The Town Hall was a gift of the Colonial government to the City. While the building was an instant, stunning landmark for the new city, the original Town Hall had its problems from a practical point of view. It had only one staircase, a situation which was immediately recognised as a fire hazard. It had no stage, no cloakroom, no toilets or latrines, no dressing rooms for performers, no retiring room for officials, and no room of suitable size for use as a Council chamber. Not having been consulted about its design, the Council made a number of additions and modifications to the building to suit its purposes.
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. Also in 1870, after the building was officially opened but before it was really complete, the City purchased some leftover timber from the building of the Hall, and began to build a platform stage at the west end of the Main Hall.
By 1875, the southeast corner of the Undercroft was enclosed to house the Fire Brigade. Throughout the 1880s there were constant additions and alterations to the offices in the Undercroft space. 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. Also in the 1880s, the south parapet, a sort of veranda, was raised and enclosed to form a Council meeting room. This is the space now known as the Supper Room.
Saved by the People
In 1924, the Council resolved to construct lettable shops in the Undercroft and a ladies’ toilet above the Supper Room, along with modifications to the stage and other works. Referring to the Undercroft, The West Australian lamented at the time that “a thing of beauty and a joy forever” had been transformed into “an architectural monstrosity”.
Further additions and alterations in 1937 extended the Gallery. In the same year Perth’s first registered female architect, Margaret Pitt Morison, remodelled the stage and proscenium arch. A proposal to construct a modern suspended ceiling in the Hall at that time was not approved.
By 1953 the Council had decided to construct a new Town Hall. At this time there was already considerable support for the idea of restoring the old Town Hall to its original state. What actually happened, however, was the Undercroft was remodelled to accommodate more shops behind a granite-clad colonnade.
In 1958 Perth won its bid to host the 1962 Empire Games. At this point, some wanted to raze the old Town Hall and a competition for the design of Council House and the proposed new Town Hall was won by Howlett and Bailey architects. A public outcry saved the old Town Hall. The proposed new Town Hall, intended for the rear of Council House, was never constructed.
The R & I Bank Building
In 1959, the building of the R&I Bank tower began, which was to have serious implications on the physical and aesthetic character of the Town Hall. The construction of the bank’s foundations caused some cracking to the Town Hall’s walls. Over the years rainwater from the R&I tower was shed onto the Town Hall, causing considerable softening of the older building’s bricks and threats to its structural integrity. Moreover, the height of the bank quite overshadowed the Town Hall’s clock tower, so that it became less of a landmark than previously. In the 1960s, grey granite was attached to the Hall at ground level in order to make the 1870s Town Hall and the 1960s R&I Tower look more compatible.
In 1973 the Hall was classified by the National Trust, and in 1978 it was placed in the Register of the National Estate. A conservation report was prepared for the Town Hall in 1984. Urgent remedial works to the roof and roof plumbing, cement render and brickwork were undertaken in 1992-1994.
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 R&I building’s demolition coincided with the reconstitution of the Perth City Council’s boundaries. As part of an assessment of the building stock in the CBD, and as a result of the preliminary findings in the Central Government Precinct Study, the Council adopted a Conservation Plan and Feasibility Study in 1996.
One of the aims of the Plan was to restore the Hall to something more closely resembling its original design; another was to fit the hall with facilities to make it more useful as a modern venue, on the principle that the best way to conserve a heritage building is to keep it in use.
Not all the historic additions and modifications were removed: The north and south parapets were roofed early in the Hall’s history and provide essential spaces for toilets, storage and secondary rooms. The Supper Room (originally the south parapet) has its own history as a former council chamber. Similarly, the stage was retained because it is regularly used; but it was renovated to reveal the lancet and round windows previously hidden at the Hall’s west end. There were important new additions including the lift, the central air conditioning system and the glass-walled Lower Foyer enclosing approximately half the Undercroft area.
The works were planned in four stages. After the completion of stage 1 it was considered more practical that stages 2, 3, and 4 be addressed together. The architects for the project were Cox Howlett & Bailey Woodland, in association with Hocking Planning and Architecture. The builders were Geo. A. Esselmont & Son.
