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John Kirkpatrick (1856–1923)

by Stephen Malone

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John Kirkpatrick (1856-1923), architect, was born on 12 September 1856 at Albury, New South Wales, first of eight children of John Hunter Kirkpatrick, carpenter from Scotland, and his Bathurst-born wife Margaret, née Jones. His father, influential in the Hume district, used his political connexions for his son's benefit when Kirkpatrick commenced practice in Sydney at 17. Like many aspiring architects of the time, he was articled to Edmund Blacket, and worked for him until, energetic and ambitious, he set up his own practice in 1880. At 23 he had already been responsible for constructing approximately fifty-six buildings, including shops and warehouses, housing projects, insurance buildings and Masonic halls. Typical of the period is the famous Carrington Hotel at Katoomba, the first of many hotels he designed.

Between 1880 and 1890 Kirkpatrick was awarded first premium in at least ten major competitions. His initial success was in a competition for the New Holy Trinity Church at Grenfell. Notable among the commissions he won is the Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York building, Martin Place, Sydney, constructed in the early 1890s. He completed Sydney Hospital, replacing the original architect, Thomas Rowe, in 1891, and designs for public hospitals at Goulburn and Bathurst followed. In 1887 Sir Henry Parkes, an acquaintance of Kirkpatrick, had held a competition for a state house to be constructed in what was to be called Centennial Park, Sydney, to commemorate the centenary of Australian settlement. Kirkpatrick also won this competition, although because of political wrangling related to the potentially excessive cost the building was never constructed. (Sir) George Dibbs claimed in parliament that although the budget was £150,000 it would finally cost £800,000. £200,000 had already been spent on purchasing the land.

Kirkpatrick was criticized by fellow architects and others who claimed that he had undue influence among parliamentarians, particularly with the secretary for public works, (Sir) William Lyne, and that this accounted for his uncanny success in acquiring commissions for major public buildings. Parliamentary records indicate that Lyne did indeed give Kirkpatrick exceptional support in the debates related to these buildings. (Sir) John Sulman also recorded his belief that Kirkpatrick systematically corrupted competition judges by withholding repayments on loans.

On 24 May 1887 in Sydney Kirkpatrick married Annie Elizabeth Douglas Morris; they had nine children, of whom the eldest and middle sons became architects. Kirkpatrick's practice survived the 1890s depression despite petitions against him in the bankruptcy court. In this period he constructed the original five stands at the Sydney Cricket Ground which are among his finest buildings. He joined the Institute of Architects of New South Wales in 1891 and was a fellow by 1904 but he was never on good terms with the institute.

In 1894 Kirkpatrick proposed a 'Marine Drive' to run along the foreshores of Port Jackson, preventing waterfront development and preserving a green belt for public use. It never eventuated. In 1903 he was selected as chairman of the royal commission appointed to recommend a site for the national capital. The commission originally recommended the site of Albury but Canberra was later chosen for political reasons. Kirkpatrick was not only closely involved in the initial investigations but, as one of the judges, recommended the acceptance of Walter Burley Griffin's design for the city.

Kirkpatrick was a cousin of (Sir) Denison Miller, governor of the Commonwealth Bank. When it was decided in 1912 to construct major buildings in each State Kirkpatrick became official bank architect, commencing with the commission, completed in 1916, for the large Commonwealth Bank on the corner of Martin Place and Pitt Street, Sydney. Banks in Melbourne, Newcastle and Geelong followed. Kirkpatrick was also commissioned to design war-service homes and, in partnership with his eldest son Herwald, constructed 1777 houses in all States over three years, from 1918. In 1920 Kirkpatrick recommended that Sydney's Martin Place be widened and extended to Elizabeth Street, culminating in a large war memorial. Although patriotic fervour was strong among Australians wishing to honour their war dead, and the proposal was argued for years after Kirkpatrick's death, the financial implications proved an insurmountable barrier.

Kirkpatrick died of cancer at Woollahra on 14 May 1923, survived by his wife and children, and was buried in South Head cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His estate was valued for probate at £5944. His practice, continued for a time by Herwald, was later incorporated into the firm of Robertson & (T. J.) Marks, with whom Kirkpatrick had been involved in ventures dating back to 1912. A good, but not exceptionally gifted architect, Kirkpatrick owed his success, extending over forty years and involving several hundred buildings, more to outstanding drive and political connexions than to creative skill.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Freeland, Architect Extraordinary (Melb, 1970)
  • S. W. Malone, The Life and Work of John Kirkpatrick (B.Arch. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1969).

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Citation details

Stephen Malone, 'Kirkpatrick, John (1856–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 September, 1856
Albury, New South Wales, Australia


14 May, 1923 (aged 66)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.