Friday, April 1, 2011

Andrea Stombuco, architect

Because it started out as a penal outpost of the nineteenth century English justice system, Brisbane's early days were heavily influenced by English customs, laws and architecture. But it isn't only the the English that we need to remember, there were plenty of non-Anglo influences also. The Irish (they don't like being lumped in with the English!) were heavily represented in early Brisbane, as well as a goodly portion of Europeans - mainly Germans - and Chinese. One of Brisbane's pioneer architects was the Italian, Andrea Stombuco, and I have just finished reading about him in a book written by Piero P Giorgi, published in Brisbane in 1998. It is called Stombuco: the building of Brisbane in the 19th century, and is available at your local library. Here is a picture of him.(Photo: State Library of Queensland)

Early details of Stombuco's life are sketchy. He was born in Florence in 1820 or 1821, and in his twenties moved to South Africa where he apparently owned a quarry and worked in the building industry. He married Jean Miles in Cape Town in 1849, and together they came to Australia two years later. During that voyage, Jean converted to Catholicism from her original Anglican faith; not necessarily at Andrea's request, but rather owing to her meeting a charismatic Catholic priest on the ship. It is believed that the Stombucos moved immediately to the Bendigo area where gold had just been discovered.

Life cannot have been easy for them at this point. Giorgi describes Jean as being the only woman in a mining shanty town, with Andrea trading in gold to make a living. This was not at all profitable for the family and was terminated when a valuable asset was stolen from their tent, forcing Andrea, Jean and their firstborn, Marie, to remove themselves to Melbourne. The foundation for Stombuco's later reputation of being "eccentric" or "volatile" probably originated there - Stombuco, trying to make his way as a sculptor, entered a couple of stone statues at the 1854 Exhibition. One was the Madonna, and the other a classical Greek representation of Palamede. They were not well received, says Giorgi, possibly because of attitudes towards nudity in those times. Evidently Stombuco smashed the works in a fit of anger.

Stombuco arrived in Brisbane in 1875, via Kyneton in Victoria, where he erected the Catholic Church of St Mary (below, top); and Goulburn NSW, where he helped design and construct the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul (below, bottom). The view of St Mary's is very similar to the church Stombuco later designed in Fortitude Valley, St Patrick's. Stombuco was advertising his services as "architect-builder, sculptor and monumental mason" in Kyneton, but nothing seems to be known about his qualifications for any of these professions, other than experience. He probably wasn't the only person in the new colonies who was progressing his career in this way. Although living well in Kyneton, things did go awry for the Stombuco family at times - they lost two infant children who died there during the 1860s.
St Mary's: (Photo:
Cathedral of Sts Peter & Paul: (Photo:

It was in Brisbane that Stombuco really hit his straps in terms of the number of his commisssions. One report says that he designed 54 works in Australia, and that at least 20 survive in South-East Queensland alone. Giorgi says that he designed eight churches, three schools, thirteen residences and eight commercial buildings during his stay in Brisbane. We have looked at some of his works in these pages already: Palma Rosa at Hamilton and St Patrick's Catholic Church at Fortitude Valley, and the All Hallows' School's main building. Stombuco came here on the advice of Rev Patrick Dunne (later to become Bishop of Brisbane) and Stombuco was immediately asked to design St Mary's Presbytery in Ipswich. Following the completion of that commission, Stombuco applied for a hotel licence for the Royal Oak Hotel in Leichhardt St, where he was living. He was a publican for two years. Around this time he invented a new type of water closet, in which he tried (unsuccessfully) to interest the local council. He also paused long enough to become a citizen of the colony of Queensland in 1882.

But it was ecclesiastical works that were Stombuco's primary focus when he resumed architecture. Although his and Jean's
Catholic faith could only have helped him in his work in those sectarian times, not all were Catholic church buildings - he designed St Andrew's Anglican Church at South Brisbane. Some believe that Stombuco was the architect for the Brisbane Synagogue in Margaret St after he won a competition for its design. The state government's heritage page lists the designer as Arthur Morry from the government architect's office, but the synagogue's own pages attribute it to Stombuco. I contacted the state Department of Environment and Resource Management for clarification, and I am really grateful for the detailed reply I received from Ms Catherine Chambers, the department's Principal Heritage Officer.

