Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937) was born at Maywood, near Chicago, and educated at Oak Park High School and the University of Illinois, graduating in Architecture in 1899. In 1901 he became an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright. He started his own practice in 1906 and by 1910 he was recognised as a leading practitioner of the Prairie School of architecture. In 1911 he married Marion Lucy Mahony (1871-1961), an architect who had also worked with Wright for several years.
In 1912, helped by a set of drawings by his wife, Griffin won the international competition for the design of the Federal capital of Australia. The design caused controversy and argument which continued for many years. In 1913 Griffin was appointed Federal capital director of design and construction, a part-time position which he occupied until 1920. He was based in Melbourne. His extensive lakes scheme for Canberra was rejected, but by 1917 the survey of the main axial lines of the city was completed and Griffin produced his final plan in 1918. However, apart from tree-planting, little work was carried out on the site until the 1920s.
During this period Griffin designed the town plans for Leeton and Griffith in New South Wales and estates at Eaglemont in Melbourne. He also designed the Café Australia, Newman College Chapel and the Capitol Theatre in Melbourne. In 1920 he formed the Greater Sydney Development Association to build residential estates on the headlands of Middle Harbour. Castlecrag was begun in 1921 and the Griffins moved there in 1924, but only a small number of houses were completed. After 1929 their partnership with Eric Nicholls depended on commissions for the design of municipal incinerators. In 1935 the Griffins moved to Lucknow in India. Following Walter’s death in 1937, Marion returned to Chicago.
From 1920 onwards, responsibility for the design and construction of Canberra rested firmly with the bureaucracy, in particular the Department of Home and Territories and the Department of Works and Railways. The Federal Capital Advisory Committee, chaired by Sir John Sulman, recommended that in the first instance Canberra be ‘a garden town, with simple, pleasant but unpretentious buildings’, to be replaced later by more permanent edifices. In 1923 the Government, after hearing evidence from Griffin, decided on the site for the provisional Parliament House and work began on its construction. The first sale of residential land leases took place in 1924. In 1924 the Federal Capital Commission was established, headed by John Butters and with C.S. Daley as its secretary. Its main task was to arrange the transfer of Parliament and the public service. Under its auspices, the two main office buildings, the Prime Minister’s Lodge, Albert Hall and the Acton and Kurrajong Hotels were constructed, Yarralumla House and the Mount Stromlo Observatory were extended, and workers’ cottages and camps were established. The first transferred public servants arrived in October 1926. Parliament House was opened by the Duke of York on 9 May 1927.
With the help of the architectural historian Donald Leslie Johnson, the National Library made a strong effort to collect original records of Walter Burley Griffin in the years from 1969 onwards. A number of individuals and local government authorities donated or lent for copying drawings, plans and specifications. An approach was made to Eric Nicholls, who had been Griffin’s partner from 1920 until 1937. However, it was only in 2006 that the Library was able to purchase from his family the substantial Nicholls Archive, which contains many original plans, drawings and papers of Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin.
The earliest acquisition containing extensive material on Griffin were the papers of the politician King O’Malley, which were received from the Public Trustee of Victoria in 1956. The papers and maps of C.S. Daley were donated by his son in 1967. The Donald Leslie Johnson Collection was purchased in 1989, while the papers of Peter Harrison were presented by his wife, Sheila Harrison, in 1991.
The painting by Joseph Wolinski of Ainslie Post Office was purchased by the Library in 1938. The oil painting of Canberra by Lister Lister was donated by John S. Dence of Sydney in 1952. Nine watercolours of Canberra of H.M. Rolland were bought in 1953 and an additional painting was donated by Rolland in 1962. The two paintings of Canberra by Herbert R. Gallop were donated by his wife in 1960 and 1971.