Stage 1 was commenced in 2001/2002. This stage included:
- Removing the grey marble from the walls and restoring the facades on the south and east sides, restoring the brick arches on the north and west walls
- Demolishing the ground floor entry and shops, and adapting the space into a new foyer and Undercroft
- Installation of new shingle roofs on the north and south annexes above the colonnades
- Installation of a lift to the Main Hall
- Structural reinforcement to minimise earthquake damage
- Upgrading services including electricals, fire control and toilets
- Landscaping on the east and south sides
The official opening after the completion of Stage 1 of the restoration was conducted by the Rt Hon Lord Mayor of Perth, Dr Peter Nattrass on 1 May 2002 (Foundation Day for Western Australia).
Stages 2, 3 & 4
Stages 2, 3 & 4 of the restoration were commenced in early 2003. The works included:
- Upgrade of kitchen
- Installation of service lift (dumbwaiter) for the kitchen
- Upgrade of electrical services including interior and exterior lighting
- Installation of reverse cycle air conditioning
- Restoration of back-of-house area
- Installation of new theatre sound and lighting systems and stage renovations
- Restoration of the Juliet balcony
- Addition of automatic fire protection system
- Extension of earthquake reinforcing to external wall
- Installation of acoustic window blinds and padded chairs to reduce reverberation in Main Hall
- Structural bracing of Mezzanine floor (Main Hall)
- Upgrade and restoration Main Hall
- Installation of building security system
- Completion of external façade and tower upgrades
- Replacement of roof with split timber shingles
- Completion of fire protection system
These works were completed in time to be reopened by the Lord Mayor, Dr Peter Nattrass on 12 August 2005, the 176th Anniversary of the foundation of the Town of Perth. The re-opening was celebrated with “Perspectives in Time”, an exhibition of art works featuring the City of Perth, many depicting the Town Hall through the years.
One of the chief challenges in restoring the Town Hall was that no complete plans have ever been found for the building. In fact, the only surviving documentation from the original period of construction is a drawing of the Hall’s timber roof, signed by James Manning. The rest of the information about what the Hall originally looked like has been gleaned from evidence such as letters, photographs, newspaper articles and related Council documents, and from discoveries made in the course of restoration. One of the architects described the Town Hall as “fun, exciting and temperamental”.
While the specialists involved in this project prepared an exploratory works program to uncover as much information about the Town Hall before the works started, there were still a number of surprises along the way. Many of these have been highlighted in the stainless steel wall plaques on the ground floor.
Inverted footing – in the column area of the south wall
The architects assume that this was developed as part of a drainage system to divert water from ground water springs in the area. It was probably designed by military engineers (led by Manning) who were also involved in the construction of Government House before the Town Hall.
Since few drawings or plans of the Town Hall have survived, records from the construction of Government House have been a valuable insight into the issues engineers considered at that time. Those drawings demonstrate the detail the early engineers went to in planning footings for Perth’s early buildings and how they considered and made allowances for the natural watercourses in the area.
All of the columns were gouged heavily to allow for the render to be attached which has left the column bricks weakened and easily damaged. For this reason, the brickwork has only been partially uncovered on one column where the inverted footing is displayed.
There is no conclusive proof that the ground floor was dirt, or sawdust with bitumen or brick paving. Archaeological evidence was lost during earlier works when the arches were sealed off and shops were installed. There is a possibility that all three styles of flooring were used, either at different times or in different parts of the ground floor area.
The floor of the main hall floor on the first level was originally raised higher than the floors over the colonnades. It was of a higher quality than the other flooring, probably because it would have had more wear and tear. To allow for the movement and shrinkage of the sub floor timbers, the floor was laid and then planed to a flat finish. While this would have given a level dance floor, it made maintenance and floor repairs difficult.
The original flooring, beams and joists were replaced in 1949 and the floors were brought up to the same height. The boards are now made up of tongue and groove style jarrah timbers.
Council Meeting Room (South Wall, first level)
The area now known as the Supper Room was the original Council Meeting room. It would have been an uncomfortable space, since at the time it had no windows and only a low ceiling.
Legislative Council Chamber (South East Corner)
Only a small remnant of the decorative fabric remains from the Legislative Council Chamber, which was built on the South East corner of the Town Hall. The chamber was removed, with some damage to the Town Hall, in the 1970s when the R & I Tower was built.
