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Nahum Barnet (1855–1931)

by Miles Lewis

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Nahum Barnet (1855-1931), architect and journalist, was born on 16 August 1855 at Swanston Street, Melbourne, son of Isaac Barnet, Polish-born pawnbroker, jeweller and tobacconist, and his London-born wife Flora, née Abrahams. Nahum attended Scotch College, and is said to have begun his career as an insurance clerk. He matriculated at the University of Melbourne, wrote on architectural subjects in the press and the Victorian Review and in 1876-79 was articled at a relatively advanced age to (Leonard) Terry & (Percy) Oakden.

By February 1879 Barnet was calling tenders in his own right. A letter to the Argus in 1880 expressed his views on the unsuitability of English Gothic for local conditions; stucco, 'Melbourne's great architectural curse' should be abandoned in favour of a colourful, new style using terracotta, faience and tiles. A member of the Victorian Institute of Architects from 1884, he had some success in competitions, winning, among others, that for the Working Men's College (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology), with Terry & Oakden. The college in La Trobe Street (1884-86) proceeded to his design and was one of his major early works, as was the Alexandra Theatre (1885-86) for Jules Joubert in Exhibition Street, remodelled in 1903 to become Her Majesty's Theatre.

In March 1880 Barnet was elected secretary of the Anglo-Jewish Association. By 1882 he was honorary architect to the Jewish Philanthropic Society and doing work at the Jewish almshouses (later Montefiore homes). He was to develop an extensive Jewish clientele, designing many houses and a number of tobacco warehouses and factories. In 1887 he failed to obtain a commission for an extension of St Kilda Synagogue (but succeeded in 1903-04). With John Grainger, Barnet designed the Fergusson & Mitchell (Robur) building (1887-88) on difficult, filled ground south of the Yarra and in 1890 the Austral Building in Collins Street for Alex McKinley, for whom he had previously designed a printery. He weathered the depression better than most architects, with some small shops, Northcote fire station (1894), the London Tavern, off Collins Street (1895-96), a warehouse, a factory and work for his tobacco patrons.

Some of his buildings had an explicitly Eastern if not necessarily Jewish character, as in the house, Rosaville (1882-83 now part of Medley Hall), for Abraham Harris. In commercial work Barnet often used a version of the American-Romanesque, with Art Nouveau overtones, as in D. Bernard's Swiss portrait studios, Bourke Street (1900); the F. J. Dodge Building, Elizabeth Street (1902), B. H. Altson's building, Elizabeth and Collins streets (1903) and the Paton building, Elizabeth Street (1905). His warehouse (1909) for Barnet Glass, now Legacy House, Swanston Street, was in a more austere form of red-brick Romanesque. Otherwise he favoured 'a glorious fluorescent Italian style'.

His theatres included the rebuilding of Queens Hall to become a cinema, the Variety Theatre, Bourke Street (1911, in conjunction with Eaton & Bates of Sydney); Tait's Auditorium (1913), Collins Street; and the Britannia (cinema) (1912) in Bourke Street. He was also responsible for the (new) London Hotel in Elizabeth Street (1911); the Young Women's Christian Association clubrooms in Russell Street (1913); and an early motor garage (1913) in Franklin Street for the Connibere brothers. His work during and after World War I is imprecisely documented, but included a number of second-ranking city buildings.

Late in life Barnet was a member of the council of the British Empire League, and he appears to have been an Anglophile. His first and only overseas trip, in the 1920s, was principally a visit to England. It is said to have changed his previous perception that synagogues all over the world were basically the same, but the Synagogue in Toorak Road (1928-30), his last major work, was conventionally classical in a Corinthian Baroque style, with a dominating dome (though richly treated internally).

On 16 June 1885 in the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Barnet had married Ada Rose Marks. He was a friend of the sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal and the writer Isaac Selby. Predeceased by his wife and survived by four daughters, Barnet died on 1 September 1931 at his residence in St Kilda, and was buried in St Kilda cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £5879. It was claimed by Selby that Barnet had designed a building in every street in Melbourne proper.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Selby, The Old Pioneers’ Memorial History of Melbourne (Melb, 1925)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 July 1880, p 3, 2 Sept 1931, pp 5 & 6
  • N. Lewis, Biographical Study of Nahum Barnet (B.Arch. essay, University of Melbourne, 1974)
  • M. Lewis, Australian Architectural Index (microfilm, Melbourne, 1987).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Miles Lewis, 'Barnet, Nahum (1855–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 August, 1855
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


1 September, 1931 (aged 76)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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