Shabby Town Hall leaves a sour note

Master painter Bill Van Didden says the Fremantle Town Hall is a real treasure, and hidden behind its old paintjob could be some real gems, but at the moment its looking so sad the Fremantle Chamber Orchestra says it can’t even play there. Photo by Steve Grant.

Councillors Marija Vujcic and Fedele Camarda get a tour of the hall with Hans Hug, John Dowson and Bill Van Didden; they weren’t impressed with its empty balcony.

THE master painter who did the last interior renovation of the Fremantle Town Hall says he’s shocked at its deterioration, while the founder of the city’s premier orchestra says it’s so poor they can no longer play there.

Bill Van Didden won a tender to restore the hall in 1986, with money flowing into Fremantle as it prepared to host the America’s Cup defence a year later.

But little has been done since.

The town hall’s balcony has been sealed off and its plush seating ripped out, while the air-conditioning no longer works and the kitchen isn’t usable.

Behind the stage curtain, wires dangle dangerously while only a handful of lights are left to illumate performers; Fremantle Chamber Orchestra founder Hans Hug says the council’s grand piano is so honky tonk his soloists had to bring their own before he finally gave up and started performing at John Curtin college.

The air-conditioning used to be connected to the council’s old admin building, but hasn’t been reconnected following the opening of the $46 million Walyalup Civic Centre.

Despite the front door being open, it’s sweaty inside as Mr Hug, Mr Van Didden and Fremantle Society president John Dowson take councillors Marija Vujcic and Fedele Camarda on a tour of the hall.

“And this is when it’s not a hot day and the hall is empty; can you imagine it with 290 people in the audience and the orchestra trying to play,” Mr Hug tells them.

Adding to the players’ discomfort, the hall’s lighting is incandescent so it heats them up and damages their instruments; the cellist wants them replaced with modern LED lighting. 

He’s also unhappy with the long closure of the balcony, saying it was popular with audiences who’d get a great view of the orchestra playing and could enjoy the hall’s excellent acoustics.

But more importantly, it means 278 fewer seats to fill with ticket-holders, particularly when internationally-renowned violinist Rudolf Koelman makes his annual pilgrimage to Fremantle to join them – usually in summer.

“It’s basically a halving of the capacity, and for those of us who live on ticket sales, that’s a huge impact,” Mr Hug says.

The hall’s off-stage lights no longer work so Mr Hug’s performers have to fossick around in the dark trying to light the stage – all the while worried about the exposed wiring. Junk from old shows and festivals has been dumped in a room they use for storing instrument cases when they’re performing.


Mr Hug says the stage lighting doesn’t have enough scope to spotlight soloists, making it hard for the orchestra to add to its YouTube and Spotify performances which have racked up more than 5 million hits. He says they also had to scrap a recording of a performance when they tried to use the hall’s wiring: “You could hear the rats gnawing through the wires.”

“We love the hall because it is so beautiful; we consider it home and would love to play here.”

Mr Van Didden said during the 1986 restoration, his team discovered some heritage gems behind the paintwork, such as stenciling and faux graining and decorations on the ceiling, and believes there might be more which could really bring the hall back to its original glory.

He says the 80s council was also short of cash and only about half the work that was needed got completed.

Mr Van Didden says there is some urgency in getting a new restoration underway, as WA was chronically short of people with the traditional skills to complete the job.

“You could count them on three fingers,” he said.

“It’s all a dying art, and people can’t afford to get it done these days.”

Cr Vujcic said the council was “giving away” car parks to developers, when it could be negotiating with them to make a contribution to heritage projects like the town hall.

She also wants the council to look at tapping local developers, business people and entrepreneurs to contribute to such projects, saying it could offer naming rights or other incentives. 

City of Fremantle infrastructure director Graham Tattersall said works were in the pipeline, but it would depend on budget availability.

He said a project working group was analysing spaces and opportunities “with a view to developing options” for the most effective use of the hall.

“The City’s facilities management team manages the safety and operation of the City’s buildings, this includes a regular program of inspections and testing in line with our obligations and legislative requirements,” Mr Tattersall said.

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