A Place with a Past
A Gift from the Colony
Perth Town Hall is unlike any other Australian town hall. Governor Hampton made the decision to build a Town Hall for the citizens of Perth in 1866, as part of a public works program using the skills of the convict population. Government House and the Pensioner Barracks were part of the same building program.
Construction of the Perth Town Hall began in 1867 and was planned to take 12 months to complete. Instead, the construction took three years. The Town Hall was designed by the Supervisor of Public Works, Richard Roach Jewell. Building was overseen by the Clerk of Works, James Manning, who was also the architect for the Fremantle Prison. Manning is attributed with the design of the technically significant jarrah roof trusses in the main Hall . Both Manning and Jewell are mentioned on the foundation stone as architects. For more details on the construction see Facts and Figures.
Perth Town Hall’s architectural style is described as a combination of "Victorian Free Gothic Style, with strong medieval overtones". The Town Hall design has been compared with 14 -16th century village public buildings in Italy, Germany, Brussels and Britain which often incorporated a market place beneath a hall and a watch tower at one end.
The coloured bricks came from the East Perth clay pits (now Queen’s Gardens) and were laid in chequered Flemish bond. Free settlers laid the foundations for the Hall and then convicts completed the building.
The west and principal windows in the Main Hall were designed with initials JSH for Governor Hampton. The centre of the five light windows was changed to FAW after Frederick Weld became Governor in 1868. Governor Weld officially opened the Town Hall on Foundation Day, 1 June 1870.
The Foundation Tree
The Town Hall was built on the highest point in the centre of town, at the corner of Howick (now Hay) and Barrack streets. It was built almost on the spot where Mrs Dance felled a tree to commemorate the Foundation of Perth in 1829 and became a centre for political and social activity for the colony.
While the Hall had been effectively handed over to the City Council in 1870, the title to the property was not granted until many years later in 1903. The land originally defined as belonging to the Town Hall by the Governor, Colonial Secretary and the Surveyor-General, stretched from Barrack Street to Cathedral Avenue and allowed for expansion of the buildings. But by the time the City was given title, the land size had reduced considerably.
The building’s first alteration took place in the same year it was opened, when Jewell built onto the east end of the Town Hall, in an area meant for a courtyard, a chamber for the colony’s first representative government. The Legislative Council actually held its first meeting in the Town Hall in December 5, 1870, before the City Council, which held first meeting in the hall proper, in January 1871.
At the time, the City employed one staff member, Mr Lazenby, who was paid 100 pounds per year, plus another 16 pounds for winding the clock each day. It soon became apparent that more staff, and more office accommodation for them, would be required.
Offices were constructed in the Undercroft area in 1871. In 1872, after some delays, the markets intended to operate under the hall commenced. However, they were not successful and closed within five years.
Saved by the Citizens
Although the community made use of the Hall in many ways alterations continued to accommodate more offices, toilets, extra stairways and a proper council chamber. The Council investigated a number of options from about 1890 on, including selling the Town Hall to build a newer one, which could better serve its needs.
The government offered to extend the land available around the existing Town Hall to allow for a new, larger hall on the site, but Council declined, saying the site was still too small. A cash and land swap arrangement was reached between the Council and the State government. The community response to the suggestion of demolishing the Town Hall was swift and negative. The Council had to find alternative accommodation for its staff, and new uses for the Town Hall.
Just before the turn of the century and up until 1924, the original market area housed a variety of tenants, including the fire brigade, insurance brokers, and the tram office. Several Council officers, including the Town Clerk, occupied the north east corner with the Fire Brigade behind, and the other tenants took up the half of the building facing Barrack Street.
In 1924, while the Council was preparing to move into the Strelitz building the next year, extensive alterations were also developed for the Town Hall, which included incorporating shops into the ground level. While the decision to incorporate shops suited some people and offered the Council an opportunity to recover some costs associated with maintaining the hall, not all were pleased. The West Australian newspaper once described the decision as ‘municipal vandalism’.
More shops were added in 1955. The R&I Tower stage one was commenced in 1959, eventually crowding out the Town Hall on two sides. The Tower on the East Side was 13 storeys high and abutted the east wall. In the 1960s grey granite was attached at ground level in a bid to make the 1870s hall and the 1960s R&I Tower look more compatible.
In 1973 the Hall was classified by the National Trust and in 1978 placed in the Register of the National Estate. The Council agreed "in principle to the restoration of the brick arches", and in 1984 a conservation report was prepared for the Town Hall.
The removal of the R&I Building in 1994/95 exposed some major damage to the Town Hall. However, it was the first time in a generation the Town Hall was presented "in the round" as Jewell intended, and created an opportunity to reinstate many of the Town Hall’s unique, but hidden features. The Council adopted a Conservation Plan and Feasibility study in 1996.
A major restoration and refurbishment program followed and was completed in 2005.
As well as continuing in its role as City’s premier venue for civic receptions, the Perth Town Hall is now an elegant and popular venue for banquets, public forums, business meetings, functions and weddings. The Lower Foyer houses a model of the HMAS PERTH as well as the ships’ bells of the PERTH I and II, while an historic portrait of Sir George Murray and various items of memorabilia are on display in the Hall’s Upper Foyer.