The great hall of the Royal Exhibition Building, with its landmark dome, is a Melbourne symbol, a legacy of the international exhibitions of the 19th century, and especially significant as the location of the opening of federal parliament on 25 May 1901.
The original buildings were constructed for the Melbourne International Exhibition (1880-81) on an elevated site in the Carlton Gardens. Previous exhibitions had been held in William Street and at the Public Library (State Library of Victoria). Melbourne manufacturers urged a purpose-built building, and in 1877 political leader Graham Berry gave responsibility to commissioners organising for the Paris International Exhibition of 1878. The idea merged with plans to hold an international exhibition in Melbourne. Following a competition, architects Reed & Barnes were chosen, but the need for a speedy and economical outcome saw Joseph Reed scale down the ambitious design. Melbourne builder David Mitchell built the hall and machinery annexe, but not the temporary buildings that extended north to Carlton Street. A foundation stone was laid on 19 February 1879. The aesthetic design of the interior - including stencils, allegorical murals and mottoes ('Victoria Welcomes all Nations') - was the work of artist John Mather, and George Fincham built a grand organ in the western nave. New Exhibition Gardens included the Hochgurtel Fountain, and the building opened on 1 October 1880, with the exhibition.
The style is a triumph of eclecticism. Reed adopted the little known German Rundbogenstil ('the round-arched style') but drew on larger European and, especially, Italian influences with quotations from earlier international exhibition buildings. The cruciform plan reflects an early basilica or pilgrim church, with the implication of a great secular cathedral. The building has long central naves and stunted transepts, wide side aisles on the ground floor and continuous galleries on the first floor, triumphal entrance porticoes and corner pavilions. The portals echo the London exhibition pavilion of 1862 and the radial fanlights Paxton's Crystal Palace, built for the London exhibition of 1851. The building has good natural light, but gasoliers were installed for night opening. The dome is modelled on Brunelleschi's great pointed double-shell of the Florence Cathedral ('the Duomo') and includes windows, internal staircase and lantern. The south portico includes a staircase and viewing platform.
Following the exhibition, the buildings and 20 acres (8 ha) of gardens were vested in a trust. Fears of a 'white elephant' dissipated and the Aquarium (1885) became an attraction. It was the logical venue for the Centennial International Exhibition (1888-89), Sydney having lost its Garden Palace exhibition building to fire in 1883. Architect George Johnson designed new buildings complementing Reed's 1880 design, including an annexe fronting Rathdowne Street. Nearly 400 000 ft2 of additional temporary exhibition space was created, with a principal thoroughfare, the Grand Avenue of Nations, running from the north portal to Carlton Street, and a secondary smaller dome. Extensive electric lighting was a first for Melbourne. Mather's murals were painted over and a new, more lavish scheme by John Clay Beeler adopted.
The ensuing decades saw few changes. The temporary annexes were demolished, and a grandstand was built near the sports oval in 1890, followed by a portico to the Aquarium (1892). The complex was used for religious meetings, pageants, cycloramas and panoramas, bicycle racing, boxing, further exhibitions, concerts and royal visits. Federation saw the ceremonial opening of federal parliament on 25 May 1901, for which the hall gained a new interior by J. Ross Anderson. Artists George Dancey, Gordon Coutts, Girolamo Nerli and Leon Pole painted the mural of the allegorical maidens. From 1901 to 1927, when the federal parliament sat at Spring Street, the western annexe housed the two chambers of the Parliament of Victoria. During the influenza pandemic of 1919 the building became an emergency hospital. In October 1940 it was requisitioned for defence purposes, becoming a Royal Australian Air Force barracks. Migrant hostel huts were located on the oval in 1949. Fire destroyed the Aquarium in 1953, and it was replaced by a steel structure, the stadium annexe, used during the 1956 Olympic Games.
In 1961 the old western annexe was demolished and replaced by a modern exhibition hall; later the stadium annexe (1972) and in 1979 the Royale Ballroom (formerly the machinery annexe of 1880-81) met the same fate, despite protests from the National Trust. 'Centennial Hall', a glass reflective structure, was added for the centenary, along with the prefix 'Royal'. From 1983 new trustees were more sympathetic to heritage conservation principles. The hall's timber floor was retained and restoration works begun. A conservation plan, museum and commissioned history together cost more than $10 million. The interior was restored according to the 1901 scheme.
In 1993 a new Melbourne Exhibition Centre at Southbank was announced, with a new central campus of Museum Victoria constructed at Carlton Gardens. In 1996 responsibility for the building was taken over by Museum Victoria. Nominated by the Melbourne City Council, the building was added to the World Heritage List in 2004. The great hall continues to be let for minor trade and other exhibitions.