Comment: South Melbourne Town Hall belongs to the community

We lost our park to the Grand Prix, we lost our local council to amalgamation and our footy club was moved to Sydney. Many South Melbourne residents fear their historic Town Hall is next, writes local historian Adair Bunnett OAM.

Why does this building mean so much to the locals of South Melbourne?

For many of us it epitomises the relationship between local government and its community. Its splendid architecture, its superb vista up Perrins Street, its direct relationship to what were innovative social welfare programs and policies, makes it a unique and much treasured building.

From its beginnings in 1854, the former Emerald Hill Council coveted this site in the centre of the municipality as the logical location for its Town Hall, and in 1872 negotiations with the State Government for the sale of this site commenced. It was a complicated business because this was crown land and required a special act of parliament before it could be sold. But it happened and the building, designed by Charles Webb, was completed in 1879.

The new Town Hall incorporated a post and telegraph office and a police station and courthouse (financed by the respective government departments), the fire brigade and the Mechanics Institute. By 1928 council was the sole occupant of the building as these organisations had moved out to larger premises

It became the engine room for the development of welfare and community services at local government level, driven by a partnership of inspired leadership from both the community and the council. Libraries, infant welfare centres, home help, elderly citizens clubs, and meals on wheels were pioneering social welfare initiatives that are now a core part of local government.

It was a place where Freemasons, the Middle Park Catholic Women’s Guild and the South Melbourne Ladies Benevolent Society (a largely Protestant group) worked together for the benefit of the community despite the sectarianism of the times.

It was the focal point of the community. It was where everyone went if they needed to know something or needed help, but it was also a centre for community socialising at balls, dances, community functions, celebrations and meetings.

All of this ceased when the three municipalities of South Melbourne, St Kilda and Port Melbourne were forcibly amalgamated by the Kennett State Government in 1994 and handed over to Government appointed commissioners. The original intention was that the South Melbourne Town Hall would be the central administrative hub of the new Port Phillip council.

Almost all other town halls in Victoria are on crown land – if they do not maintain a municipal function the land has to be returned to the crown. South Melbourne Town Hall, however, sits on land owned by the Council so it can be used for purposes other than local government.

This gave the State Government, with the acquiescence of the Commissioners, the opportunity to pivot the building away from its community for another purpose.

Without any discussion, the Kennett government decided in 1995 to allocate the eastern half of the Town Hall to the new Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), for a token rent of $1 per annum for 21 years. The administrative centre of Port Phillip Council was moved to the St Kilda Town Hall and community use and service provision at South Melbourne Town Hall were severely curtailed.

While rental and lease arrangements with ANAM have changed over the years since, the community has continued to agitate for greater access and use by community groups as was envisaged in the original ANAM Memorandum of Understanding, and to maintain a municipal civic focus for this fine building.

The building is now empty due to serious structural damage following a storm and all groups, including ANAM, have been moved out of the building while Council undertakes a thorough assessment of the condition of the building. Insurance will cover the cost of repairs and restoration work. It will be a major undertaking for the next Council to see these works completed. Also waiting in the wings for the next council is an application from ANAM to lease the entire building for 50 years, which would mean no guaranteed access to spaces for meetings and significant civic events.

Will Council have genuine and far reaching consultation with the community about the future use of this magnificent building? How will community access be maintained?

Many South Melbourne residents are fearful that it will be lost to the community. We lost our park to the Grand Prix, we lost our local council to amalgamation and our footy club was moved to Sydney. Maintaining a direct association between the building and its local community is an ongoing battle.