Bendigo's Town Hall gives up its secrets: Photos, video

VIDEO: Scale the heights of Bendigo`s Town Hall clock tower. Video: Leigh Sharp

Smack in the centre of Bendigo is its famous town hall. A beautifully designed building with architectural features that makes it one of the premier town halls in Australia.

It's hard to believe it faced demolition in the 1960s and 70s when it was deemed to lack architectural significance, says Philip DeAraugo , City of Greater Bendigo Place manager.

“It is one of the finest town halls in Victoria if not Australia and the key piece of work that William Vahland did as premier architect of the gold fields,” Mr DeAraugo said.

W.C. Vahland was a German immigrant who came to Bendigo in the mid 1850s to search for gold. His fortune wasn’t unearthed but rather was built on soil in the form of more than 200 buildings across central Victoria and southern New South Wales. He became a carpenter and later studied architecture, heavily influenced by German and French design. He has been credited with giving regional cities and towns a dynamic presence with his flair for French Renaissance design. His bank facades were lushly decorated and his use of the mansard roof in public buildings, such as the Bendigo Town Hall, remains a feature to this day.

Vahland was commissioned to redesign the town hall in 1878, after residents continued to be displeased with the simple design of their municipal building that they described as a “brick kiln”, Mr DeAraugo said. Vahland’s design was the fourth attempt to give the-then brick square block some grandeur and presence. The first was designed in 1859 by the town’s surveyor George Avery Fletcher. The city’s original town hall was a two-roomed timber building at View Point. Even through its various phases, the Hargreaves Street building still has its original sections.

“(So) in 1878 William Vahland was engaged for a major refurbishment and extension,” Mr DeAraugo said. 

The redevelopment was to better reflect the exuberance and splendour of Bendigo's golden age. Many existing entries, porticos, internal walls and windows were reused. Three towers were added to the exterior and a mansard roof.

In 1885 the exterior was rendered and the interior was plastered. The main hall was remodelled, and later decorative plaster was adorned with 22 carat gold leaf. In 1902 Vahland’s master plan was completed. Bendigo finally had a town hall that reflected its association as a major centre for gold mining in the 19th Century.

While tours are available for the town hall, inside many rooms and architectural gems are not usually seen by the public. The foundations in the basement are of brick and sandstone, slabs of bluestone that form the stairs curve in the middle - worn down from footsteps over the years. Pressed metal ceilings and cast iron and hardwood stairs are some reminders of how the town hall has expanded over the years.

A set of timber stairs leads to the top of the 36.5m-high clock tower overlooking Hargreaves Street. Names of former council staff, councillors and business leaders are carved into the timber of the stairs and window trims. They offer a preserved lesson in history - a who's who of citizens from the 1870s to today.

“It’s amazing to see how this (the town hall) has evolved over time,” Mr DeAraugo said.

A final set of steep stairs - almost a ladder - extends to the top level offering a unique view of Bendigo.

“I cannot imagine what they would have been thinking when they built this in 1878,” he said, looking across the city from the very top of the building.

Extensive restoration works were carried out on the hall in the 2000s. This included repairs to the roof and damp proofing. The Hargreaves Street balcony, which had been demolished in 1926, was rebuilt and an extensive interior decoration program restored the original paint scheme and gold leaf.

In 2005 the first clock was installed in the tower. Vahland had made provision for the clock when he originally redesigned the town hall but it wasn't until the Rotary Club of Bendigo - to mark its centenary of Rotary International - and the Bendigo Advertiser, in honour of its 150th anniversary a year earlier, donated funds to have the four clock faces installed. After 120 years the Bendigo Town Hall's clock tower would tick for the first time.

This year, the City of Greater Bendigo is celebrating the centenary of the death of William Charles Vahland. For more information go to www.celebratevahland.com. For an insider's tour of the town hall watch Leigh Sharp’s video at www.bendigoadvertiser.com.au.

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