Once upon a time, before Covid, the CBD used to be a very busy place. On any given morning it was not unusual to see workers and shoppers scurrying past heritage buildings with scarcely a thought to their history or significance. Growing up in Adelaide I did the same thing. Week in and week out I would walk past the same old buildings, hardly even giving them a glance. I am pretty sure my younger self didn’t have a clue about their history or even if they were still being used for their original purpose. They were just a bunch of old buildings I had to walk past to catch the bus.
These days I love old buildings. I love the detail in the architecture; the kind of detail you can see in the plaster work of Toowoomba’s City Hall pictured above. Toowoomba has many old buildings that are on the heritage list, but it is only when you start to go digging, that you find out some very interesting and sometimes humourous stories about their construction or history. Even the most staid of institutions can have an interesting history, although quite often it is the tourists who find our own city history more fascinating than we do.
City Hall, or Town Hall as it is known in some places, is one of the most foundational institutions of any city or town and Toowoomba’s City Hall is no different. Built in 1900, it is actually Toowoomba’s third City Hall. The first was a simple timber building constructed in 1862, before the development of Toowoomba really took off. As the town expanded, the timber building was replaced with a brick building in 1881. As the town continued to grow, there was quite a bit of discussion in the 1890s about relocating City Hall to a more central position but there seemed to be no solution in sight. And then a fiery disaster provided an opportunity.
A School of the Arts had been built on a prime site in the middle of Toowoomba in 1861. While this building was replaced in 1877, ( a familiar story), it was destroyed by fire in 1898 and subsequently demolished. A vacant prime site was now conveniently available. So, from the ashes of the old School of the Arts, rose the new purpose built Toowoomba City Hall. Happily it also included a new School of the Arts, so all was not lost after all. A technical college and public hall were also incorporated into the new design. Incidentally, it was the first purpose built City Hall in Queensland.
To choose a design for the new City Hall, the Toowoomba Council ran a competition, however there was a little bit of controversy when the council rejected the winner that had been chosen by a sub-committee. A second competition was run and won by Willoughy Powell. His design was called “Sincerity.” I didn’t know architects gave their designs a name apart from its purpose but I guess “Sincerity” does have a more elegant ring to it than just Toowoomba City Hall.
One interesting inclusion was a “Ladies Reading Room.” I am not sure why the ladies required their own reading room as there was already a reading room, which I presume was open to both sexes but I guess you can never be too careful about fraternisation between the sexes. While we might associate City Hall with the machinations of local government, it was a vital community centre, holding a variety of events such as public meetings, concerts, musical and drama events, and even boxing and wrestling tournaments.
Over the years there have been alterations and additions as the function of the building changed. In 1911 the technical college moved out to its own place and in 1937 space was made for the Regional Art Gallery. And for around 50 years City Hall was also the site for the Toowoomba Public Library. The clock has an interesting story. It was not part of the original design. It was only during construction that someone went, whoops, we forgot to add a clock! And so it was added in the course of construction. To my eyes it doesn’t seem to quite meld with the rest of the building, but perhaps that is just part of its charm.
Next to City Hall is the Soldiers’ Memorial Hall. War memorials are deeply significant historical and cultural sites. The Mothers Memorial Garden in Toowoomba is a beautiful and peaceful place for quiet reflection and has memorials for all of the conflicts throughout the years. The Soldiers’ Memorial Hall also commemorates those who have lost their lives, but also serves as an administration and recreational centre for those who did return.
It was built in three stages beginning in 1923 and was officially opened in 1924. The first stage provided a space for returned soldiers to gather together for leisure and recreation activities, such as billiards and cards, but there was also a library and lending service. In the 1950s the hall was extended so that public dances, balls and other community functions could be held. The Returned and Services League (RSL) believed that their purpose went beyond just being a support service for returned soldiers and service personnel and also involved being an integral part of the community. One of the most important functions of the RSL is to assist returned service members to integrate back into society and it was envisioned that a dance and recreation hall could help bridge that gap between military service and the community.
When the new dance hall was opened in 1959, it was the largest dance hall in Toowoomba at that time. The Soldiers’ Memorial Hall became an important recreation centre, not just for the returned soldiers, but for the entire community. Sadly it coincided with the introduction of television, and the role of public dances and balls in community life dramatically declined. Eventually the dance hall was converted into extra club rooms. It’s a bit sad really, that a project designed to bring people together was derailed by the next big thing in entertainment. Instead of dancing the night away, people were sitting at home on the couch in front of a little screen. I guess that’s progress for you.
As we start to move into the “living with Covid” phase of the pandemic, our CBDs are coming back to life again, and in time, the tourists will return. Will we be in a rush to return to the helter-skelter pace of CBD life or will we slow down and at least enjoy the street scape as we wander by? Only time will tell.