Brisbane's first Government House was designed and built by Joshua Jeays , Mayor of Brisbane at the time. In 1860 and the cost of £12,000 the building commenced on land next to the City Botanic Gardens and built from sandstone from Jeays quarry at Goodna.
One of Queensland's finest buildings it is a blend of neoclassical and colonial styles. Completed in 1862, with a semicircular portico and Ionic columns it supported a roofed upper balcony with verandas and colonnades.
The State's first Governor, Sir George Bowen, and his wife, Lady Diamantina, moved there from their temporary accommodation at what is now the 'Deanery' next to St John's Cathedral in Adelaide Street. Originally called Adelaide House, the Deanery was erected in 1853 by John Petrie for Dr William Hobbs, and later altered as Governor Bowen's temporary residence.
It was one of the most imposing houses in the new settlement but Hobbs was horrified when the Corporation made a cutting in front of it to level Adelaide Street.
Eight successive governors of Queensland entertained guests in Government House at Brisbane but the building was considered ‘not suited for entertainments on a large scale and is not sufficiently spacious to enable the Governor to invite or entertain the number of guests that he would wish’. There was no purpose built ballroom, making it necessary to move the carpets and furniture when official functions were held.
In 1909, the Government finally realized that Governor needed a larger residence and in June 1910 the Queensland Government House was moved from Old Government House to ‘Fernberg’ in Bardon. The adjoining University of Queensland acquired old Government House in Brisbane.
Early 1950s, the University of Queensland resettled at St Lucia, on land bequeathed by Dr James Mayne, and Old Government House became part of the Queensland Institute of Technology. In 1973, Old Governmant House in Brisbane came under the care of the National Trust, the exterior was renovated and became part of the Gardens Campus of the Queensland University of Technology.
Governor Sir William McGregor arrived in Brisbane on 2 December 1909, by which time Old Government House in Brisbane was the administration building for the newly established University of Queensland. He was appointed the University's new Chancellor.
The Government of Queensland had intended to build a larger Government House in Victoria Park at Kelvin Grove before Sir William arrived from his previous post of Governor of Newfoundland. The Government had rented ‘Fernberg’ in Bardon this, being an odd choice for a Government House considering that it was smaller than the previous one.
Other options included, South Merthyr, Kinellan and Wybemia at New Farm and Cumbooquepa in Brisbane. ‘Fernberg’ was selected for because of its spacious grounds of 46 acres. A three year lease was signed with a purchase option should the decision not to build the new Government House eventuate.
Architect Benjamin Backhouse designed and built 'Fernberg' in 1865 for Johann Heussler, honorary consul for Queensland. Heussler was responsible for the emigration of Germans to Queensland and had become wealthy by the importation of European wines and farm machinery. He and wife Sophia Esther Westgarth named the house Fernberg; Fern, meaning distant or remote, and Berg, meaning mountain.
One of Heussler's business interests was to establish a sugar plantation on land he owned at Pimpama. He personally guaranteed shareholders a return of 10% on their investment, but in 1872 the cane became infected by rust and rotted before it could be harvested.
The share price in Heussler's Pimpama Sugar Company collapsed. Heussler had to sell his assets to compensate investors and with the Bank of New South Wales foreclosing on his mortgage, he went bankrupt.
Sir Arthur Palmer leased Fernberg from the bank. On 24 November 1877 the bank advertised the house for sale in The Brisbane Courier. George Judah Cohen, a merchant, and his brother Nathan bought Fernberg. They in turn sold the house and land to Scottish born cattle baron John Stevenson. Architect Richard Gailey was commissioned by Stevenson to design an extension and an Italianate tower from which Moreton Bay could be seen.
Gailey’s design almost doubled the size of the house incorporating a new wing. Living conditions for domestic staff did not improve and they were still confined to a rabbit warren of tiny rooms in the basement.
Stevenson also became a victim to the economic times and went bankrupt in the depression of the 1880s. He managed to remain at Fernberg as a sitting tenant until his death.
Governor Sir William McGregor, a former medical practitioner, regarded earth closets as outdated, unsanitary and a health risk. Brisbane had no sewerage and relied on 'honey carts' for sewage disposal. He wrote a report to the Government complaining about poor sanitation at 'Fernberg' and unhealthy living conditions for the domestic staff.
He demanded the Government modernise it and install the novelty of electric light. The Queensland Government responded with an allocation of £4,000 to repaint inside and out, new carpets and linoleum, the roof repaired, electric light and a septic tank installed.
With the poor economic climate prevailing, the Government decided against proceeding with building plans at Victoria Park and exercised the option to purchase Fernberg for the price of £10,000.
In 1934, Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester was to visit Brisbane. This caused the then Governor, Sir Leslie Wilson, to challenge the Government over the living conditions for the domestic staff at Fernberg. There was a need to extend the house and improve staff conditions or move the Vice-Regal residence elsewhere.
Modernisation was carried out in 1937 where separate living quarters for domestic staff were built; the house was enlarged and redecorated before the arrival of the Duke of Gloucester. Government House Fernberg was redecorated and air-conditioned for the first visit by the Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip.