Local Government: Town Hall Detective


Middle primary/Upper primary

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A new look at old buildings

Town halls were among the first public buildings constructed. Why? What made them so important?

Originally, town halls were multi-purpose buildings, much as they are today. Their size usually made them one of the largest buildings in a city. This feature alone meant they were used for any large public gathering. Civic, political and cultural events that required large spaces were all held in town halls.

Public meetings that often shaped a city's future were held in town halls. The offices of the local government officials who would carry out these decisions were located there. Offices for the registrations of titles, births and deaths were also often located in the town hall.

Concerts, important receptions, speeches and exhibitions were held in town halls, as were some unusual gatherings. Some records show that the work of local government sometimes had to share space with poultry and wrestling exhibitions.

Here are images of the town halls from some capital cities in Australia with a brief description of them.

Adelaide Town Hall

In the original survey of Adelaide conducted by Colonel William Light in 1837, one acre of town land was set aside for use by the Adelaide City Council. This acre of land was sold to the Council for the grand sum of 12 shillings. It was not until 1862 though, that action was taken towards the construction of a town hall. To reach a decision, a meeting of citizens was held on 30 December 1862. Here it was resolved to borrow 16,000 pounds to build a town hall.

Designs were sought by the Council and the winning design was by Mr Edmund W Wright. The designs presented by Mr Wright underwent many alterations before construction could actually begin. The laying of the foundation stone took place on 4 May 1863.

The architecture of the Town Hall is a symbol of Adelaide's colonial past, but the building sits grandly amid the modern architecture of South Australia's capital. Although the Town Hall is part of Adelaide's architectural history, it has an active place in modern society. The building is an important feature of Adelaide and is popular among tourists and people visiting the award-winning Town Hall Function Centre or attending one of the many concerts held there. Tours of the distinctive Council Chambers are available.

Brisbane City Hall

The Brisbane City Hall was opened on 8 April 1930. It was designed by the local architectural firm of Hall & Prentice and took ten years to build at a cost of around 980,000 pounds. Its architecture is in the classical style considered appropriate for major public buildings during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a major undertaking, ranking second only to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. For many years it was the tallest building in Brisbane and has served the dual purpose of being a locale for the Brisbane City Council and for civic events for the people of Brisbane.

In addition to housing the Council Chambers, Lord Mayor's office and Councillors' offices, the City Hall has a Concert Hall and various other function rooms as well as an Art Gallery. Over the years it has played host to many varied activities. It also boasts a fine pipe organ originally built in 1891 by Henry Willis. The organ is considered to be one of the best examples of its type in the world. Sculptural work by Daphne Mayo decorates the facade and interior stained glass windows were designed by William Bustard.

The building is now listed with the National Trust and included in the National Estate. It is also included in the Queensland Heritage Register established under the Queensland Heritage Act of 1992.

Hobart Town Hall

The foundation stone for the Town Hall was laid in 1864. Beneath the stone is a box that contains old coins (an English sovereign, a crown piece, a half crown, a florin, a shilling, a sixpence, a fourpence, a threepence, a penny and a halfpenny) as well four newspapers published at the time. The two-storey building was built in two years although new sections were added later. The stone is from local quarries and the wood is Tasmanian blackwood and Huon pine. The organ has been in use since 1870.

In the early days of the Town Hall some of the space was used for the Public Library. Other areas housed the police offices, a municipal court and a number of lock up cells in the basement. Over time, all of these functions moved out of the Town Hall and into spaces of their own.

The Town Hall has been the scene of many extraordinary events in Tasmania's history. These include dramatic public meetings, election campaigns, celebrations and gala events, ceremonies for Royal and international dignitaries, farewells to troops on their way to war, declaration of peace, balls, exhibitions and flower shows. Today the Town Hall is still the place where meetings, musical events, balls, dinners and civic receptions are held. The Hobart Council Chambers and offices are still housed in the Town Hall.

Melbourne Town Hall

The Melbourne Town Hall has a history of architectural, social and political significance. The building was completed in 1870, with the Portico added in 1887. The Town Hall has always been an active cultural, civic and political centre in Melbourne and this tradition continues to the present day. Individual rooms within the Town Hall have retained their unique attributes and include shelves of leather-bound books, stained glass windows, chandeliers, skylights and ornate plaster ceilings. There are art works throughout the building by artists such as Napier Waller, Tom Roberts, Ludwig Becker and George Folingsby. The Grand Organ has 6400 pipes and was made in London to replace the original one that was destroyed by fire in 1925.

The Melbourne City Council has its Council Chamber in the Town Hall, and meetings and concerts are still held here. Over the years the Town Hall has hosted musicians from Dame Nellie Melba to The Beatles. Members of the British Royal Family have been greeted here and have greeted the people of Melbourne from the Portico. The gracious building has also been the unlikely venue for poultry, pigeon and canary shows and wrestling demonstrations.

Sydney Town Hall

Sydney Town Hall has always been a centre for civic and cultural activities. Its location in the heart of the city and the development of many facilities continues that tradition today. There are several areas available for multi-use purposes. These include the Vestibule, the Lower Town Hall and Centennial Hall.

The Vestibule was opened in 1880 and was the original Sydney Town Hall.

The magnificent interior features some of the earliest examples of Australian stained glass in its central dome, where there is a spectacular crystal chandelier. Centennial Hall is treasured as one of the grandest surviving 19th century halls in Australia. It was completed in 1889, and named after Australia's Centenary, which had occurred the year before. The Hall features a Tasmanian blackwood and tallowwood floor and the famous 25-metre-wide Grand Organ, which spans the entire width of the western wall. There are 21 stained glass windows featuring Australian flora, a pressed zinc ceiling and 12 giant faux (imitation) marble pillars in the Hall's corners. Centennial Hall houses the only Fazioli grand piano in Australia.

Heritage detective work

Are the town halls similar or different? In what ways? How can you explain these similarities or differences?

Have a look at the town hall in your town. What do you know about it?

See if you can find out:

  • when it was built
  • what it was used for
  • what it is used for now.

Some buildings in Australia are protected from being torn down or changed in significant ways. They are called heritage places. There is a checklist so people can decide whether to protect a building. The Australian Heritage Commission has developed a checklist for putting buildings on a national register of heritage places.

How does your town hall measure up? Below is the Australian Heritage Commission checklist from the book Investigating heritage: our past, present, and future. How many of these points could you tick for your town hall?

  1. Evolutionary or historic value: Does it tell us about any important period or process?
  2. Rarity value: Is it uncommon or endangered?
  3. Research or educational value: Could it be used to teach or learn?
  4. Representative value: Is it a good example of a type of place or a type of human activity?
  5. Aesthetic value: Is it beautiful or dramatic in appearance?
  6. Technical or creative value: Does it demonstrate an innovative or imaginative solution or approach for its time?
  7. Social value: Is it important for social, cultural or spiritual reasons?
  8. Historical associations: Is it associated with an important person or group?

Share your investigation

What did you find out? You can share your results with other students.

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