Melbourne Mechanics Institution, Collins St near Swanston St.
Next to the Melbourne Town Hall in Collins Street is the original site of the Mechanics Institution. This is one where a little bit of imagination is required. The Melbourne Mechanics Institution was established in 1839 with the police magistrate and later sub-treasurer William Lonsdale as its first President and the Superintendent of Port Phillip, Charles La Trobe as its first Patron. Willis himself does not seem to have had anything to do with it, which is a little surprising. In a nascent civic community, as early Port Phillip was, this is precisely the sort of organization in which a resident Judge could express his philanthropy and civic presence. As it was, many of the men who were to become his vocal opponents were involved, and perhaps this explains his distance?
The building now on the site is the much-loved Atheneum theatre and library.
Edmund Finn (writing as Garryowen) describes the original building:
The edifice, early in 1843, was occupied by the members. It was a substantial two-story brick building, some feet from and above the street level. It was reached by several steps, and during the winter season the footway and street approaches were in a terrible state of mud and puddle. Yet in those primitive times the progress of the erection was regarded with much interest, and not only the people, but the newspapers actually felt a pride in it as one of the coming constructive wonders of the Antipodes. One of the later thus gushingly referred to it: “The Hall of Arts is nearly complete, and will be ready for occupation in the course of a few days; the size, arrangements, and architectural proportions of the building will make it, when finished, the noblest edifice in the Province.” On the ground-floor were the Library and Reading-room, and for years the Town Clerk had his official quarters in another portion of the building. The meeting place for the Town Council was upstairs in the large room. This larger apartment or “hall” as it used to be grandiloquently styled, was one of the most historical places in Early Melbourne, for here were held some of the most important gatherings in Port Phillip- social, charitable, and political.
You can see a picture of the original Mechanics Institution here.
There’s plenty more information on the website of the Melbourne Athenaeum Archives– well worth a look!
I love the Atheneum theatre and library. But it is interesting that with special patronage, the city building turned out to be cultured, elegant and large. Most mechanics’ institutes were small, rural and functional.
Yes- it is very grand for such an early building. No wonder they were proud of it.
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