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Stephenson, Sir Arthur George (1890–1967)

by J. D. Fisher

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Sir Arthur George Stephenson (1890-1967), architect, was born on 5 April 1890 at Box Hill, Victoria, one of six children of Arthur Robert Stephenson, schoolmaster and Congregational preacher, and his wife Sarah Ann, sister of Charles Chewings. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School where he was an outstanding athlete, Stephenson was apprenticed to a builder and studied construction part time at the Working Men's College, Melbourne. In 1911-13 he was a construction supervisor for Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd in New Guinea, then an assistant architect with the Western Australian government. He returned to Melbourne as junior architect with Eggleston & Oakley, the builders of Collins House, whose design consultant was W. B. Griffin. On 9 June 1915 Stephenson married Evelyn May Mackay with Congregational forms at Kew, Melbourne.

In November 1915 he was commissioned lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force and next May was promoted captain in the 3rd Pioneer Battalion. During his service in France he was twice mentioned in dispatches and in December 1917 was awarded the Military Cross. Discharged in England after the war, he studied at the Architectural Association School, London, and qualified as an associate (1920) of the Royal Institute of British Architects. His family joined him in London where he worked before returning to Eggleston in Melbourne at the urging of his patrons, the Baillieus. In 1921 he went into partnership with P. H. Meldrum: starting with a borrowed desk, he built what was described as 'the colossus of Australian architectural practices'.

An instinctive internationalist and a tireless traveller, Stephenson specialized from 1924 in institutional and hospital work. In this most difficult and complex branch of modern architecture he sought solutions adapted to the functions of modern medicine, listening 'with sympathy and acute intelligence' to the men and women who would work in his buildings. He was a controversial reformer whose reputation was established with St Vincent's, the Mercy and Royal Melbourne hospitals, and with the Royal Prince Alfred in Sydney, monuments to his revolution in hospital design. Many of the major hospitals built in Australia from the 1920s to the 1960s reflected Stephenson's influence; in Melbourne they included the Royal Children's Hospital, Queen Victoria, Alfred, Eye and Ear and the Freemasons; in Sydney he was responsible for modifying the Children's Hospital and St Vincent's; he also designed the Royal Newcastle General and Woden Valley (Canberra) hospitals. As well as major buildings in every capital city in Australia, and in New Zealand and Iraq, Stephenson opened offices overseas and managed to nourish talent by a close-knit, 'team' approach. In 1937, with the withdrawal of Meldrum, D. K. Turner became Stephenson's partner.

During World War II Stephenson and Turner built military hospitals and defence projects for the Commonwealth government. They were later responsible for Australia's first atomic energy reactor at Lucas Heights, New South Wales, and for numerous commercial and industrial buildings. The Australian pavilions at the World Fair in Paris (1936) and at the Wellington Exhibition, New Zealand (1939), were built by the firm; New York honoured Stephenson with citizenship for his work on its 1939 World Fair.

A tireless correspondent, he also lectured and wrote widely on aspects of his profession. Innumerable committees, especially those connected with town planning and hospitals, claimed his presence. A member (1930, 1951) of the executive committees of the International Hospitals Federation, he was a foundation member (1952) of the Hospital Advisory Council, Melbourne, and a trustee (1956) of the National Museum of Victoria. A fellow of the British, Australian and New Zealand institutes of architects and an associate member of the Town Planning Institute of Great Britain, he held honorary memberships of the American Institute of Architects and the American College of Hospital Administrators. In 1954 he was awarded R.I.B.A.'s royal gold medal and in 1964 received the gold medal of the Australian institute. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1953, knighted in 1954 and appointed K.B.E. in 1964.

Stephenson was sought after but rarely seen outside his own circle of friends, themselves 'a cross section of the heirs of the Melbourne Establishment'. Blue-eyed, mild-mannered, with a square jaw and looking in maturity 'the very model of a double-breasted conservative', he avoided outward show, yet was often unconventional. An individualist 'to whom life itself in all its manifestations was a challenge', in later years he turned with enthusiasm in his cruiser Jasta to the solitude and beauty of the ocean. Stephenson died on 20 November 1967 at Prahran and was cremated. His wife, two daughters and a son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. S. Inglis, Hospital and Community (Melb, 1958)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • J. Shaw, Sir Arthur Stephenson Australian Architect (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian Builder, Sept 1952
  • Australian Financial Review, 30 June 1960
  • Stephenson papers (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. D. Fisher, 'Stephenson, Sir Arthur George (1890–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephenson-sir-arthur-george-8646/text15117, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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