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Peter continues ‘family’ business

October 4, 2019

Peter Johnson, the great great-grandson of George Raymond Johnson (1840-1898), knows a lot about the architect who played such a pivotal role in the early development of the Old Colonists’ Association of Australia. Not only are they related, but also Peter inherited George’s love of building and is himself an architect.

George Johnson drew inspiration from almshouses in England when in 1869 he designed the layout of the ‘institution’ for old colonists or ‘inmates’ as the residents were then called. His design included a large hall in the centre, with four semidetached cottages on each side. His story has been told as part of the OCAV’s 150th anniversary celebrations now underway.

While George features prominently in the early days of the Association, it is his town hall and theatre designs, which have captured Peter’s imagination.  Peter has undertaken extensive research into George’s work, documenting and writing about the almost 300 projects George designed in Australia. Most of the theatres have been demolished over the decades, but his municipal buildings, including North Melbourne, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Northcote, Daylesford, Maryborough and Kilmore Town Halls remain. Peter is also researching work done by his grandfather Harry Raymond, George’s grandson, who also practiced as an architect.

Peter’s career took him into the area of residential and commercial architecture but his passion for architectural history has led him into the past. He now gives lectures to students about the evolution of theatre design in Australia, the reason for the demise of some of the early theatres, technological influences and the changing demands of audiences.

Peter wrote about George for the Australian Dictionary of Biography and said:

He was a prolific architect of theatres, long since demolished or radically altered, including the Prince of Wales Opera House (1872), the Cyclorama (1888) and the Bijou Theatre (1889), Melbourne, the Theatre Royal (1878), Adelaide, the Criterion Theatre (1886), Sydney, and the early plans for Her Majesty’s opera houses in Sydney (1883) and Brisbane (1884). Johnson’s greatest contemporary acclaim came from his design for the extensive and wonderful Centennial Exhibition complex (1887), which he added with sensitive deference to the northern side of the earlier Exhibition Building (1880), by Reed & Barnes.

Johnson’s success created some professional enmity and he had disputes with the Victorian Institute of Architects. He served on Hawthorn Borough Council in 1870-73. On 2 December 1882 he was seriously injured in a railway accident at Hawthorn for which he received £2481 in compensation.

During the financial depression of the early 1890s, Johnson sought opportunities elsewhere. In Western Australia he worked on the Theatre Royal (1896), Perth. While returning to Melbourne in the Pilbarra, he took ill and died of septicaemia on 25 November 1898 at sea. Intestate he left an estate of £150. His wife, three sons and four daughters survived him. One son Harry Melbourne Golding Johnson (1867-1931) became an architect.

Volunteering is important to Deb, enabling her to contribute in the aged care sector. “I love it when the residents get downright cheeky. I love it when we get a bit too loud with laughing."

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