Getting behind Our Hall
by SANDI MILLER
9th March 2020
NOT MANY people are aware that the Mechanics’ Institute Hall is a true community asset, it belongs to anyone, and everyone, lucky enough to live within a two-mile radius of the Hall.
And it is up to us all to give “our hall” the care it has provided to the community over the years.
While the Warrandyte Mechanics’ Institute is more than 140 years old, the current Mechanics’ Institute Hall is coming up on 95 years.
A recent grant from Warrandyte Community Bank for ongoing renovations continues a long history of community love for our little green hall.
A board of trustees was established in 1878, and the trustees were given the original schoolhouse in Forbes Street for use as a Mechanics’ Institute for the nominal sum of £1.
The next decade saw a concerted effort to construct a new building.
A meeting in July 1890 saw that good progress had been made to establish a building fund, having raised some £23 5s 9d towards a new building.
In December of that year the new building had passed inspection by the Board of Health and was ready for operation.
The Mechanics’ Institutes Hall opened on December 19, 1890 at the North West corner of Yarra Street and Web Street, on the site of what is now Rush and Hampshire Lawyers.
In 1925, they began fundraising for a new hall as the old hall was considered too small for the community’s needs.
The current hall was built on the site of the Warrandyte Hotel, which burned down in April, 1925.
A public meeting was held in the new hall to approve a set of rules and regulations and granting membership of the Institute to those residents over 21 years who lived “for not less than three months within a two-mile radius”.
The hall was immediately put to use with the first wedding taking place on December 8, 1928 between Alice (Pap) Schneider, the town’s first telephonist, and stonemason George Stringer.
The new hall also became the regular venue for the school’s Fancy Dress Ball and the Lilac Time Ball from 1930 until 1954.
There was an annual New Year’s Eve dance with locals gathering in the hall until midnight, then dancing along behind a Scottish pipe band to the bridge to ring in the new year — some years the young lads would let off a stick of gelignite to welcome in the new year with a bang.
Following WWII there were also regular Debutant Balls.
Moving pictures came to Warrandyte and were shown at the Mechanics’ Hall on Friday nights, providing a regular source of entertainment for the townsfolk.
One local remembers it cost ninepence to enter, however she only earned threepence delivering milk, so she saved her money for a month to go to the pictures, with threepence left over for an ice cream.
Then came Friday, January 13, 1939, and the disastrous Black Friday bushfires.
The fires destroyed some 160 homes — with all three churches, the post office, both cricket pavilions and the South Warrandyte Hall all falling to the flames.
The Mechanics’ became a Relief Centre for the community, which operated for some months, providing assistance to those in need.
On February 4, 1939 a dance was held at the Hall to raise money for the Lord Mayor’s Bushfire Fund.
Organised by Miss Renton and Miss Wagner (Popsy Bone) the dance raised £11 15s 6d for the cause.
Then WWII struck and the hall was the scene of some very emotional farewells to the departing troops, many whom never returned.
For the next six years, the Hall was host to many patriotic events to raise money for the war effort.
During this time, Warrandyte was given a fire fighting truck, and a fire station was constructed at the rear of the hall to house it.
The Fire Brigade leased the land from the hall for a rental of one shilling per year and a building was constructed with stone quarried from Whipstick Gully.
The shed was built in 1944 by George Stringer at a cost of £67.
During the 1962 fires the Hall was again used as a Bushfire Relief Centre.
In 1956, the Warrandyte Arts Association (WAA) was formed, and became an important tenant for the Hall.
Consisting of Craft, Drama, Musical, Paining and Pottery Groups, the main focus of the Association’s activities were classes for children.
The Arts Association was born as a result of a public meeting in November 1955 and the various groups emerged over the following months.
Not only could local people participate in the various groups, but professional musicians, for example, were brought out to perform in the Hall.
During the 50s and 60s the Mechanics’ Institute committee of management faced a constant battle to maintain the hall.
With a lack of film screenings, and lack of attendance at dances, the committee considered selling the land to developers and build a new hall at the Recreation Reserve.
Several meetings were held over the years to consider options, and at one well attended meeting in 1973 the members voted to stop negotiations on the sale of the hall.
While an important turning point for the hall, it did nothing to improve the financial position of the Institute.
WAA members maintained the building through fundraising, sale of debentures, loans from committee members, hours of voluntary labour and, above all, the drive to maintain the Hall.
At a public meeting in 1986, WAA was given the go-ahead to take over the full responsibility of the Hall and a new, incorporated association — the Warrandyte Mechanics’ Institute and Arts Association — was born.
Grandiose plans for extension as a fully-fledged theatre with foyer, exhibition space, storage et cetera were not fulfilled.
However, the association has devoted hours of work and thousands of dollars raised from theatrical productions, especially the annual Festival Follies, exhibitions and sales to undertake major refurbishment and purchase of equipment.
Major renovations began in 1991 and included, re-stumping, re-plastering and lining, insulation, internal and external painting and electrical work, installation of ducted heating, purchase of a new piano and lighting equipment.
This involved a huge investment of money and countless working bees and fund-raising concerts by members.
The renovations continued into the 21st century with the purchase of a new sound board, new tables, new chairs, new stage curtain, refurbishment of the committee room with cupboards, benches and flooring, installation of air conditioning, re-roofing and external painting and the creation of a garden with ramp access depicting the activities of the association through mosaics and dedicated to the memory of an outstanding volunteer.
More additions and improvements include the sealing of the rear car park, a professional building check for asbestos and some resulting modifications, purchase of additional theatre lighting, digital equipment and a motorised screen, as well as replacement of the rear stage doors and improved access in general.
President of the WMIAA, David Tynan, told the Diary that the Association has found funds largely from its theatre productions and from hiring the hall for community events.
“However, large expenses, such as improving the toilets, preventing the regular flood damage and major rotting of wooden structures in our buildings are beyond our modest budget.
“We have been very lucky to have forged an excellent relationship with the Warrandyte Community Bank, which has meant that we have been able to secure grant funding to refurbish the toilets and foyer area, and recently we have completed a major overhaul of our drainage so that future floods do not impact the buildings as severely as they have in the past,” he said.
Additional improvements are made each year, such as the installation of a toilet in the pottery studio, improved theatrical lighting and digital sound and light equipment, a rear deck and termite prevention work.
To date, the Bank has contributed almost $120,000 towards maintenance and refurbishment of the Hall.
This includes a recent contribution of $32,000 toward current essential renovations.
“As custodians of the hall, we are conscious of our responsibility to maintain this historic building for future generations of Warrandyte residents, and we deeply appreciate the support of the Warrandyte Community Bank in completing this work,” David said.
He said that grants that come from the Bank “feel like support from our community”.
“The strength of the bank comes from our community’s investment in it, and the breadth and size of the Bendigo Bank Community grant schemes are what helps the local community groups to continue to thrive,” he said.
Direct assistance to the WMAII is also always appreciated, in the form of donations, labour, membership, or attending one of the many events the WMIAA holds each year.
Bruce Bence, Celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the first Warrandyte Mechanics Institute Hall.
Mechanics’ Institute of Victoria