The Library holds a comprehensive collection of printed maps, as well as some manuscript maps, of Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory. Pre-dating the international competition for the design of the National Capital, several Royal Commissions were conducted into sites proposed for the Seat of Government of the Commonwealth. The Library holds the sketch maps showing proposed Federal Territory and capital sites published between 1900 and 1909. Parliament approved the Yass- Canberra district as the site for the capital in December 1908. In May 1909 an engineer, Charles H. Caswell, used the parish maps of Canberra and Narrabundah to delineate a sewerage scheme for the capital on the Molonglo River. His original plan is in the Library. On the basis of Caswell’s design, the surveyor Charles Scrivener prepared a contour survey of the site, which was published in the same year by the New South Wales Department of Lands. The survey was in turn the basis of the competition for the design of the capital city. In addition to copies of the printed map, the Library holds a tracing by Scrivener showing the position of the Federal Members’ camp in Canberra.
The Department of Home Affairs made photographic copies of the plans submitted in the competition for the design in 1911-12 and they are held in the Library. It also has the detailed base mapping and related information supplied by the Department to the competitors. A lithograph of Walter Burley Griffin’s winning design was published by the New South Wales Department of Lands in 1913. There are a series of modified designs produced by Griffin in the next five years, including a plan for an industrial suburb. The Eric Nicholls Collection contains 14 base maps of Canberra with hand coloured lines indicating the land and water axes, modifications of roads, railways, water supply and sewerage pipes. Some contain the initials of King O’Malley or Griffin. In addition, there is a manuscript map of Canberra drawn in 1916 by J.T.H. Goodwin, the chief surveyor in the Department of Home Affairs.
Later maps of Canberra were issued by the Federal Capital Advisory Committee (1921-24) and the Federal Capital Commission (1924-30) and depict roads and residential sites and also the sites of plantations, reserves, water supply and other facilities. There are also a number of auctioneers’ sale plans covering both Canberra and Jervis Bay.
Other plans by Burley Griffin held in the collection include his designs of Leeton, Griffith, Eaglemont in Melbourne, and Castlecrag in Sydney. There is also a plan of a new city to be built at North Arm Cove, Port Stephens.
mfm G1670-71 Griffin, Marion Mahony, ‘The Magic of America’ (New York Historical Society)
mfm G 6749 Griffin, Walter Burley, Architectural drawings (Burnham Library of Architecture)
PIC P1891/1-77 LOC 1791-1800 Griffin, Walter Burley, Architectural plans and drawings of Castlecrag houses (Willoughby Municipal Council)
ORAL TRC 421 Lunney, Suzanne, Interview with Edgar Deans about the Greater Sydney Development Association and the Griffins, 1975
ORAL TRC 2548 Guth, Steven, Interview with Ron Evans about Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, 1989
ORAL TRC 2548 Guth, Steven, Interview with Mervyn Griffiths about Castlecrag and the Griffins, 1992
Paintings and drawings
In addition to a large number of photographic portraits, the Library holds a charcoal drawing of Walter Burley Griffin by Constance Paul. It was a sketch for an oil painting which was entered for the Archibald Prize in 1936 and was later owned by Marion Griffin.
The Eric Nicholls Collection contains about 160 original pencil, ink and wash architectural drawings by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. They range from student work in the 1890s, mostly of houses in Illinois and Iowa, to drawings of Lucknow University in the last year or two of Walter’s life. Of particular importance are a number of lithographs and watercolours on silk. They depict Griffin’s home at Winnetka (1911), the Canberra water axis (1911), the Trier Center neighbourhood, Winnetka (1913), views from the summit of Mount Ainslie (1911-12), Newman College, Melbourne (c. 1915), Capitol Theatre, Melbourne (c. 1921), Castlecrag residences (1921-22) and the New South Wales Government Savings Bank (1927). There are also a large number of photographs, slides and transparencies of paintings and drawings by the Griffins, including the submissions to the Canberra design competition.
