Storey Hall, RMIT Building 16

342 Swanston Street, Melbourne

Storey Hall exterior

Storey Hall exterior, 1994. Photo by John Gollings.

Fast facts

Significance

The 19th century section of the building is on the Register of the National Estate, and the Government Buildings Register of the Heritage Council. It is classified by the National Trust and designated a 'notable building' in the Melbourne City Council planning scheme.

After major refurbishment in 1994 and a new extension on the adjoining site, the Royal Australian Institute of Architects judged RMIT Storey Hall 'of architectural significance'. The building received several awards and commendations in 1996-97 including the RAIA National Architecture Award (Interior Award), Victorian Architecture Medal, William Wardell Award (Institutional) and Marion Mahony Award (Interior Category).

Construction dates

Original building construction permit dated 16 September 1884; completed and opened 1887 by the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society. Architect: Tappin, Gilbert and Dennehy. Builder: O'Dea and Kennedy of Palmerston Street, Carlton.

Refurbished building: new annexe and renovations to original building were carried out in 1994-95 at a cost of $13.9 million. Architects: Ashton Raggatt McDougall (the partners of the practice are RMIT graduates).

↑ page menu

Storey Hall Auditorium interior

Storey Hall auditorium interior, 1994. Photo by John Gollings.

What to see

Swanston Street facade

Storey Hall is a sandstone-faced load-bearing brick building. The front facade's classical design is dominated by the Corinthian columns set on a high base of Malmsbury bluestone. The National Trust citation says the “overall design is complicated by the use of coupled columns and elaborate temple windows in the Ionic order, on the first floor and the crowded quoin work on the pedestals which run through the ground floor... The most impressive example of the several halls erected by friendly benefit societies in 19th century Melbourne.”

Basement

To the left of the main entrance, steps lead down to First Site, the RMIT Union student gallery. The basement is notable for its original fireproof ceiling of concrete and corrugated metal.

Foyer and gallery

At the main entrance to the original building, bluestone steps lead up from Swanston Street to the RMIT Gallery, a professional exhibition space.

The new wing

Enter through the new glass door. Down the internal stairs is the 230 seat lecture theatre. Upstairs are a reception area and the main hall, capable of seating up to 750 people. The main hall combines classical and cutting-edge modern architecture into a vibrant and attractive whole. The shapes and spaces you see in Storey Hall were inspired partly by 'chaos' mathematics, particularly fractal geometry.

↑ page menu

Storey Hall facade

Storey Hall facade, looking north along Swanston Street from La Trobe Street. Photo by MLRuwoldt.

History of the building

Storey Hall today has an appearance and functions as excitingly diverse as its history. Built by the Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society as a meeting hall in 1887, the building was an important symbol of social and political protest. Storey Hall has today found new life as a major architectural site of the city, and as a significant contributor to the arts and exhibiting calendar. A glance at its past shows that Storey Hall has, throughout its long colourful history, been a part of the life of Melbourne.

RMIT's archives document some of the diverse activities—artistic, political and sporting—that took place in Storey Hall. In 1907 it was the site of an exhibition of works by Sir Arthur Streeton. Crowds also gathered in 1911 to witness Clarence Weber, representing Australia, wrestle Alex Bain of New Zealand to defeat in the shortest time on record. Storey Hall has been the venue suffrage rallies, St Patrick's Day marches, classical and rock concerts and—legend has it—a performance by Dame Nellie Melba. Today's powerful purple and green colours recall the hall's earlier life as a place for feminist debate and Catholic activism.

Storey Hall is significant as a symbol of the strength of the Irish Catholic community in late 19th century Victoria. When its construction was completed in 1887 it was an unusually large private hall by contemporary standards, more akin in size to municipal halls. Designed by Tappin, Gilbert and Dennehy, its size and grandeur were a deliberate response by Irish Catholics to their perceived marginalisation.

