The Old Courthouse, Frankenstein and Ancient Greece

old court

What connects Frankenstein to Perth’s Old Courthouse? What links the columns at the entrance to Ancient Athens? And why hasn’t the courthouse been turned into a small bar like every other old building in the city? Answers to two of these three questions will follow.

Acclaimed feminist Mary Wollstonecraft died shortly after giving birth to a daughter. Her grieving partner didn’t feel able to cope with a new baby, so she was brought up for several years by friends, who had a young boy named Henry Reveley. This led to a life-long friendship between the young girl and Henry. She would grow up to become Mary Shelley and write the classic Frankenstein.

Henry became an engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, and comrade of Mary’s partner, the poet Percy Shelley, whom he even saved from drowning on one occasion. Unfortunately, Henry also persuaded Percy to invest in an expensive engineering project which came to nothing, and this must have put some strain on the friendship.

After a brief stay in Cape Town as colonial engineer, Henry was recruited by James Stirling and travelled with him on the Parmelia to help found a new colony in Western Australia. He was now responsible for all public works, under which circumstances he had to be less engineer and more architect. One of his buildings which still survives is the Old Courthouse.

Opening in 1837, this building was controversial from the start. Due to a lack of funds, Henry was instructed to erect something which could serve as both court and church. In America this would have been a clear violation of the separation of Church and State, something Western Australia did not have, but it still made a lot of people very uneasy.

It also created enormous difficulties for the architect. Courts and churches have very different internal arrangements and making one building which could do both jobs was no easy task, especially with a very limited budget. The solution involved a number of compromises, which meant it was neither a great court nor a great church, but the young colony muddled along with the end result anyway.

But there was still one problem left for Henry to solve. The very plain exterior of the building, there was no money for ornamentation, required some kind of grand statement to show that it was an important place in the new colony. Yet it also had to reflect the dual function of the new edifice. Henry’s answer was inspired: he designed a portico with Doric columns which are a replica of those at the Parthenon in Athens.

Over the centuries, the Parthenon had been many things: temple, court, parliament, Christian Church and Mosque. This made it the ideal model for a mixed-use building. In addition, in more recent times Henry would have known the Parthenon also stood as a symbol for democracy itself, especially in American architecture. Increasingly, Ancient Athens was the model for any new republic or way of organising a democratic society. Of course, the Swan River Colony was not yet a democracy in 1837, but one could always hope.

parthenon

How do we know Henry’s Doric columns are definitely modelled on the Parthenon? The capitals (the tops of the columns) are simple, mere ‘buns’, the shafts are fluted (the grooves), and the columns smash into the pavement with no base, which is a definite sign of being patterned on the Athenian building. No other ancient building could have been the reference.

There are still a few mysteries, such as why the pediment looks so modernist, being simple rectangular strips. If we didn’t have old photographs of the courthouse, it would look like a replacement for something more complex. But it does appear the pediment is exactly the way Henry designed it.

The only other mystery is how long it will take to kick out the Law Museum and get ourselves an upmarket small bar in the building. We suggest ‘Henry’s Place’ for a name.

2 Comments

    1. The idea is to popularise quite complex architectural history and we think a bibliography or references would make it less blog-like and more yet another unread academic article. If there’s something specific you want to chase up, feel free to get in touch through Facebook or Twitter, because references are available. Unless it’s our interpretation of the architecture, in which case the whole thing is just in brains. Until we publish the book. Which we probably won’t. Because life.

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