Among the paintings and drawings of Canberra in the period 1900-1930 held in the Library are the following:
Boyd, Penleigh, The Canberra site, watercolour, 1913
Coulter, Charles, Canberra, 1912, oil painting
Coulter, Charles, The ford, Molonglo River, watercolour, 1909
Coulter, Charles, View looking south over site from Mount Ainslie, wash drawing, 1908
Gallop, Herbert R., Canberra, Feb. 1924, oil painting
Gallop, Herbert R., Site of Canberra from the foot of Mount Ainslie, oil, 1927
Johnson, William Elliot, St John the Baptist Church, Canberra, pencil, 1909
Lister, W. Lister, Canberra, 1912, oil painting
Lister, W. Lister, The Federal Capital site, Canberra, Australia, 1913, watercolour
Robertson, R.H., Canberra: Mount Ainslie from site of capitol, watercolour, 1910
Robertson, R.H., Post Office, Ainslie, looking south, watercolour, 1910
Rolland, H.M., Views of Canberra, several watercolours, 1913-25
Wolinski, Joseph, Ainslie Post Office, oil, 1912
Of particular interest is an album of 84 drawings and watercolours by Eirene Mort of old Canberra and the surrounding district (1916-39). The subjects include St John’s Church, the old Canberra schoolhouse, the Canberra post office, Duntroon, Klensendorlffe’s farm, Acton homestead, Gininderra homestead, Gungahlin homestead, Black Mountain, Coppins Crossing, Mount Pleasant, Cotter Dam and Mount Tennant.
There is no substantial Walter Burley Griffin archive in existence, but original documents, letters and copies of writings of the Griffins can be found in several collections in the Library.
The papers of King O’Malley, Minister for Home Affairs in 1910-13 and 1915-16, contain extensive official papers relating to his portfolio. There are files on the Federal Capital and a number of letters from Griffin to O’Malley.
The papers of the public servant C.S. Daley are an extraordinary source on the development of Canberra and its social and cultural life from 1913 to 1966. The early papers document aspects of the work of the Department of Home Affairs, the Federal Capital Advisory Committee, and the Federal Capital Commission.
The small collection of papers of Edgar Deans, the secretary of the Greater Sydney Development Association, consist of plans, photographs and documents on Castlecrag and an essay on the Griffins by Louise Lightfoot.
The papers of Donald L. Johnson were assembled when he was writing his book The architecture of Walter Burley Griffin (1977). They cover Griffin’s entire life and consist of photocopies of correspondence, official papers and articles, publications, notes, photographs, slides, tracings of plans and drawings, bibliographies and microfilms. There are also copies of different versions of Marion Griffin’s ‘The Magic of America.’ The collection occupies 28 boxes.
The papers of the town planner Peter Harrison include drafts of his thesis Walter Burley Griffin: landscape architect (published posthumously), an extensive correspondence, research notes, official publications, copies of theses by other writers, and various sources on Griffin’s life and work.
The small group of papers of the designer Rowland Herbert contain letters, cuttings and photographs about Griffin and Castlecrag.
The papers of Eric Nicholls, who was Griffin’s partner, contain a number of typescript articles by Griffin, mainly dating from the period 1925-36. There are also letters about a partnership in 1914, copies of exercises prepared by Griffin when he was a student, notes by Griffin on Frank Lloyd Wright, newspaper and magazine articles about the Griffins, and files on various architectural projects. The collection occupies 14 boxes.
The Nicholls Collection contains a number of photographs of the Griffins during their years in Australia and a large quantity of photographs of buildings and other subjects. They include houses in the United States and Melbourne, incinerators, Newman College, Café Australia, the Capitol Theatre, the Chinese Club in Melbourne, Castlecrag, and Leeton. There are also many studies of Australian trees.
The Library has a very large collection of photographs of Canberra and the Australian Capital Territory from the late nineteenth century to the present. The most substantial collection documenting the transition from a small village to the National Capital are the 540 lantern slides made by the public servant, William J. Mildenhall. His subjects included Civic shops, the Institute of Anatomy, cottages, Telopea Park School, Government House, Canberra House, Duntroon, the construction of Parliament House, government offices, the Hotel Canberra, Yarralumla Nursery, the opening of Parliament House (1927), the Molonglo internment camp, Capitol Theatre, St John’s Church and the Kingston power station. Photographic prints are held in Album 827.
