History of Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre
In 1884 the Northcote Council purchased a plot of land on the corner of High Street and Westbourne Grove as the site for a new town hall. The site had already gone through several owners including William Rucker who purchased the land in 1839 and George James who took it over when Rucker went broke in 1842.
By 1884 the land had become part of the Bellevue Park estate but was still undeveloped. Indeed, the area was a popular picnic area with swings hanging from large gum trees on the site.
The Council recognised the potential of the site and were so determined to purchase it that Councillors Bastings, Dennis, Verso and Plant contributed £715 of their own money to secure the purchase. Council later refunded the money.
Until this time the Council had been using a number of premises to hold their Council Meetings including the Wesleyan Sunday School and later the Peacock Hotel.
The Council had only purchased Lots 10 to 12 of the estate. The three blocks on the corner of James Street and High Street were a disused gravel quarry, and a small brick shop occupied the middle lots.
The decision to build a town hall was not a popular decision with the ratepayers. At this time poor drainage, bad roads and health threats from occasional rat infestations plagued Northcote and the residents wanted the Council to focus on these issues.
Council pushed past these objections though, and began the search for an architect to design and plan the Town Hall. Councillor Verso showed the Northcote residents his intentions when he was quoted as saying that the Council would not be…
“…bound to accept a design cheap and nasty.”
However, Council was not entirely insensitive to community feeling and approached both the Department of Justice and the Postmaster General to help gain financial assistance in building the Town Hall.
Both agreed to contribute £3,000 on the proviso that both a Court House and a Post Office be included in the building. Council quickly agreed.
George R. Johnson was the architect chosen to design the town hall. He was an obvious choice, having built the Collingwood Town Hall (1885) and North Melbourne Town Hall (1875), as well as the Melbourne Meat Market (1879).
He was a prolific architect of theatres, long since demolished or radically altered, including the Prince of Wales Opera House (1872), the Cyclorama (1888) and the Bijou Theatre (1889) in Melbourne, the Theatre Royal (1878) in Adelaide, the Criterion Theatre (1886) in Sydney, and the early plans for Her Majesty's opera houses in Sydney (1883) and Brisbane (1884).
The Northcote Town Hall was designed in the European neo-classical style with an elaborate façade and imposing balconies.
The community was still not entirely convinced of the need of a grand town hall and Council was forced to make further concessions. A planned clock tower was removed from the original plans and the Council agreed to build the hall in stages.
In the specifications drawn up by the architect he determined that the bricks should come from
“Northcote or other bricks of equal quality.”
This was a reflection on the very high quality of brickwork coming from Northcote brickworks at that time. Other items of interest in the specifications included £150 for grates and mantels, provisions for baths, lavatories and even cupboards with hat rails.
On 8 August 1888 Mayor Verso and his wife laid the foundation stones for the Northcote Town Hall. To celebrate the event a banquet was provided with ample champagne and cigars.
Building progressed quickly and by 4 October 1889 Council was able to hold its first meeting in the new premises.
Building Northcote Town Hall was not cheap, and the Council had been forced to float two loans, the first of £12,500 in 1888 and the second of £20,000 in 1889. An average workingman’s salary in 1890 was about £50 per annum.
The first rooms completed in the town hall included the front of the building, Court House and Post Office. Other rooms included the Council Chambers, Small Hall, offices, and toilets.
Until the Council Chambers were completed in October Council Meetings took place in the Post Office. A small shed was added at the rear of the town hall for the Northcote Volunteer Fire Brigade.
On 7 October 1890 the Governor of Victoria, the Earl of Hopetoun officially declared Northcote a town. The Northcote Brass Band was there to provide the National Anthem and numerous speeches were made.
The Governor praised Northcote saying the town was notable for two things. One was the view, which would be much improved once drainage was completed.
The other was the clay soil, which supported a considerable brickworks industry. At this stage local brickworks were producing an amazing 1 million bricks per week.
Northcote was caught in the middle of a development boom and over one hundred new homes and shops had been built from 1885 to 1890. To this was added the second stage of the Northcote Town Hall, which was completed in 1891.
The complex was now becoming the hub of Northcote with the Town Hall, Court House, Post Office, and Library all within the one site.
This redefining of Rucker Hill as the centre of Northcote was further strengthened in 1891 when a police station was opened in nearby James Street.
A library reading room was established in the town surveyors’ former office and things settled down around the town hall.
By 1901 moves were underway to move the library to its own premises but Council were hesitant about spending money and nothing much happened for the next ten years.
It was only in 1911, and with the aid of a grant from Andrew Carnegie, that the library finally moved to its own building on the corner of High Street and James Street.
In 1911 the Town of Northcote held its first Mayoral Ball, the event taking place at the new Northcote Theatre.
This was such a success that Council was inspired to authorise the building of a main hall. It was hoped it would be big enough to cater for 300 people comfortably or 600 if they crammed them in.
Again, the residents protested but Council were determined and in 1912 a request for tenders was released. Building was rapid and by June 1913 the new hall was ready for use.
Other changes were occurring too. A telephone exchange was established in the Post Office, and electricity was introduced into the town by the end of the year. To further solidify this growth in Northcote, on 13 March 1914 Northcote was gazetted as a city.
The First World War interrupted Northcote’s growth but also inspired the next alteration to the town hall. In 1917 an Honour Portal was added to the historic foyer of the town hall as a memorial to Northcote’s fallen soldiers.
The new memorial was unveiled by the Governor Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson.
