The Adelaide Town Hall

The Adelaide Town Hall

Adelaide Town Hall is listed on the Register of the National Estate. It is a classically styled freestone landmark building on King William Street in Adelaide, South Australia. The City of Adelaide Town Hall complex includes the Town Hall and the office building at 25 Pirie Street. With its Albert Tower bells having marked significant occasions throughout the history of the city, it is used to host corporate and private celebrations, weddings, concerts, and conferences. It serves as the seat of the Adelaide City Council, concerts with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and boasts function centre facilities. It is one of the world’s five greatest acoustic venues for symphonic concerts, and is famous for an appearance by The Beatles on the balcony in 1964. The Beatles immortalised the hall, which attracted an estimated 300,000 fans. Prince Charles and Princess Diana of Wales visited Adelaide on April 5, 1983 and attended a State Reception at the Adelaide Town Hall, greeting crowds from the balcony.

Adelaide Town Hall 1950The Adelaide Town Hall has a long history as the city’s seat of local political power. Surveyor Sir Colonel William Light earmarked the one-acre site for use by Council in his original plan for the city of Adelaide, which had been established in 1843. The site was town acre 203, facing King William Street and Pirie Streets. The Council purchased the land from the State in 1840 for 12 shillings (approximately $1.20 AUD). The nearby Victoria Square was already the site for many government administrative buildings and law courts. It was initially used as a produce market selling hay, corn, butter, poultry, eggs, fish and vegetables.

However, 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. The new Council determined that a structure was needed to act as a meeting place of the local government and to represent the importance of the Council in the city. By 1857 the Council announced the first architectural competition for designs for a new Town Hall. This first competition was won by Edmund Wright, but the building never proceeded.

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, won the competition. 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, cut from the Tea Tree Gully quarry, laid by Governor Sir Dominic Daly on 4 May that year. That stone was later covered by the construction of the Albert Tower, named after Queen Victoria’s late husband Prince Albert.

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. 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. 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. The construction was completed in 1866.

Inaugurated on 20 June 1866 by the Governor, the Town Hall was considered the “largest municipal building south of the Equator” at the time. Its opening banquet that evening was a lavish affair for 800 people. An equally well attended ball was held on 22 June 1866, and the opening concert on the 26 June 1866. The Albert Tower was also significant as the only civic building outside of England to house a full peal of eight bells. 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’.

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. 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. A complete refurbishment of the the whole complex was undertaken in the 1980’s.

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’. Soon after the Adelaide Town Hall was opened, a campaign began 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. The first organ was replaced in 1990 by the current organ, built in England.

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. The Australasian Federation League of South Australia held its first inaugural meeting on 1 August 1895, having been formed at a meeting convened seven months earlier by the Australian Natives’ Association in the colony. The meeting at the Town Hall was a major public gathering attended by many prominent South Australians. The meeting was also notable for the large number of women who attended. This league was the principal organisation that campaigned in favour of federation in South Australia. 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 Adelaide 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.

As soon as the Town Hall was officially opened in 1866 the city’s amateur musicians launched a campaign to obtain a pipe organ for the Main Auditorium.Through two concerts they raised £120, which was instead funnelled into the outstanding account for the bells in the Albert Tower. In 1869 the Adelaide Philharmonic Society was formed and took over the charge to raise money for the organ. In six years the choir staged 25 concerts raising more than £500 for the organ, to be matched with £600 from the Council to nearly meet the total cost of £1200. In 1875 the Council ordered an organ from the London manufacturers William Hill & Son. As a compromise on the cost, the Council decided to have Hill & Son construct the organ so that it could be added to in later years.The total cost came to £2106.16s.9d. The piece arrived by ship to Port Adelaide in April 1877 and was placed on a platform in the Main Auditorium. George Oughton conducted the opening concert on October 2 that year and Melbourne City organist David Lee commanded the keyboard. It wasn’t long before a campaign to enlarge the organ began. Between 1885 and 1886 local firm Fincham and Hobday updated the organ by adding solo stops. The hydraulic engine was replaced in 1923 by an electric motor, but after frequent criticism that it was out of date, the Council eventually voted to replace the original century-old pipe organ in 1989.

Original Reconstruction Work

Adelaide Town Hall Progressive Refurbishment

A refurbishment of the whole complex was undertaken in the 1980’s. Gary Lancaster was a member of the heritage painting and decorating team who performed heritage reconstruction work to the interior of the Adelaide Town Hall. As the original paintwork and decorative finishes from the 1800’s had been painted over with white paint, paint scrapings involving sensitive paint stripping were performed to reveal the original heritage colours and designs underneath. These samples were provided to the Adelaide City Council for record keeping purposes. Extensive preparation work included filling and sanding down of the surfaces to a smooth finish. Surfaces were repainted in both oil-base and acrylic-based paints to match the original heritage colour scheme. In order to match the original decorative finish work, Gary and the team applied gold leaf, different colour glazes, antiquing, picking out of original colours for ceiling roses, and hand painting a faux (fake) marble effect on the columns and their bases as had been originally painted in the 1800’s.

Further Reconstruction Work

Adelaide Town Hall Auditorium

In June 2015 Lancaster Painters Australia performed heritage artistic repair and touch up work to decorative features that had been damaged throughout the Adelaide Town Hall. It included the marbleised finish to the bases of the columns, the hand painted wood grain effect to the plaster coffers, and the hand painting of decorative garlands.

Garland & Wood Graining Reconstruction Work

Adelaide Town Hall Damaged Coffers & Garlands
Adelaide Town Hall Coffers & Garlands Repaired & Repainted
Adelaide Town Hall Reconstructed Coffers & Garlands
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Column Bases Repair & Reconstruction Work

Adelaide Town Hall Column Bases Marble Repair Work

Featured above are photos of the progressive repair work to marbled column bases in the Town Hall. Gaps between the column bases and the woodwork were filled and painted to match the existing marble finishes. The faces of the bottom of the column bases were filled and artistically reconstructed to match the original marbleised finish. Photos on the left and in the middle show the progressive repair work. The photo on the right shows the completed repair and artistic reconstruction work of the marbleised finish to one of the column bases in the Town Hall.