LATE last year, when Newcastle City Council announced it was moving its administration centre from Civic to Newcastle West, it was undecided whether the council chambers would move to the new building also, or whether the council would continue to meet at the historic Newcastle City Hall.
Last week, however, the council resolved to hold its meetings at Newcastle West once the new premises are ready, and attention is already turning to the future of the 1929 landmark once it’s no longer needed for council meetings. Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes has pledged that City Hall will remain in council hands, which is to be applauded. Cr Nelmes has also suggested – among other options – that it could be used as either a wing of, or a replacement for, the art gallery across Civic Park in Laman Street.
While the idea of City Hall as an art gallery might have a superficial attraction – the same could be said of an earlier suggestion by her predecessor, Jeff McCloy, in relation to the empty Hunter Street post office – it would be easier to accept if the building was to be left truly vacant once the council moves west. But it won’t be. Council meetings only take up one room of a very substantial three-storey pile, and the building already hosts an impressively wide variety of functions and events.
Despite the inconvenience of the restoration work, the council says City Hall hosted more than 340 events last year, attended by more than 25,000 people: enough, apparently, for it to be considered a break-even proposition.
In Newcastle as in other Australian centres, City Hall serves as a meeting place, a gathering ground for a range of purposes, from small meetings and seminars through to lunches and dinners, concerts and eisteddfods, exhibitions and – as anyone who has driven past at the right time of year will attest – increasingly flamboyant high school formals. Once its substantial, $17-million restoration project is out of the way, City Hall will likely be in even greater demand.
A working party that Cr Nelmes has announced will no doubt take all of this into consideration. The art gallery’s desire for further space does, of course, remain, and on that note, it’s worth remembering that both the Frederick Ash building and the roundhouse will be empty after the move. Maybe the Fred Ash would make a good gallery space?