The 1920’s had been a time of prosperity for the Council and they invested heavily in renovating the town hall. Expensive furniture and fittings were installed, the end result being the focus of an article in the Australian Home Beautiful.
The money for this and other Council projects coming from a variety of sources including an increasing rate base, money generated from electricity sales and heavy borrowing from financial institutions.
The late 1920’s saw the Post office relocated further down High Street and in 1929 a new courthouse was completed in Westbourne Grove, behind the town hall.
The Council took the opportunity of the extra space to commission some internal alterations to better suit the needs of the Councillors and staff.
With the 1930’s came the Great Depression. The Northcote Ladies Benevolent Society established an Unemployed Association at the town hall to help local men find employment.
It could do little as Northcote struggled to survive. In 1932 only 12 homes were built in Northcote, a far cry from the 669 built in 1925. The brickworks were a primary source of employment for Northcote residents and the collapse of the building industry hit hard.
Despite the grimness of the depression the Northcote Town Hall continued to provide a centre of social activities as well as Council functions.
Every year there was the Mayoral Dinner, as well as numerous other activities such as the annual flower show, bands, and dances. It was at this time that many of the existing Art Deco internal features were added to the building.
This included woodwork, plasterwork and the adding of a balcony in the main hall.
The late 30’s and early 40’s saw the Northcote Council regain some financial stability and was able to provide some repair work to the town hall. A leaky roof was replaced and the floorboards in the Main Hall were changed.
The next important moment in the history of the town hall was the Royal Tour of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954.
High Street was suitably bedecked for the occasion and large crowds gathered in the street as the Queen’s cavalcade progressed down the main street. An exhibition was mounted in the town hall and a beauty pageant held.
The Queen’s car paused outside the town hall and she waved to the official Council reception before continuing down High Street towards Clifton Hill.
In 1963 a new office block was added to the town hall. At this time Council had acquired Fairfield and Alphington from the City of Heidelberg and it needed room to house additional staff. The building was designed by Norman Brendel, who opted for a contemporary look rather than matching the existing building.
The area between the town hall and the Carnegie library had been occupied by the old brick shop, which had become Council property back in the 1920’s and had operated since then as an infant welfare centre.
In 1995 the Victorian State Government legislated to amalgamate the City of Northcote with the City of Preston and parts of the City of Coburg. This amalgamation created the City of Darebin.
The last Mayoral function was held at Northcote Town Hall in 1996 and all staff moved to the Preston Town Hall and municipal buildings in 1997.
By the 1990’s the town hall was looking worn and it was in need of serious renovations. By now the Council was aware of the architectural significance of the building and any changes were aimed at maintaining or restoring the features of the building.
In August 2000, the Northcote Town Hall Master plan was created after extensive consultation with users, community groups and outside specialists. It adopted many of the recommendations from the Northcote Town Hall Facility Plan and the Town Hall and Library Conservation Management Plan.
The Plan called for an extensive redevelopment of the town hall, balancing community and commercial uses to create a vibrant space with an emphasis on arts and culture.
Darebin Council committed $2.8 million to the project with another $2.6 million contributed by the State Government’s Community Support Fund in June 2002.
Garner Davis was appointed as the architects of the site after a tender process in mid-2000. After the plans were finalised, refurbishment of the town hall began in March 2001.
New features included in the redesign were
- Two new studio spaces in the west wing with bar, kitchen, toilets, green room and laundry
- The addition of a large roof top room and balcony with magnificent views of the city
- A first-floor meeting room with a glass wall, overlooking the Civic Square
The 1960’s office block on the Civic Square was demolished and extensive remodeling of the interior refocused the purpose of the venue.
In 2004 and in recognition of the site’s connections with the Aboriginal community, Council worked with the Darebin Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Council and Aboriginal artist, Ray Thomas, to deliver a new design for the Civic Square.
Landscape architects Rush\Wright Associates were engaged to oversee the concept development and build, featuring Ray Thomas’ stunning mural of intensely vibrant colours which adorns the rear wall of the square and the access ramp supports.
The space l was influenced by the Indigenous heritage of Rucker’s Hill as a corroboree place and positioning of the European neo-classical architecture of Northcote town hall and Carnegie Library.
The space continues notions of the conversation between the traditional cultural orders of the Victorian Aboriginal community and a contemporary settler society with an inherited colonial history.
The final outcome not only includes Ray Thomas’ mural, but also timber decking laid in a traditional shield pattern, several trees and a stone, laid over amber granitic sand, a small grassy knoll and two park benches.
The square is a favourite local picnic area, with recently added seating for public use. It is also utilised as an event space with markets and live performance activities.
In 2016 the Main Hall was fitted with ceiling mounted truss for rigging lighting and audio equipment, as well as black theatre drapes which has significantly increased flexibility to inspire and support artists’ creative vision.
The most recent upgrade came in 2020 when the Main Hall’s historic balcony, which had been decommissioned due to compliance issues, was renovated to allow for public use. This new and important asset has added to the options for creative innovation.
In 2018 the council unanimously supported a review of the use of the venue and declared it a dedicated arts centre.
Northcote Town Hall Arts Centre is now fully committed to support the creative community through a range of partnerships and assisted packages leading to increased artistic outcomes and opportunities for the local municipality.
Darebin Heritage Review 2000 by Andrew Ward
Northcote Town Hall and Carnegie Library conservation management plan by Willys Keeble 2000
Northcote Side of the river by Andrew Lemon 1983
History of Northcote by W. Swift (around 1920)
The Johnson George Raymond biography