"Thank you for your query about the architect responsible for the Brisbane Synagogue
, which is a place entered in the Queensland Heritage Register (600127). The architect described as being responsible for the design in the entry for this place, parts of which are available online, is Mr Arthur Morry. Having looked through our research file and consulted our reports collection, I can confirm that this appears to be correct.

There are two articles in The Brisbane Courier one dated 12 August 1884 and the other 8 July 1885 which report that he was the architect for the Synagogue. (These can be read at -

The other source is a Conservation Study prepared by Russell Hall Architects in 1993, which might clarify the information provided on the website of the Brisbane Hebrew Congregation. This study consulted architectural plans, and Board of Management and Building Committee minute books held by the Congregation. It states that the Building Committee rejected the only plan submitted to it for the new Synagogue during its first design invitation round, that by Andrea Stombuco, and moved to re-advertise for competition entries.

Copies of the entries received by the Committee do not remain intact, nor is there any list of entrants. It is apparently the Building Committee minute books that suggest that the winning entry was received from Mr Edward Wells Russell, who had recently arrived in Qld and was working for FDG Stanley, but that Arthur Morry obtained his permission to take over the work. Married to his sister, Morry had come to Qld with EW Russell and was employed by Stanley too until he quickly went to Qld Public Works. It is unclear who can lay claim to the original design, but it seems certain that Morry carried it through to completion of the building."
Stombuco also designed at least part of St Joseph's College on Gregory Terrace; his own residences Bertholme and Briar House at New Farm, and Petrie Mansions on Petrie Terrace; as well as several commercial buildings, the most notable of which was probably Her Majesty's Theatre (below) in Queen St. This building was demolished in the 1980s to enable the construction of the Hilton Hotel and the Wintergarden shopping mall. A poor trade in my view, particularly seeing that the developers (Kern Corporation) were supposed to leave the facade, but didn't. (Photo: State Library of Queensland and John Oxley Library; #166135)

I thought that it might be instructive to hear the views of a current architect about Stombuco's contribution to Brisbane, so I asked Brisbane conservation architect Peter Marquis-Kyle for a comment. This is what he wrote:
Andrea Stombuco is a terrific example of the sort of self-made architect who could thrive, for a time, in the boom-and-bust of colonial Queensland. Quite a few of his buildings have survived. They aren't the finest works of architecture, but they do express the gusto of their architect and the times he lived in. Three different houses he built for his own family are still standing; my favourite is the grandiose Sans Souci (later Palmarosa) which almost sent him broke.
I think the demolition of Her Majesty's Opera House in 1983 to make way for the Hilton Hotel in Queen Street was a sad loss for Brisbane. I can't look at the Hilton without thinking of what used to be there."

The Queensland economy tanked in the late 1880s, and when that happened Stombuco left Brisbane for the emerging city of Perth, probably because he felt that the discovery of gold near Perth would provide a building impetus to that city. His wife did not accompany him - she remained here as the postmistress at Eight Mile Plains. Their descendants live in that area today. Andrea Stombuco's health declined in the early twentieth century, and he died in Fremantle in 1907. Here are photographs of his two self-designed residences at New Farm - Bertholme (top) and Briar House (below). The elegant Bertholme has been home to the Moreton Club, a Brisbane women-only club, since 1958.(Photos: © 2011 the foto fanatic)
Stombuco was certainly many-faceted - builder, architect, sculptor, inventor, publican, gold trader, stone-mason, quarry owner. He is variously described as "flamboyant", "volatile", "eccentric" and "extravagant". In his book, Giorgi takes exception to these descriptions, citing national stereotyping as the basis for them. I think that in order for Stombuco to have thrived in so many diverse ways, there would have to be an element of truth to some of them.

Click here to go to a State Library of Queensland video about Andrea Stombuco.


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