Structure’ the architecture journal Building reported that it:
…approximates to the contemporary modern buildings of America and the Continent than any building yet erected in Australia, and it is much more modern in its construction that the Equitable Buildings in Sydney and Melbourne. The partitions throughout are solid, sound proof, and of fire-resisting material and can be taken down at any time with ease, so that any future subdivision of the building is possible at a minimum expense. The lift enclosures are in metal (bronze) and steel similar to the Equitable Buildings. One lift is automatic control so that tenants may use same after office hours.

The Equitable Building

The Equitable Building on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets, now demolished, was for many years after its completion in 1896 the benchmark of commercial architecture in Melbourne.
(State Library of Victoria Picture Collection)

The Queensland Insurance Building was opened on 9 January 1913. The Argus newspaper reported the following day:

The building is a handsome one. It is a graceful example of the Florentine Renaissance. Inside it is admirably lighted and elegantly finished. The walls and floors throughout are entirely of reinforced concrete, and the whole interior is plastered with ivory plaster. The floors are all covered with Aegypto, a wood pulp, which is used instead of the ordinary flooring boards. The floors and the flat roof were laid by Messrs E L Yencken and Co Pty Ltd. The stairs are of marble and the floors of the corridors are similarly paved. An Australian marble dado is put to the stairs, and the ground floor corridor from end to end. The lift enclosures are in metal, bronze and steel. A number of strong-rooms are provided on each floor to the suites of offices, while the ground floor is lighted by (a) glass roof, scientifically designed. There are seven floors in the building, one-half of the ground floor and the basement occupied by the Queensland Insurance Company, and half the ground floor by Messrs Burns Philp & Company.

On the William Street façade the concrete walls are finished in brick with Sydney freestone on the base and on portions of the upper levels.

The Queensland Building is hailed as the first building to be constructed entirely of reinforced concrete in Melbourne. The architects were able to justify the use of this expensive system of construction through the cost savings and benefits it provided elsewhere. The walls of concrete buildings are up to 75% thinner than traditional buildings, and this increased the floor space on each level by 36 square metres. The added benefits of reinforced concrete construction, noted by Butler & Bradshaw, is that a building of this type is fireproof.

In securing bricks for the building Butler & Bradshaw and the contractor, A G Plowman, experienced some difficulties. In an attempt to discourage construction of reinforced concrete buildings in Melbourne, brickmakers had refused to supply bricks for the building. This problem was overcome by obtaining the building’s double-pressed bricks from Sydney. While Butler’s British training and associations with the Arts & Crafts Movement is widely acknowledged, the Queensland Building also displays increasing American influence in Australian architecture. The building follows the popular trend of this time, also seen on Centreway and the Auditorium Building in Melbourne, of composing the façade with oriels, or curved bay windows at each end of the façade, and a large central entrance archway on the ground floor. This façade design displays similarities with not only British models, but also architecture from the West Coast of the United States of this period. Other American influences include the use of Ivory Plaster, which is a plaster wall and ceiling lining that is similar in composition to cement. The arch on the Queensland Building, as well as the reveals of the ground floor windows, feature intricate stone carvings depicting Australian flora. Another carving in the curved pediment above the first floor window, which is easily mistaken for the Coat of Arms of Australia, is the emblem of the Queensland Insurance Company. Crowning Butler & Bradshaw’s design is an elegant attic level capped by a finely detailed projecting cornice.

The building at the time of its completion was highly regarded amongst Melbourne’s business community, with many prominent firms leasing space including Westinghouse; the Queenslandbased meat exporters Thomas Borthwick & Sons; Elder Smith & Company, who leased the entire second floor; and the wine and spirit manufacturers B Seppelt & Sons Limited. Walter Butler leased offices on the sixth floor for his practice, and later Richard Butler leased space in the building. As with many city buildings at this time, the top floor had a caretaker’s residence. Butler & Bradshaw’s innovative approach to the interior planning of the building was to make it one that provided some of the highest returns to its leasing agents, Baillieu Allard, who managed the building for many years. Although several alterations and additions have occurred to the building, much of its early character remains.

In 1937, Walter & Richard Butler repositioned the stairs between the ground floor and basement of the Queensland Insurance offices. These works also included new partitions, entrance doors and a counter built from Queensland Maple in the ground floor insurance chamber. The entrance door to the insurance chamber from the portico in William Street was removed and replaced by a window. Access to the chamber was provided via a set of new doors opposite the lifts in the ground floor corridor. Works completed in 1979 by the architectural firm Godfrey & Spowers inserted an additional stair to the west of the lifts and created additional office space on the seventh floor.

The Queensland Building and Collins House

The Queensland Building and Collins House, also designed by Walter Butler, feature in Real Property Annual c1920 as ‘Two of Melbourne’s Principal Buildings’. (State Library of Victoria).

The Queensland Insurance Company merged with two other insurers in 1973 to form the QBE Insurance Group Limited, who remained in the building for many years. Burns Philp vacated the building in 1930 and moved to offices in the Equitable Building in Collins Street. After diversifying into food and other industries in the second half of the twentieth century, Burns Philp was acquired in 2006 by the Rank Australia Group These once iconic firms and their contribution to Australian commerce and maritime history are reflected in the imposing Queensland Building, which today still has a commanding presence in William Street, and with neighbouring Scottish House and the Australian Club, are a reminder of the character of early twentieth century Melbourne.

Henkell Brothers

Henkell Brothers have managed the Queensland Building since March 2003, which is part of a portfolio of heritage buildings owned and restored by the firm including the former Colonial Gas Company Building in Flinders Street, and Kurrajong House in Collins Street. The future of the Queensland Building is secure with its current owners Henkell Brothers, who are committed to preserving the architecturally and historically significant Queensland Building, which symbolises the many institutions it has housed Queensland Building.

The Queensland Building

Despite the construction in the 1960s of taller buildings in its environs, the Queensland Building retains a distinct presence in this part of William Street. (North Melbourne Library Service)

The Queensland Building

Queensland Building



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