The whole building was illuminated by electric light and was one of the first buildings in Adelaide to use electric lighting. The extensive use of cast iron, plate glass and electric lighting suggests that the architectural firm was extremely progressive and able to respond to design requirements and new construction materials and techniques of the time. In August 1885, Gays Arcade was announced in course of construction with a 100 foot frontage to Twin Street and a depth of 119 feet to Adelaide Arcade. N W Trudgeon built Gays Arcade for 11,000 pounds. The architect was James Cumming who also was the architect for the Australian Mutual Provident Building in King William Street.
Adelaide and Gays Arcades are fine examples of the 1880’s boom period. They are testimony to the period during which Rundle Street was transformed into a retail area of great renown.
Other significant 19th century shopping establishments have been either greatly altered or lost. Myer’s old building was much altered and demolished to make way for the Myer Centre and the old Birks building was demolished to be replaced by David Jones. Adelaide Arcade ranks with The Strand Arcade (1892) in Sydney and The Block Arcade (1894) in Melbourne as examples of the most urbane approach to retailing devised up to the time. The design of Adelaide Arcade was by Withall & Wells and is the most important piece of their work to survive. Their schemes included Charles Birks, The Jubilee Exhibition Building and The Adelaide Club Racing stand.
The original shareholders of Adelaide Arcade Pty Ltd were:
Lewis Henry Berens
Joachim Matthias Wendt
Robert Carr Castle
Hermann Koeppon Carl Wendt
The site is two acres deep and the original promenade between the shops was 24 feet wide and composed of Carrara marble and black and white encaustic tiles formed in elegant designs. The elevations to both Rundle and Grenfell Streets were carried out in the Italian style of architecture. All the plate glass was imported from England. Elsewhere colonial materials were used as far as possible. The walls were constructed of bricks from the Metropolitan Company, with Portland cement. The slabs at the entrance were of Kapunda marble, the largest the company could supply.
The rapidity with which the building was erected eclipses anything previously heard of in Adelaide. The Arcade was illuminated throughout by electricity provided by a large engine located around the area that is now Manhattan Drycleaners. Each shop was also fitted with an elegant gas lamp as well. Originally there were three fountains placed along the main walkway and an underground chamber used as tearooms.
The total cost of the building was estimated in 1885 at over 30,000 pounds. A total sum of 60,000 pounds was spent on building Adelaide Arcade, Gays Arcade and Sturt Hotel Arcade. Lighting was taken care of by sixteen lamps of the Seimens patent hung along the centre of the promenade. Two of these were mounted outside the entrances and provided considerable illumination. Electric lighting in Adelaide in 1885 was almost a novelty.
One of the most exotic features of Adelaide Arcade was the Turkish Baths which occupied the south eastern corner. They were lavishly fitted out by the proprietors. Clients were given a choice of warm baths at a shilling and Turkish baths at four shillings. In May 1935 the lease was taken over by Alfred Netter and Alexander Solomon, who commissioned alterations in an attempt to boost trading. This was the advent of the central booths, in the modern idiom of the thirties and also the box electric lighting above the shops. In 1968 extensive alterations occurred with an addition of a walkway at the first floor level which doubled the number in old shops in the Arcade. This also precipitated the disappearance of most of the internal stairways. To increase downstairs shop space, mezzanines were added. In 1970 the existing tiles needed replacing due to wear, and unfortunately although the owners wished to retain the old pattern, they could not be lifted, therefore the new tiles were laid on top. The new tiles were supplied by the Old English Tile Company.
On August 3rd 1980, the building caught on fire. Gays Arcade, where the fire originated was completely gutted, and Adelaide Arcade was extensively damaged to the cost of 2 million dollars. The entire Arcade was closed for trading for over a week.
Naturally, like all old buildings, Adelaide Arcade is believed to own a resident ghost! The Adelaide Arcade caretaker, called a Beadle, in the early years of the 1900’s came to a nasty end, having his head mutilated in the electricity generator. The newspaper report of the time was quite graphic in every detail. There have been intermittent reports over the years of sightings, strange footsteps, objects being moved from where they belong, and other strange phenomena which cannot be explained. Adelaide Arcade is a beautiful historic building and the current owners are endeavouring to recapture the historic influence to show off her finer points.