When the ‘beautiful and commodious’ Adelaide Arcade, built in just 5 months, and opened in 1885, ‘to the plaudits of polite Adelaide society’, it was billed as the largest shopping arcade in the Southern Hemisphere. It boosted 50 shops and was one of the first buildings in Adelaide to use electric lighting (having its own generator which I will come back to). Today, even with the subsequent merging of the adjacent Gays Arcade into it, it is small by most standards. It relative size does not distract from its beauty and its worthiness of a little of your time.
The Arcade comprises two floors with the second being a balcony level permitting natural light to flood down onto the ground floor, giving the whole arcade a bright and airy feel notwithstanding its dark paneling. The ornamental cast iron balustraded balcony level was originally not a shopping level. Rather, shops (which were and still are small) on the ground level had an internal staircase access to the upper level which served as their storerooms/ workrooms.
At some point (1960s I think) some bright spark worked out that this was very expensive city centre storage space that could be, and was, converted into separate shops. The result was not as anticipated and the second level, while having shops (in addition to some small business offices) rarely appears to have any customers. There are two reasons I go up there, firstly to get a great view down onto the picturesque ground floor and secondly to visit the Arcade’s small museum.
If you take the stairs in the centre of the Arcade (actually just inside the Gays Arcade part of the building) up to the second floor you will pass through a small museum/display outlining the history of the Arcade. It contains some nice early photographs, artefacts and newspaper clippings. The museum is open during regular Arcade shopping hours and entry is free.
When the Arcade was built times were good in Adelaide and pomp and circumstance was called for. Consequentially, an orchestra was on hand, at the opening, to play the ‘Adelaide Arcade Polka’ an especially composed polka by Signor Raffaello Squarise, an Italian violinist, conductor and composer who had recently settled in Adelaide. I am not aware of any other shopping arcades for which a piece of music was specifically composed. In the small museum you will find an accordion on the wall that plays the ‘Adelaide Arcade Polka’ should you ‘press the buttons’.
Another sign that things were good in the late 1800s is that lavishly appointed Turkish Baths occupied the south eastern part of the Arcade. Here clients could have a warm bath for a shilling or a Turkish bath for four shillings – a small fortune at the time. The Turkish baths, alas, no longer exist. Gone too are the lavish tearooms that were once underground.
If you visit around Christmas you may hear the piano playing with not a piano player in sight. Fear not, it will be the Arcade’s resident ghost banging out a tune. While I have not met him myself, he is, by all accounts, quite a nice chap – so enjoy the music.
The ghost is that of an early Arcade caretaker called Beadle (Francis Cluney) who came to a rather unsavoury end, having his head mutilated in the electricity generator to which I referred earlier in this review.
The Adelaide Arcade is a beautiful Victorian building which has been lovingly maintained while sympathetically modernised over the years. Do have a look.
You will note that I have not referred to ‘shopping’ as such. The reason for this is fairly simple, I detest shopping.
That said, the shops in here are small speciality shops and if that’s your thing then you will enjoy them. There are a couple of decent cafes (which are my thing). These afford the opportunity to sit and soak up the atmosphere with a nice cup of coffee and perhaps a bite to eat.
Opening (shopping) hours
Monday – Thursday 9am – 7pm
Friday – 9am -9pm
Saturday – 9am – 5pm
Sunday – 11am – 5pm
Address: Rundle Mall