The original building was an elaborately detailed academic classical composition of monumental proportions. In its day it had few rivals. The Storey Hall facade has been retained almost exactly as it appeared in the 1880s. Then called 'Hibernian Hall', it played a significant role in the organisation of St Patrick's Day processions in Melbourne

The Hibernian Australasian Catholic Benefit Society had great difficulties paying for the construction of the building even before it was complete. In July 1885 the Advocate commented, "It is all very well to boast of having the second largest hall in Victoria, but the statement must be accompanied with the fact that it will be encumbered with the largest debt on any hall in Australia." At a meeting in Richmond in September 1887, it was suggested that all Irishmen in the colony make a contribution towards the payment of the loan, since the construction of the hall "allowed them to snap their fingers in the face of those who owned the Town Hall and other public halls."

↑ page menu

The building ceased to be the Hibernian Hall in 1903. For a time it was known as Guild Hall and Dureau Memorial Hall. Between 1904 and 1907 the building was occupied by the Central Zion Tabernacle; and from 1907, when owned by Messrs Gibbs and Bright, became known as 'Guild Hall' and was leased to Mr T Sangston, whose letterhead described him as a 'society entertainer'. That was the year in which the hall hosted an important exhibition of the works of Australian landscape artist Arthur Streeton. Streeton's exhibition in the Guild Hall yielded "an unprecedented profit of £2000".

In 1911 the building was the venue of the Wrestling Championship of Australasia. The contest between the Australian champion Clarence Weber and the New Zealand champion Alexander Bain was apparently the shortest on record, Weber gaining the first fall in 57 seconds and the second in 2 minutes 3 seconds.

At around this time the hall was also used as a cinema—but, according to the terms of the lease, only on Saturday nights.

During World War 1 the building was leased to a feminist pacifist organisation, the Women's Political Association, and was the venue for many of Melbourne's largest anti-conscription public meetings and rallies. The organisation's purple, white and green flag was hoisted on the roof of the building "as a symbol of the sisterhood of women", and the Ashton Raggatt McDougall renovation in the 1990s has retained the feminist colours. Storey Hall was the venue for RMIT's 1998 International Women's Day luncheon with guest speaker Professor Dale Spender; in 1999 the IWD luncheon here was addressed by first-class cricketer Melanie Jones.

In October 1916 the Woman Voter reported that "despite the large seating capacity of the building, thousands of people were turned away" from a debate between Adela Pankhurst (youngest member of the family of British suffragists and pacifists) and the Reverend Wyndham Heathcote.

In 1922 the building was purchased by the Eagle and Globe Steel Company of Sheffield to house its Melbourne operation and eventually several other tenants including Best's Great Western Wines (which used the cellar for storage) and a printing firm called Directoplate Lithographers.

Between 1946 and 1956 the building passed into the ownership of Melbourne Legacy. The sale price was £18,000. There were several plans to redesign the interior of the building to make it suitable for use by several legacy groups, but these works were never carried out. Melbourne Legacy sold the building to Bernard Evans, an architect who later became Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Evans originally had plans to renovate the building.

↑ page menu

RMIT's Correspondence Branch (External Studies) became a tenant in 1948, and the building was bought for the Melbourne Technical College (as RMIT was then called) by the Victorian Education Department in 1957.

During 1957-58 the Melbourne Technical College cleared all the rubbish and debris that had accumulated in the building and drafted plans for a refurbishment. The main hall was remodelled in 1958 and reopened as Storey Hall on 29 September 1959 by the then Governor of Victoria, Sir Dallas Brooks. The hall was renamed in honour of Sir John Storey, an industrialist and member of the College Council for fifteen years, and his son John Junior who, on his death at the age of twenty-one, was an engineering student at the college. Storey Hall is a fitting tribute to Sir John's work on behalf of technical education in Victoria.

Storey Hall has since been used for activities of the Student Union, degree conferring ceremonies, 3RRR live-to-air concerts, conferences, performances of the Melbourne Chorale, exhibitions and examinations. Until May 1990, when the upper hall was closed because of concerns about fire hazard and safety, the building was the main large-scale auditorium space available for RMIT staff and students.

↑ page menu