Born in Daylesford, Harold (Harry) James Wagstaff commenced his architectural career in 1913 as an assistant to prominent Melbourne architect Charles D'Ebro (1850-1920). Barely three years later, he was elevated to full partnership in the firm thereafter known as D'Ebro, Meldrum & Wagstaff. It continued under that name until 1919, when Wagstaff left to establish his own architectural practice. During the early 1920s, Wagstaff not only maintained his own office, but also acted as Victorian agent for the Sydney-based architectural firm of Robertson & Marks. By his own account, Wagstaff's commissions during this early phase of his career included the Western & Murray Freezing Works in Bendigo, the Johnston Brothers tannery in Footscray, and the Corporation Abattoirs for the City of Geelong. A review of published tender notices reveals that, in the 1920s, Wagstaff was responsible for a broad range of other projects, which included a reinforced concrete bridge at Spring Creek, near Warrnambool, a "brick and roughcast residence" in Birdwood Avenue, Brighton, a butter factory at Coleraine and the new aquarium at the Royal Zoological Gardens in Royal Park.
H J Wagstaff is best known, however, for his enduring association with Victoria's horseracing community, which would sustain his career for over three decades. This professional relationship dated back at least as far as the mid-1920s, when he was commissioned to design new grandstands at the respective raccourses of the Victorian Racing Club (VRC) at Flemington, and the Werribee Racing Club at Werribee. In his capacity as official VRC architect, Wagstaff went on to design numerous other structures at Flemington, including a totalisator building, another grandstand and a new winning post. By the mid-1940s, Wagstaff was not only acting as official architect to the VRC, but also to the Moonee Valley Racing Club, the Williamstown Racing Club and even the Tasmanian Racing Club, which engaged him in 1947 to suggest improvements to their own racecourse at Elwick (Hobart Mercury, 20/8/1947:24). Over a period spanning several decades, Wagstaff also undertook various works to racecourses at Cranbourne, Pakenham, Morwell and Sandown Park. One of Wagstaff's more unusual racecourse-related commissions was a two-storey house erected in 1937 on the north-eastern edge of the Moonee Valley Racecourse for occupation by the new VRC secretary William Stanley Cox (whose similarly-named grandfather, William Samuel Cox, had founded the Moonee Valley Racing Club back in 1883).
In addition to his long and successful career as a one of Australia's leading architects of racecourse infrastructure, H J Wagstaff enjoyed a brief stint (in the early 1930s) as City Architect to the municipality of Richmond, in which capacity he designed the new swimming pool and carried out additions to the Corpoartion Abattoirs. The latter represented another specialist field of design in which Wagstaff was an acknowledged expert for many years. Following his successful completion of the municipal abattoir in Geelong in 1921, Wagstaff and his associate, noted electrical engineer Alfred Upton Alcock (1865-1962), patented a method of meat refrigeration known as the Alcock-Wagstaff Electric Defrosting Process. While the men subsequently sold the patent to a Sydney-based company in 1923, Wagstaff continued to provide specialist expertise as an abattoir designer for another three decades.
A surviving letterhead from Wagstaff's office revels that he was still in practice (styled as "architect, civil engineer and surveyor") as late as December 1958, when, at the age of 72 years, he relocated his professional offices to a new address at 418 St Kilda Road. He died only four years later, in 1962.
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