The Urrbrae House Historic Precinct is situated on the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide on land bequeathed by Peter Waite to the University in 1922 to establish the Waite Agricultural Research Institute (WARI) and a public park (now the Waite Arboretum). Today, the precinct is an accredited museum with the History Trust of South Australia and part of the University’s Office for Community Engagement.
The precinct incorporates: Urrbrae House, a beautiful two-storey bluestone mansion, completed in 1891 as the home of Peter and Matilda Waite. The Urrbrae House Gardens, redeveloped in the 1990s to be sympathetic to the house’s original gardens. The Battery House, believed to be the first purpose built domestic powerhouse in South Australia. Peter Waite’s Garage. The Coach House, which housed the first laboratory of the Waite Agricultural Research Institute. Peter Waite was a successful pastoralist who had migrated from Scotland in 1859. Waite and his family moved into the original single-storey Urrbrae House in 1877 but by the late 1880s found that a larger residence was needed. The new Urrbrae House was designed by C. H. Marryat and E. J. Woods, built by Nicholas W. Trudgen, and decorated by Aldam Heaton. Urrbrae House was Heaton’s only commission in Australia and his original ceiling papers can still be seen today. The house was the first private dwelling in South Australia to have electricity and the first in Australia to have a domestic refrigeration plant.
Following the deaths of Peter and Matilda in 1922, Urrbrae House was handed over to the University of Adelaide. From 1924 until 1973 the house was the residence of Directors of the WARI. After being home to a staff club and cafeteria in the 1970s and 1980s, Urrbrae House underwent major restoration in the 1990s. Today, the house is used by the University community but is also open to the public. A permanent display about Peter Waite’s life is found in the former Morning Room while the Main Bedroom houses an exhibition on the Waite Arboretum. The Dining Room, Library, Billiard Room and Butler’s Pantry all contain furniture from the Waite era. Part of the original servant’s electric bell system has recently been restored.
Currently, Urrbrae House’s refrigeration plant is not open to the public until repair work to salt-damaged walls is completed. In the Coach House visitors can see a recreation of the first laboratory of the Waite Institute from the 1920s. Thematic gardens surround Urrbrae House including the Sensory Garden and the Twentieth Century Rose Garden which traces the history of roses. A Garden of Discovery celebrates the scientific research of the Waite Institute while a Labyrinth has been constructed on the site of the original tennis court. Outdoor sculpture features throughout the gardens and adjacent Arboretum. During school term, a weekly interactive Schools’ history program is run in Urrbrae House aimed at children in Years 4-6. Children step back in time to experience life as it might have been in 1892.