The Adelaide Town Hall is a classically styled freestone building sited prominently on King William Street. It was designed by Edmund Wright of Wright and Woods architects as a result of a competition in 1863. Its Albert Tower bells have marked significant occasions throughout the history of the city. Opened in June 1866, the Town Hall has been an important venue in Adelaide for concerts, civic receptions, public gatherings and meetings ever since, from playing host to meetings foreshadowing Australian Federation, to hosting the pop band ‘The Beatles’ on the balcony above a crowd of thousands.
Adelaide City Council
The first council for the city of Adelaide began in 1840, however, after a ‘troubled and stormy existence’ (Berry, Adelaide Town Hall, 192) the Council became defunct in 1843, with the Government managing affairs until 1849. The City Corporation was established in 1852 with James Hurtle Fisher as mayor. By 1857 the council announced the first architectural competition for designs for a new Town Hall. The site was town acre 203, facing King William Street and Pirie Streets, and had been in possession of the council since 1840. The nearby Victoria Square was already the site for many government administrative buildings and law courts. This first competition was won by Edmund Wright, but the building never proceeded.
Design and Construction
In 1862, Mayor Thomas English, an architect, proposed another competition for the town hall. A classical style building designed by Edmund Wright, a former mayor of the city in 1859, who was in partnership with Edward Woods, was the winner. The design features Corinthian order architectural ornamentation. Whether the Classical style was appropriate for a public building in Adelaide instigated much debate, with the Gothic versus Classical ‘battle of the styles’ reflecting similar debates which had occurred in Great Britain. Construction began in March 1863 with the foundation stone laid by Governor Sir Dominic Daly on 4 May that year. The building contractor for the Town Hall was English and Brown, the firm of Thomas English, mayor of the city, who later resigned as mayor in January 1864 (Page, Sculptors in Space, 72). The Town Hall was built using predominantly local materials, including Tea Tree Gully freestone and Dry Creek bluestone. Following much heated discussion surrounding the choice of materials, namely, stone versus stucco, further funds were released for the building so that it could be constructed using local stone from the English and Brown quarry at Tea Tree Gully (Marsden, Stark and Sumerling, Heritage of the City of Adelaide, 163). The carved keystones on the front of the building feature the heads of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Governor Daly. At the time of completion it was said to be the largest municipal building in the southern hemisphere (Worsnop, History of the City of Adelaide, 236).
The View from the Top
In 1865 photographer Townsend Duryea took his now famous panorama of the city of Adelaide from the scaffolding around the partly constructed tower of the Town Hall. The panorama comprised 14 plates and was publicly displayed at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts in December 1865. From this photograph the low rise nature of the city could be observed clearly. This marked a time when the skyline of Adelaide was beginning to change as the two significant civic buildings of the Town Hall and the Post Office were added to central Adelaide. The Town Hall with its Albert Tower (named after Queen Victoria’s consort) stood at 146 feet high (44 metres), well above the other buildings on King William Street but was soon joined by the General Post Office’s Victoria Tower on the opposite side of the street which rose to 158 feet. Together they became notable landmarks for the city of Adelaide, helping to shape its image, and frequently appearing on tourist material. The Town Hall and General Post Office flanked Victoria Square’s southern end and remained the city’s tallest public buildings into the twentieth century. Worsnop wrote that ‘The erection of the Town Hall Buildings in the principal street in the City gave an immense impetus to architectural progress in Adelaide’ (Worsnop, History of the City of Adelaide, 266).
The Town Hall was inaugurated on 20 June 1866 by the Governor. The town hall’s opening banquet that evening was a lavish affair for 800 people and an equally well attended ball was held on 22 June 1866, the opening concert was held on the 26 June 1866. The Town Hall clock tower chimes with a peal of eight bells, and, as reported in the News, the ‘Albert bells have rejoiced at many famous events, and mourned the death of South Australia's greatest sons and daughters. Victories of the Boer and European war were made known to the public through their sweet-toned chimes’ (‘Bells of Adelaide’, 1929, 5). In 1872, visiting writer, Anthony Trollope wrote of the interior, ‘The Town Hall is a fine room, and forms a portion of a very handsome building. In such luxuries as town-halls, large public concert-rooms, public ball-rooms, and the like, the Australian cities greatly beat our own’ (Trollope, Australia, 640). Soon after the Adelaide Town Hall was opened, a campaign was begun to attain a pipe organ for the Auditorium. With funds partly raised by the Adelaide Philharmonic Society and matched by the Council an organ was obtained from the London manufacturers, William Hill & Son, arriving by ship in April 1877. Edmund Wright was commissioned to add a platform and an orchestra to accommodate the organ, with the opening concert held on the 2 October 1877 (Adelaide Town Hall). The first organ was replaced in 1990 by the current organ, also built in England.
The town acre on which the town hall stood was only partly filled by the 1866 building and subsequent additions have been made including, a south wing (formerly the Prince Alfred Hotel) in 1869, Queen’s Chambers in 1869 on the Pirie Street frontage, Eagle Chambers in 1876, Gladstone Chambers in 1882, and a new council chamber at the rear of the building in 1880 (City Archives). Albert Tower was designed as a clock tower but it remained empty until 20 February 1935 when Councillor Sir John Lavington Bonython, a former mayor, started the electric clock he had donated. The Town Hall foyer was altered significantly in the 1950s, when the marble staircase was installed, and the entrance was given a ‘modern’ treatment by architect Dean Berry. Subsequent to this in the 1980s a refurbishment of the whole complex was undertaken (City Archives).
Significant Events and Receptions
The Adelaide Town Hall was important in providing the setting for formation of three organisations which played important roles in the federation of Australia, namely the Australasian Federation League of South Australia, the Anti-Convention Bill League and the Commonwealth Bill League (Australian Heritage Database). Following Federation, the first Governor of the state of South Australia, Lord Tennyson was sworn in at the Adelaide Town Hall on 1 January 1901. Almost a century after it was opened, the town hall drew an enormous crowd of over 30,000 fans to its vicinity when The Beatles appeared on the balcony in June 1964. During the twentieth century the Town Hall has hosted numerous concerts including those by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Musica Viva Australia, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Australian String Quartet (Adelaide Town Hall).