On the prominent corner of King William Street and Rundle Mall, the Beehive Corner building was completed in 1896. Its convenient location and striking Gothic Revival façade have meant that it served as the de facto meeting spot in the Adelaide CBD for decades.
The Original Bee Hive
The first building on the site of Beehive Corner was built in the early 1840s, but little is known about the use of this particular structure. In 1849, an advertisement in the South Australian Register hailed the opening of a new drapery establishment. Mister Brewer and Mr Robertson, having just arrived from England, ‘beg[ged] most respectfully to inform the inhabitants of Adelaide’ that they had opened their store, stocked with linens and drapery from ‘all the principal manufacturing towns in the United Kingdom’. Their new store was called The Bee Hive. The origin of this name is not entirely known, but in the 1940s South Australian archivist GH Pitt sought to dispel the idea that it was due to the corner being an illicit meeting point for young couples. Instead of this salacious story, he suggested that the name was simply meant to evoke an image of a busy trading centre. If this was the case, it seems to have worked, as the drapery store was very successful for many years. Matching its name, the Bee Hive building had a gilt beehive above its main door entrance.
Adjacent to the Bee Hive were other small stores which would eventually be demolished for the construction of the second, much larger Beehive building. These stores included the offices of prominent architect Edmund Wright, the shop of ‘well-known gunmaker’ Mr Ekins and the printing presses of the Adelaide Times. This newspaper was owned by a man called ‘Dismal Jimmy’ for his insistence on wearing a traditional stovepipe hat against the contemporary fashion of cabbage-tree hats.
Gothic Revival Beehive
Construction on the current Beehive Corner began in 1895. Its design is highly unusual, a very ornate form of Gothic Revival architecture, a style almost exclusively used for ecclesiastical buildings. It was designed by Adelaide architect George Soward, who is also remembered for the War Widows Fund Building (demolished in 1983 for the construction of City Cross) and Gawler Chambers on North Terrace. To retain its association with the original Beehive, the new building incorporated a turret topped by a gilded beehive and bee.
Shortly after it opened in 1896, it held the first public exhibition of the cinematograph in Adelaide. Originally intended to be broadcast in the Theatre Royal, this ‘home of sweetness and light’ was unable to effectively be turned into a ‘chamber of darkness’. As a result, the projected image was unable to be seen. The darkness allowed by the Beehive Corner building was deemed satisfactory, however, and observers were very impressed by footage of flamenco dancing and Buffalo Bill.
The Beehive Corner soon became a popular destination for those with a sweet tooth. By 1900, it was referred to as the home of ‘the well-known confectionary establishment of Mrs L Cook’. One of its primary charms is listed as a smoking balcony with one of the best views of Adelaide. By 1913, it was a chocolate store owned and operated by Carl Stratmann, a trained confectioner and chocolatier of German heritage. As confectionary was a highly specialised trade in Europe, Stratmann was expertly trained and had previously made chocolate in Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Melbourne and Sydney.
On the outbreak of the First World War, however, business slowed, as Australians were reluctant to buy from a store owned by a German. Anti-German sentiment was so strong that after being shunned by his regular patrons, Stratmann decided to sell. The purchaser was Alfred Haigh, who obtained the chocolate-making machinery as well as many instructive recipes. Haigh’s Chocolates, established in 1915 in the Beehive building, has sold chocolates at the site ever since.
Over the decades, significant changes were made to the façade of Beehive Corner. At some point, the gilded bee atop the turret disappeared. Nobody appears to be quite sure of when or why this change occurred, but the most promising theory is that it happened as a result of an earthquake in 1954. With a magnitude of 5.4 this earthquake caused significant damage to buildings in the centre of Adelaide, and it is assumed that the bee was removed as a result of damage to the Beehive Corner itself. Through the 1960s and 1970s, the building was ‘modernised’. This meant that the ornate gables along the top of the building were removed, about half of the façade was covered and a large billboard advertising cigarettes obscured a large portion of the unaltered façade. The balcony famed for its views was also removed.
By the late 1990s, however, there was a push for restoration to the original design. Restoring the façade itself was simple enough, but there was a concern over the issue of the gilded bee. No written records of its design have been found, and all photography of the building before the original bee disappeared have been out of focus. As a result, the replacement bee was unable to be a replica of the original, but instead a new design. The current bee weighs 45 kilograms, and is made of aluminium gilded with gold. This design was controversial at the time, with some observers claiming it more resembled a European wasp.