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History of the Arts Centre Site

Brief Chronology

Olympia Photograph

Olympia Site 1904


Early 1900s The Arts Centre site is home to Wirth Brother's Circus and various outdoor activities including a hippodrome and ice skating rink.

1940s Post war reconstruction committee set up to examine new facilities for the Public Library, National Gallery and Museum.

1943 Reconstruction Committee recommends a separate gallery and 1000 seat auditorium for the Wirth's park site.

1944 Dr Margaret Sutherland initiates interest from music, drama and ballet societies, and a signed petition of 40,000 is presented to the Victorian Government.

1946 Melbourne South Land Act introduced to reserve the site for cultural purposes.

1959 Sir Roy Grounds appointed as architect for the National Gallery and performing arts centre.

1960 Master plan for the project is approved.

1968 National Gallery of Victoria opens to the public.

Early 1970s Stage two plans for the Theatre Building and Hamer Hall undergo major revisions due to costs and geographic difficulties.

1973 Construction begins on the Theatres Building and spire.

1974 Construction commences on Hamer Hall on the new site known as Snowden gardens that was donated to the State Government.

1982 Hamer Hall opens as the Melbourne Concert Hall.

1983 Princess Diana and Prince Charles attend a gala concert in the newly opened Melbourne Concert Hall.

2006 A Master plan for the development of the Southbank Cultural Precinct Redevelopment is announced.

Sept 2008 Premier Brumby unveils the initial concept designs for the precinct redevelopment and announces the first stage of the project - Hamer Hall and its surrounds.

April 2009 Architects Ashton, Raggart, McDougall (ARM) and urban designer and architect Peter Elliot are appointed to design the redevelopment of Hamer Hall.

Nov 2009 Australian construction company Baulderstone selected as the preferred builders.

Mid 2010 Construction commenced

July 2012 Hamer Hall reopened





From the greatest show on Earth…
Since the 1870s, the Arts Centre site has been a place of the arts, culture and entertainment.

In 1877 Cooper and Bailey's Great American International Circus pitched their tent on the site amazing Melbourne crowds for many years until 1901 when the FitzGerald Brothers' Circus came to town and built Olympia, a permanent circus site.

The Fitzgerald Brother's were soon joined by the construction of Prince's Court, a fashionable meeting place with a Japanese Tea House, open air theatre, icerink and a giant water chute.

In 1907 the Wirth Brothers took over the site and it became known as Melbourne's pleasure ground, a place for thrills and spills and family entertainment. The site remained a central meeting place for more than 40 years until 1953 when the Olympia was destroyed by fire and the popularity of circus entertainment began to diminish with the advent of television and other forms of entertainment.

Circus Poster

To the biggest figures in Australia…
During the 1940s two very different but equally tenacious figures Sir Keith Murdoch and composer Margaret Sutherland, made the first steps towards the development of a cultural centre in Melbourne.

Newspaper editor Sir Keith Murdoch was President of the Board of Trustees which oversaw the National Gallery of Victoria, the State Library, Museum and Technology Museum.

Murdoch was keen to attract more visitors to the gallery and in 1940 the National Gallery held its first experiment, combining visual arts and music. Many concerts were to follow but firm plans for the construction and expansion of the gallery by the Trustees Post-War Reconstruction Committee had to wait until after the war.

Public debate over the use of the Wirth's site was fierce. A new lobby group was formed led by composer Margaret Sutherland. The Combined Arts Centre Movement (CACM) published plans for 1000 seat theatre, small lecture theatre, recital studios, a performing arts library and restaurant.

The CACM executive committee's first act was to draw up a petition and ensure that the need for a new cultural centre remain firmly on the political agenda. In 1944 Sutherland presented the State Government with a petition containing 40, 000 signatures in support of reserving the Wirth Site for artistic purposes.

Portrait of Sir Keith Murdoch, President of the Board of Trustees

Taking shape…
Long years of political instability meant further delay in the passing of legislation of the Melbourne South Land Act and South Bank Bill which would secure the site as a cultural centre for Melbourne.

Finally the site was secured in 1956 with the appointment of a National Gallery and Cultural Centre Building Committee. The next step was to call for expressions of interest and find an architect.

On 18 December 1959 Roy Burman Grounds was appointed as architect for the National Gallery and Cultural Culture. By October 1960 Grounds produced his Master Plan.

The first phase of construction was to build the National Gallery of Victoria, which was completed in 1967. For this part of the project, Roy Grounds received a Knighthood.

Image of Sir Keith Murdoch

Portrait of an architect - Sir Roy Grounds

Attention then turned to the Arts Centre. Originally conceived as one single building, predominantly underground, environmental constraints led Grounds to revisit the Master Plan, taking the planned concert hall out of the ground and creating a separate structure.

It was not until 1972 that these plans were approved with the Melbourne Concert Hall to occupy a place in Snowden Gardens, the part of the old Wirths site that was located closest to the Yarra River. That same year Sir Rupert Hamer became Premier of Victoria, Treasurer and Minister for the Arts. It would be another four years before a land dispute between the State Government and the Melbourne City Council was resolved, but in 1975 State Parliament passed the Melbourne (Snowden Gardens) Land Act which meant that construction could finally commence.

The Plans finally Hatch…
With progress marred by the unstable Coode Island silt on which the Theatres Building was to reside, delays and rising costs meant that pressure was on the Government, Building Committee and architects to start the construction of the Concert Hall.

Despite the constraints of the site, Roy Grounds remained committed to his 1960s Master Plan, with its geometric shapes including squares, rectangles, triangles and circles.

Model of the Roy Grounds Master Plan

Part of this vision mapped out the Concert Hall building in the shape of an egg with the auditorium as the 'yolk' and the surrounding foyers the 'white' and the other areas, dressing rooms and services, forming the protective shell. This shape was to prove problematic for the acoustics of the hall as most auditoriums presenting classical and chamber music conformed to a long, rectangular, 'shoe-box' design.

The final stages…
Many years of struggle were to follow in the construction of the Concert Hall, with industrial disputes, rising building costs and extra funding needed to create and install theatre designer John Truscott's spectacular interior designs and finishes.

A year before the opening of the Melbourne Concert Hall and three and a half years before the completion of the Victorian Arts Centre, Roy Grounds passed away.

Grounds' driving energy, resilience and commitment to his vision has changed the landscape of Melbourne and created a cultural and iconic precinct dedicated to the performing arts.

More than 40 years after it was first envisaged, Melbourne Concert Hall was officially opened by former Premier Rupert Hamer on 6 November 1982 with a gala celebration followed by a month of festivities.

Since its opening the Melbourne Concert Hall, which was renamed Hamer Hall on 21 April 2004 in honour of former Premier Sir Rupert Hamer, has staged some of the finest musicians and performers from across the world.

It has been home to Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra and Musica Viva. Opera stars Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, and Dame Kiri te Kanawa, guitarist, John Williams and many world orchestras have also performed on the stage.

Fireworks over the Arts Centre

Australia Day Fireworks over the Arts Centre