Among the other collections dating from the first three decades of the twentieth century are the following:
Boland, Frank H., Album of 59 photographs of Canberra scenes. Album 1010
Bowden, Eric K., Eric Kendall Bowden photograph collection of Canberra scenes. Album 965
Daly, Gustav, Album of photographs of Canberra, including Duntroon, Canberra buildings and Cotter Dam, 1921-22. Album 304
Sibley, May, Photographs of the opening of Parliament House, 1927
Taylor, Charles H., Photographs of Parliament House, Hotel Canberra and other buildings, 1926-27
Weston, T.G.C., Two photograph albums, 1925-29. Album 319.
Birrell, James, Walter Burley Griffin, 1964
Brown, Nicholas, A history of Canberra, 2014
Gibbney, Jim, Canberra 1913-1953, 1988
Griffin, Dustin, ed., The writings of Walter Burley Griffin, 2008
Harrison, Peter, Walter Burley Griffin, landscape architect, edited by Robert Freestone, 1995
Johnson, Donald L., The architecture of Walter Burley Griffin, 1977
Johnson, Donald L., Canberra and Walter Burley Griffin: a bibliography of 1876 to 1976 and a guide to published sources, 1980
Kruty, Paul, Walter Burley Griffin in America, c. 1996
Kruty, Paul and Sprague, Paul E., Two American architects in India: Walter B. Griffin and Marion M. Griffin 1935-1937, 1997
McGregor, Alasdair, Grand obsessions: the life and work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, 2009
Mawer, G.A., Canberry tales: an informal history, 2012
Pegrum, Roger, The bush capital: how Australia chose Canberra as its federal city, 2008
Peisch, Mark L., The Chicago school of architecture: early followers of Sullivan and Wright, 1964
Robinson, Frederick W., Canberra’s first hundred years and after, 1927
Spathopouolos, Wanda, The Crag: Castlecrag, 1924-1938, 2007
Turnbull, Jeff and Navaretti, Peter, eds., The Griffins in Australia and India: the complete works and projects of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, 1998
Watson, Anne, ed., Beyond architecture: Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin: America, Australia, India, 1998
Wood, Deborah, ed., Marion Mahony Griffin: drawing the form of nature, c. 2005
The Eric Nicholls Collection has been divided between the Pictures, Maps and Manuscript collections. The watercolours, drawings, lithographs, blueprints, photographs, slides and transparencies are in the Pictures Collection and have been catalogued individually and digitised. The 21 city and suburban plans are in the Maps Collection and they have also been individually catalogued and digitised. The letters, typescripts, articles and publications are housed in the Manuscripts Collection at MS 9947. At this stage, they have only been roughly arranged. A finding aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-251880603/findingaid.
The other collections of personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection. A 16 page guide to the papers of King O’Malley is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-250612824/findingaid. There is also a card index to the correspondence in the Manuscripts Collection. Online finding-aids for the papers of Donald L. Johnson, C.S. Daley and Peter Harrison are available at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-248969925/findingaid (Johnson), https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-326316445/findingaid (Daley) and https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-420123003/findingaid (Harrison).
The other maps and plans of Canberra are housed in the Maps Collection, while the paintings, drawings and photographs of early Canberra are in the Pictures Collection at various locations. They have been catalogued individually and most of them have been digitised. The oral histories are in the Oral History Collection and have been catalogued individually. The microforms are held in the Newspaper and Microform Collection, with the exception of the Willoughby City Council collection, which is in the Pictures Collection. The publications are held in the Australian collection.
Fitzgerald, Alan, More light is shed on Burley Griffin, Canberra Times, 25 July 1992, p. C5
Harrison, Peter, Griffin, Walter Burley (1876-1937), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Vernon, Christopher, The Eric Nicholls Collection, National Library of Australia News, vol. 17 (8), May 2007, pp. 7-10
Vernon, Christopher, Visions splendid, National Library of Australia News, vol. 13 (7), April 2003, pp. 7-10
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)