The Adelaide Central Market Tower (Photo: Lena Madssen)

The mystery of the Adelaide Central Market Tower

It was October 2014 when I first started to wonder about the Central Market Tower. I’d read an article in the paper about plans to run a public competition to generate ideas for its unused floors. I’d never even thought about what might be inside the Tower, let alone that is was empty.

I must have walked past the Tower a hundred times. I even worked in the bakery in the building below the tower in my teenage years. But I never really looked up. I never wondered what the Tower was, but now I was curious.

Why build a Tower?

As I researched more about the Market Tower, I began to realise its significance to the Central Market. The Tower was part of the original Grote Street shops built for the Central Market — known back in 1900 as the City Market. The red brick building replaced the old timber and iron sheds that had been there since 1869.

The two-storey Grote St building with Federal Hall above, shops below and Tower to the east (Photo: Lena Madssen)

The first brick was laid on 8 February 1900. That day the Advertiser wrote:

The building will be in red brick, with terra-cotta facings, and will undoubtedly be seen to special advantage in Grote Street, the magnificent width of this thoroughfare giving excellent opportunities for viewing architectural beauties. As can be seen the building is to be two storeys in height, the lower of which is to be filled with shops, with handsome plate-glass fronts. The arches above the shop fronts are to be filled with stained glass, which will greatly add to the appearance.

Since its completion, the entire building including the Tower has been a symbol, shaping the identity of the Adelaide Central Market. Past and present Adelaide Central Market logos have featured the building prominently in their design.

Central Market Logos, past (left) and present (right). The Tower as a symbol evident in both designs.

I researched a lot. Read everything I could find. But I still couldn't find a record of what the Tower’s original purpose was and why it had remained unused for so long. The structure clearly has served as a symbolic statement, but was there a functional purpose? Was there ever a plan to use the space inside?

115 years after it’s construction and that question remains unanswered.

Something inside me wanted to help solve this mystery, but also to share the story of this structure, and help define a purpose for its use in the future.

Lets put the Tower to use

After further investigating the idea of running an ideas competition to reinvigorate the space within the Tower, I discovered no plans were yet in place. So I put my hand up to run it.

The Central Market lies in the heart of Adelaide. It’s the centre of our food culture. The local traders represent the city’s diverse ethnic culture and it’s heritage structures, like the Tower, that help define Adelaide’s architectural history. I love the place, and I wanted to do my bit to help.

The first call I made was to Branko Jaric. We'd worked together before on projects, he’s a graduate architect, knows design competitions and understands the dynamics of the city of Adelaide. He was keen to be involved. We now had a team.

We proceeded to do our homework, consulted with others, gathered our thoughts and then made our pitch. After receiving approval from the Market Authority to run the competition, we got down to work.

The search

To run a great competition, we needed to paint the entire picture about the Market Tower. The history, the heritage and it’s technical details.

An afternoon in the Adelaide City Archives

I began trawling through the Adelaide City Archives looking for anything that would be relevant. The staff kindly delivered me a whole trolley of envelopes to sort through.

It soon became clear they had no architectural drawings and limited recorded history of the Market prior to 1922.

Nonetheless, it was an inspiring experience. I had a great time learning more about how the Central Market has evolved over 155 years and reading about the different architectural projects that occurred during this time.

We also asked staff at the Adelaide City Council, and again no clues. They had no recorded usage of the Market Tower in their registers. But we did learn it is heritage listed, internally and externally as a Local Heritage Place (City Significance).

Ultimately my greatest source of Market history came from Patricia Sumerling’s excellent essay, ‘Building the Central Market’. There are a few versions of this essay floating around the net, but Sumerling’s gives an excellent account right from where it all began. However, as comprehensive as the essay is about the Market’s history, the Tower doesn't get a mention. So I kept searching.

Eventually I uncovered the original 1899 drawing of the Grote Street facade. The State Library of South Australia fortunately had a copy.

The original drawing is quite stunning. The building was originally designed by chief draughtsman, R. Sloan, under the direction of the city engineer, J. Vicars. At last, some information.

Central Market: Grote Street Façade (1899), James Churchill-Smith, BRG80. State Library of South Australia.

The architectural style Sloan and Vicars designed for the building is detailed in the City of Adelaide Heritage Study, completed back in 1990.

The Grote Street building is a two storey brick building with a four storey tower to the western end of the building. A modern steel-framed, mesh clad pedestrian and car park entrance is attached to both ends of the building. The brickwork used in all the walls of the building is of good quality. The bricks are laid in a Flemish bond and are, and were always designed to be, exposed. The roof of the building is disguised behind a parapet. The building features a decorative brick parapet using profiled bricks. The brickwork to the tower has been laid to create a decorative scalloped pattern.

Local Adelaide architect, and one of our jurors for the competition, David Brown, helped us further define the architectural style of the Grote Street building and Market Tower. He pointed us to the book, Identifying Australian Architecture (Apperly 1994).

The book categorises buildings of a similar style interstate as “Federation Free Style” (1890-1915). We learnt that this style was popular with the NSW Government architect at the time, Walter Liberty Vernon. He’d inturn been been influenced by the ‘Free Style’ works emerging in Britain — where he was born, before migrating to Sydney in 1883.

The style soon became popular in Australia, so it’s not surprising that the Council owned Market in Adelaide would be influenced by a style commonly used in NSW for a dominant new public building.

But here the trail stopped. In our research, there was still little reference to the actual Tower, nor its intended purpose and use over the past century.

What we now know

We'd uncovered a bit of information about Tower, the original drawing and information about its architectural style. We know it served to make a symbolic statement to the people of Adelaide about the development of the Central Market. We have more recently heard a report that it was used as a fire-spotting tower too.

Inside we know it’s a four-storey structure and only the ground floor shop has ever been used — currently by Cappos Seafood, and previously by Fowlers Chemist.

Access to the upper floors in the Tower is via a narrow internal staircase through the ground floor shop. One objective of the competition is to generate ideas on how to improve access to the upper floors. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the Tower’s upper floors have remained unused.

The south facing wall on level one of the Tower, has an entrance to Federal Hall —the name for level one of the Grote St building. But this was bricked up at some point. Federal Hall is currently occupied by Adelaide City Council staff, but was originally an entertainment hall.

Underneath the entire building there is a series of cellars. And at the very top of the Tower there is even a rooftop with some great views of Grote Street.

Looking north. The view of Her Majesty’s Theatre (left) and the Hotel Metropolitan (centre) on Grote St from the Market Tower rooftop. (Photo: Anthony Balsamo)

I'm still convinced that there is more to this story though. Someone with with a link to this part of Adelaide’s history has to be out there somewhere.

So please share this article with your friends. If you are that person, or think you know them, get in touch. We'd love to keep learning more about the Market Tower and continue to share it’s story.

The magnificent third floor of the Market Tower — 17.6" feet high, exposed red brick walls and original timber ceiling rafters. Totally vacant. (Photo: Branko Jaric)

The future of the Market Tower

While mystery still surrounds the history of the Tower, we're now helping to define its future.

If you're the creative type and wish to play a role in the future development of the Market Tower, you can make a submission to the ideas competition — for full details check out the competition website.

You just might make your mark in history and help finally define a purpose for the Adelaide Central Market Tower.

And don't forget, next time you are heading down Grote St to the markets for a bite to eat or to do your shopping, pause and look up. Admire the design of the Grote Street facade, and the architecture of Tower. Imagine what you would like to see inside this humble iconic Adelaide tower. You never know where your ideas could take you.