A post office, a critical focus for any immigrant city, has operated on the site of the present General Post Office (GPO) since 1841, replacing the postal service first handled by John Batman and subsequently by a series of officers appointed from Sydney.
The 1841 building was described as an eight-room cottage for the postmaster plus a lobby and offices which faced Bourke Street. From the outset it was plagued by flooding from the adjacent stream running south along Elizabeth Street, vermin and inadequate heating, lighting, and ventilation, but it was continually expanded to provide services to an ever-increasing city population. Condemned for the totally inadequate accommodation and the poor conditions it provided, the building was demolished in 1859 to make way for the present GPO.
The 1857 royal commission that recommended the new building argued that the 'magnitude of the building and its importance as a national edifice rendered it advisable that competition designs should be publicly invited'. Two awards were made, one for the exterior composition, won by architects Crouch & Wilson, the other for the interior arrangement awarded to Edward Rumsey. However, the second placegetter, Arthur Ebden Johnson, directed the work via a position he held in the Public Works Department and revised his own drawings to form the basis for the construction. Intrigue and delays in design, construction and stone supply followed. The use of freestone was not a unanimous choice but its advocates held sway over those favouring bluestone.
The foundations were commenced in January 1861 but the work was not completed until July 1867. In 1885 a second stage was undertaken, involving a two-storey addition on the southern, western and northern elevations as well as a single storey on top of the three-storey eastern wing. The tower was raised and a larger clock installed. In 1907 the third stage was undertaken adding 113 feet (34 m) of arcaded façade northward along Elizabeth Street. The overall design is classically inspired and relies on the super-imposition of the architectural orders in a series of layers over an arcuated base.
Apart from a rearrangement of the interior in 1917-19 to create the public postal hall, little further work was undertaken and for a short period from 1917 the large post office created at Spencer Street to the design of the Commonwealth architect John Smith Murdoch became the GPO. In 1992 a proposal to erect a shopping arcade on the northern portion was approved by the Historic Buildings Council, but little progress was made on the proposal. After a devastating fire in September 2001 Australia Post leased the complex to developers whose GPO Melbourne, featuring shops, cafés and restaurants, opened in 2004.