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Percy Oakden (1845–1917)

by Miles Lewis

This article was published:

Percy Oakden (1845-1917), architect and surveyor, was born at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, second son of Philip Oakden and his wife Georgiana, née Cowie. Educated at Horton College, Ross, he was one of the first five to take the Tasmanian Council of Education's degree of Associate of Arts in 1860. He served his articles with Henry Hunter of Hobart in 1861-65. He then went to London and worked under Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt as well as attending Professor Thomas Hayter Lewis's lectures at University College and in 1867 winning the first award of the Donaldson silver medal. He also became an associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Oakden went to Victoria in 1868 and practised for six years at Ballarat; as borough architect he was responsible in 1870 for modifying Lorenz's design for the town hall. He practised with J. H. Fox in 1869-72, his works including the large wooden St John's Presbyterian Church, Peel Street (1871), the Clunes Town Hall (1872) and in Melbourne the Congregational Church in Victoria Parade (1871-72, demolished), and the Wesleyan Church, Sydney Road, Brunswick (1872).

Oakden moved to Melbourne and on 1 January 1874 became the partner of Leonard Terry though the oeuvre of the partners remained largely distinct. The year after Terry died the firm published an illustrated work, What to Build and How to Build It (Melbourne, 1885), which can be seen not only as a promotional exercise but as Oakden's attempt to recast the firm's image on his own more progressive lines. The book advocated exposed brick walls (a characteristic of Oakden's work) which were to be made waterproof by means of a cavity, an extra thickness of brick or painted with silicate solutions; it also disparaged ornamental cast-iron work in favour of 'the Italian system of stone balconies and balconettes', preferred tiles as the roofing most appropriate to brick buildings and concrete as 'a splendid walling material' not yet used in the colony, and gave a brief account of pisé construction.

With their former pupil, Nahum Barnet, the partners in 1883 had won a competition for the design of the working men's college (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) and were jointly responsible for the first building in 1885-87; the La Trobe Street front and tower were later designed by Oakden, Addison & Kemp, and begun in 1891. Oakden probably had a large part in the competition design, and that for Allan & Co.'s building in Collins Street (1877; destroyed by fire, 1956), which was Gothic at the client's express request, but in the firm's other major works Oakden's personal contribution cannot be distinguished. It is apparent in many of the numerous church and school buildings, beginning with the Wesleyan Church in Nicholson Street, North Fitzroy (1874; attributed on stylistic grounds), and including state schools at King Street, West Melbourne, and at Wilson Street, Brighton (both 1875), the Church of England Girls Grammar School, South Yarra, and Wesleyan Churches at Dana and Lydiard Streets, Ballarat (1884), at Sackville Street, Collingwood (1886), and at Williams and Toorak Roads, Toorak (1887).

Oakden's buildings are characteristically of brown brick with cream, warm red and other brick dressings and patterns, often serrated about the arches, and are to some extent a Gothic equivalent of Joseph Reed's Lombardic Romanesque. He also worked in stone on two very personal commissions at Ross, Tasmania, a Wesleyan chapel and a new building for Horton College, and traces of Oakden's detailing can be seen in the bluestone St Matthew's Church of England, Prahran (1877-80). Some common characteristics of his work in both stone and brick are paired and multiple Gothic windows, decorated period tracery, stone corbels used to widen the base of gables in porches and bell-cotes, heavily moulded arches supported on slimmer shafts, octagonal towers and spires, and pierced quatrefoil parapets.

G. H. M. Addison had joined the firm in 1885 and took charge of a Brisbane branch while also supervising work at Perth and elsewhere; Henry H. Kemp joined in 1886, and in 1887 both were admitted to partnership as Oakden, Addison & Kemp. Their works included the Queen's Coffee Palace at Rathdowne and Victoria Streets, Carlton (1887; demolished), Queen's College in the University of Melbourne (1883-87) and the dining hall wing (1889-90), and in Collins Street the New Zealand Insurance Co.'s offices (1888). In conjunction with John Beswicke the firm designed the twelve-storey Australian Building, then Melbourne's tallest, in Elizabeth Street (1889), with Nathaniel Billing & Son the Y.M.C.A. building at Westwood Place and Bourke Street (1890), and with Lloyd Tayler, Lambert & Sons' premises in Collins Street (1890).

Oakden's hand is probably evident in the Y.M.C.A. building, its busy, clumsy Renaissance design recalling the Clunes Town Hall. The polychrome Gothic of the New Zealand Insurance building is directly related to the earlier Allan's building, but perhaps shows something of Kemp's as well as Oakden's hand. Oakden seems to have been responsible for the Tudor design of Queen's College and Wesleyan Churches, now in a style of less strident polychromy, at Albert Park (1890) and Male Street, Brighton (1891).

In 1892 the firm became Oakden & Kemp, but the practice dwindled in the depression. Kemp left for Sydney late in 1895 and the partnership dissolved next year. In 1901 Cedric H. Ballantyne, who had been Oakden's pupil and then his chief draftsman, joined him in a partnership which was responsible for the City Club, Lister House, the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Co.'s offices at the corner of Collins and King Streets, Champion's buildings and others.

Oakden was standing architect to the Fire Brigades Board and designed No.2 Metropolitan Fire Station, was honorary treasurer and honorary architect to the Consumptive Hospital at Echuca, a life governor of the Melbourne Children's Hospital, a board member of the Y.M.C.A., and a deputy-grand master of the Grand Lodge of Freemasons. He was honorary director of architectural classes at the Working Men's College and at the University of Melbourne a member of the engineering faculty and coexaminer in architecture from 1906. He was a member of the Metropolitan Board of Works Inquiry Board. He was elected a fellow and councillor of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects in 1890, vice- president in 1891-92 and president for 1892-93, 1896-97 and 1901. In 1902 at the Hobart meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science he was president of Section H and read a paper on 'The relation of architecture to engineering'. In 1916 his health failed and he retired. He was a practising Wesleyan, a connexion which brought him many commissions, and within the profession was well liked and looked upon as a father figure. In his last years he lived at his home, Ambleside, Hampton Street, North Brighton. He died at Brighton on 25 November 1917, survived by his wife Cora Clara, née Glass, whom he had married in 1889; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Scientific Australian, 20 Mar 1900
  • Royal Victorian Institute of Architects, Journal, Jan, May 1906, May 1909, May 1917, Jan 1918
  • Mirror (Melbourne), 25 Jan 1889
  • B. Echberg and J. Malina, Percy Oakden (B.Arch. report, University of Melbourne, 1970).

Citation details

Miles Lewis, 'Oakden, Percy (1845–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 April, 1845
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


25 November, 1917 (aged 72)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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