City marks 90th birthdays of Civic jewels

11 Dec 2019

This year City of Newcastle led the charge to a new, more accessible CBD by relocating to a modern office block in the West End.

Ninety years ago this week it blazed a similar trail, opening City Hall and the Civic Theatre upon completion of a twin £300,000 development dubbed “Civic Block”.

Council had by then outgrown a small Watt Street premises, which previously served as military offices during the days of the penal-colony, and moved west in parallel with large-scale industrial expansion.

Builders put the finishing touches on Civic Theatre as work progressed on City Hall's clocktower.

“Today we’re celebrating the 90th birthdays of two jewels in the City’s architectural crown in Civic Theatre and City Hall,” Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said from Wheeler Place, a newly opened street back in 1929 between Hunter and King.

“Ninety years ago a great weeklong celebration kicked off in Newcastle to mark a development that shaped the City’s Civic Precinct. As well as the two grand openings, bands played for the community in King Edward Park, other entertainment featured a soccer tournament, competitive woodchop, surf carnival and aerial pageant at District Park, while a new floating dock was launched on the harbour.

“It’s hard to imagine those days of British pomp and pageantry, but the sense of civic pride associated with the two openings, and their city-making significance, leaps off the pages of news reports from that week.

City of Newcastle Manager Civic Services Manager with Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes and Manager Civic Theatre Leonie Wallace cutting the 90th birthday cake.
The centrepiece of the “Civic Week” festivities was the theatre opening on the night of Thursday 12 December and City Hall two days later by NSW’s British Governor Sir Dudley de Chair, who arrived resplendent in white admiralty regalia.

“I congratulate you all upon your enterprise and achievement in the erection of this magnificent and spacious Town Hall, which is to play so important a part in the lives of the people of your city,” said the Governor in his speech on City Hall’s steps Saturday afternoon.

“This great building cannot but have an elevating and inspiring influence in every branch of life and labor in your city, and its erection will always stand as a monument to the foresight, public spiritedness and progressive ideals of your civic councillors.”

City Hall under construction.
Memorial lights dedicated to the founder of the Civic Block, Alderman Morris Light, were unveiled outside Town Hall, as were portraits of the City’s first Mayor, James Hannell.

The Civic Theatre, described by the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate as one of the “finest theatres in the Commonwealth”, was “a scene of magnificence” for the Thursday night opening, as guests gathered to enjoy entertainment on a cutting-edge movie screen.

The great racehorse Phar Lap featured in a screening of that year’s Melbourne Cup followed by a recorded oration from then-Prime Minister James Scullin and the romantic drama Behind That Curtain, the “most thrilling Talkie Ever Made” according to the official opening night program.

It was like “a palace in a book of fairy tales”, dutifully reported the local newspaper, filled with “a happy, well-dressed crowd, representatives of every form of Newcastle endeavour” who “witnessed the opening of a theatre glowing with soft lights exquisitely blended, revealing each beautiful feature.”

Civic Theatre under construction.

Notable billings in the Civic Theatre’s long history include The Robe in 1954, the first film shot in widescreen Cinemascope; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats The Musical in 1989, legendary British rock band Oasis in 2002 and local rock gods Silverchair in 2003.

The Civic Theatre is still the hub of live performance in Newcastle and tomorrow’s anniversary evening will double as the 2020 season launch, now an annual event.

Pages from a souvenir brochure printed for Civic Theatre's opening.