The completion of Lighthouse Theatre marks the beginning of a new and exciting era for performing arts in Warrnambool.
The $9.3 million redevelopment has injected new life into the heart of the CBD and secured the cultural vitality of the city for decades to come.
It is one of the biggest of several transformations the building has undergone since its original inception as the Warrnambool Town Hall in 1891.
The site on the corner of Timor and Liebig Streets was reserved for a town hall and municipal offices in 1870, but it wasn’t until the boom years of the late 1880s that the plans were finally set in motion.
The Council of the time staged a competition offering a prize of 50 pounds for the best design of a town hall and adjoining offices.
Fourteen designs were submitted and those of Melbourne architect A. H. Cutler were declared the winner.
The original plan was modified to include only the hall, which was completed in 1891 at a cost of £7129/11/10, with the municipal chambers and offices added in 1924.
As well as providing more room for Council meetings and staff needs, the Town Hall regularly played host to community events and a wide variety of theatrical and musical entertainment.
Performances were also staged in the city’s orderly room and drill hall which resulted in competition for takings from public hiring and a long-running dispute between the Defence Department and Council of the time.
The department insisted its hall was licensed to stage theatrical performances but Council argued the department did not pay rates and aside from poultry shows, the drill hall should only be used for military purposes.
Council unsuccessfully petitioned the Government to withdraw the theatrical licence before a more popular counter petition urging the licence not be withdrawn.
As the years rolled on, Warrnambool’s population grew, and so too did the audience at Town Hall shows, including a sell-out performance by Dame Nellie Melba on March 22, 1927.
But by the mid-1960s the building was deteriorating, the municipal offices were overcrowded and the art gallery was closed to make room for Council staff.
The city’s solution was to redevelop the Town Hall site into a spacious and modern civic centre to house Council offices, a library, art gallery and theatre.
The project began in 1968 and took three architects, eight years and $1.6 million to complete.
But budget cut backs resulted in the omission of a third floor, intended to house a theatre and art gallery, leaving the Council to search for another home for the performing arts.
A committee formed in 1976 to find alternative sites for a dedicated theatre and performing arts centre.
It considered nearly 20 locations across the city before the Town Hall was declared unsafe in October 1977, increasing the urgency to decide whether to demolish the building or undertake expensive renovations.
Several alternative sites were given serious consideration including Cannon Hill and the former art gallery on the corner of Timor and Kepler Streets, which sparked debate within Council and throughout the community.
The final decision was ultimately that of the State Government, which promised $1-million for an arts complex incorporating the Town Hall.
After a series of delays including revelations the hall’s ornate plaster ceiling would be too expensive to repair, the $2.2-million Warrnambool Regional Performing Arts Centre was finally opened in March 1983.
For the first time in the city’s history, Warrnambool had a dedicated home for the performing arts which would weave its way into the fabric of the community in the years and decades to come.
The next major change came in 2003 when the complex was renamed the Warrnambool Entertainment Centre.
But in a case of history repeating, by the end of the decade the community had outgrown the facility and so Warrnambool City Council, after several years of planning again embarked on an ambitious renewal project.
The latest redevelopment designed by Williams Ross Architects has brought the building into the 21st Century, with improved access, amenities and theatre technology, a versatile boutique performance space for grassroots theatre and a contemporary glass façade which has redefined the face of Warrnambool’s cultural precinct.
Source – By These We Flourish, by P.L Yule and C. E Sayers