South East Tower
Minor repairs have been carried out on the one of the tourelles on the South East tower of the hall. However, the tourelle on the north east corner of the tower has been left unrepaired, still showing the damage caused during the construction of the R & I building. The R & I building was so close to the Town Hall, parts of the tourelle’s plaster had to be ‘shaved’ to fit.
Original finishes were uncovered on the ceiling at ground floor level (under the Supper Room), in the northeast tower and behind the notice board on the Upper Foyer wall. The decorative stencilling in the Main Hall and Upper Foyer takes its inspiration in part from the colour and height of the remnant of a blue stripe found here.
Matching arches & windows
The arches, because of the additions and changes over the years, did not appear to match. Since the restoration however, the arches have been revealed as originally planned, and it is now apparent opposite walls are matching.
The windows in the main hall also match east/west, and north/south, although this cannot be seen from the inside. Most of the windows at the foyer end of the hall are covered up by a false ceiling. Some other windows had been bricked up and the west windows had been blacked out, boarded up and completely covered by the stage. The west windows behind the stage were exposed, with panels and curtains provided for blackouts when required.
Jarrah beams, Juliet balcony
The engineers engaged to restore the Juliet balcony to its original form planned to support it on steel beams. To insert the beams they thought they would need to damage or remove an ornamented plaster ceiling just below, in the Upper Foyer. However, they discovered that the original jarrah beams used for the balcony were still in place and very sound. They changed their plans and supported the restored cantilevered balcony on its original beams, leaving the ornamental ceiling intact.
Ancient building practices have been enhanced with technology to reinstate the shingle roofing over the colonnades.
The first shingle roof was made from jarrah. However, sheoak shingles sourced from Augusta were used in the refurbishment. Architects consulted with local companies and the CSIRO to develop ways to make the shingles last longer and, in the process, have set new standards for sheoak shingles. The shingles have been impregnated with chemicals that slow their deterioration; they are tapered to sit flatter on the roof and have been attached with stainless steel rather than iron fittings which are prone to rust.
A veteran roofer was brought out of retirement to teach techniques for fixing wood shingles to apprentice roofers.
The original Town Hall bricks came from the East Perth clay pits. They were hand made and wood fired. Previous works on the Town Hall used either existing bricks from the building or colour matched bricks from local brick manufacturers.
The bricks for this project came from small regional brickworks in Katanning and Narrogin, which still use the wood-fired method of manufacture. They also manufactured specially shaped bricks for the arches of the building in three different styles.
Modern bricks produced by high volume brick manufacturers were unsuitable for the Town Hall project in that they are colour coated, more uniform and much harder than the original bricks. If the two types of bricks are used together, the older, softer brick is likely to corrode.
Cleaning the brick work
Two methods were trialled to clean the soft bricks of the Town Hall without causing damage.
In the first, the brickwork was bandaged with material soaked with chemicals, however it didn’t penetrate the corners of the bricks and the walls looked dull with a cloudy surface after the treatment.
A local contractor was more successful using a combination of chemicals and gentle water washing. This process removed paint, plaster and cement render off the original brickwork around the building, except for the eastern façade, which was splattered with concrete surfacing during the construction of the R & I Tower.
Water Damage – South side
The southern wall, particularly on the south east corner, has been severely damaged by water flooding over many years. Southern walls are usually prone to problems with mould and damp, however in the case of the Town Hall this was exacerbated by the R & I Tower – a taller building, built close to the Town Hall boundary. The Tower blocked out all sunlight to the southern wall of the Town Hall and inadequate drainage resulted in flooding of the wall with heavy rainfall.
Stage 1 of the refurbishment included earthquake proofing. Teflon straps placed inside the render brace the columns between the four towers of the building. Rods have been inserted from the top of both chimneys through to the first floor level where the fireplaces used to be, and down into the gable on the southern side.
This information comes from Council records, interviews with the architects, builders and engineers involved in the restoration, and from the following document available in the Local Studies section of the City of Perth library:
Perth Town Hall Conservation Management Plan 6.96 by Forbes Fitzhardinge and Woodland, and Allom, Lovell and Hocking 1996