Yarrawonga has been a prominent riverside community in Northern Victoria for well over a century. The township was first surveyed in 1868 by government surveyor Henry Grimes. The early survey included sections 1-4 of the subsequent town planning scheme and includes the main part of the Town Centre Heritage precinct (south of Witt Street and north of Orr Street.). During the1880s, brick structures began to replace timber structures and the boom times of the 1880s saw many buildings begin to line Belmore Street. This growth consolidated through the harsher years of the 1890s.
The township’s prominence was initially due to the river crossing on the mighty Murray River. In 1886 the Railway reached Yarrawonga – a branch line from Benalla that linked the township to the state capital Melbourne. By 1903 it boasted a population of 1500 residents and supported a variety of industries.
But what may be forgotten is the history of Paddle steamers and barges passing through the ‘port’ of Yarrawonga in the late 19th century – carrying cargos of wheat, wool, timber and general merchandise between Echuca and Wodonga, right through to the mouth of the Murray at Goolwa in South Australia, then by train to the waiting ships and early steamers anchored at Victor Harbour. The Building of the Yarrawonga Weir in 1939 meant the end of the river trade and its boats and barges, but there are now still restored river boats plying Lake Mulwala for the tourist trade.
By this stage, Yarrawonga was a firmly established rural centre with wonderful old buildings and a broad avenue as its main thoroughfare – Belmore Street. Complete with statuesque tall palm trees. Buildings included the Shire Offices (1896), the State Savings Bank of Victoria (1912), the Post Office (1904), the Athenaeum Hall (1885) and the Shire Town Hall (1930).
Of course much of the decorative trappings have disappeared over the last fifty 50 years – the Kurrajong trees, the Palm trees, the chain and stone surrounds of the central roundabout. But the magnificent Yarrawonga Shire Hall still stands with its distinctive Art Deco theming.
‘The new shire hall was begun in 1929 and completed in 1930. With the rapid growth of Yarrawonga’s population in the interwar period, with both expanding agricultural production and the construction works associated with the weir, the hall answered a longstanding demand for expanded municipal offices for the Shire of Yarrawonga. The architects commissioned for the work were Harrison; Glaskin of Albury. The builder was J. Keith, whose tendered cost was £14,875. The hall was part of a large program of municipal works, including the sealing of roads and drain construction that occurred around this time.The Inter-War Free Classical style has a courageous weaving of Art Deco decorative themes into the detailing. Essentially composed of individual symmetrical elevations, it has a strong asymmetrical form, emphasised by the unusual roof outline. The subtle cement rendered classical modelling on the Belmore Street façade has giant order Corinthian columns in-antis either side of the recessed entrance and a tall corner tower addressing the intersection of Belmore and Orr Streets. The building is also a very important architectural landmark in Belmore Street. It is the largest building in the street. The bold corner tower, unusual roof form and superb architectural details create variety and delight in the streetscape. The building is also a very important architectural landmark in Belmore Street. It is the largest building in the street. The bold corner tower, unusual roof form and superb architectural details create variety and delight in the streetscape.’ – Moira Shire Stage Two Heritage Study 2007.
In its own way, the former Shire Hall building (Yarrawonga now forms part of an expanded Moira Shire.) flows comfortably with the existing heritage architecture already mentioned.
Now we reach the present. The Yarrawonga Community Hall constructed in the 1950s is scheduled to be demolished. The current plan of the Moira Shire is to replace it with a new building, its purpose to have a new library and performance precinct.
The current design and plan for this new facility is quite simply inappropriate and incongruous to the current streetscape and the magnificent Shire Town Hall itself. It shows a complete determination to inject a modernist style building into what is essentially a late 19th century to early 20th century streetscape. It demonstrates absolutely no sympathy with or to the architectural style. It is in fact somewhat gimmicky and bizarre, spelling out the words ‘LIBRARY’ and ‘YARRAWONGA’ for those who perhaps have no idea where they are!
The new design is at best neutral, however in terms of the history, the former stunning streetscape has been quietly removed over time – it is a design entirely lacking in empathy for the Yarrawonga Heritage precinct. It pays no homage to the clever, intricate Art Nouveau design of the existing Yarrawonga Shire Town Hall, it ignores the streetscape of the late 19th century buildings and early 20th century pre and mid war architecture. It simply does not blend with, or compliment the present architecture.
With the prospect of losing their Community Hall as well as the pre-school centre already demolished, it is time for the Moira Shire to pay heed to the expectations and wishes of the local community. The current plan and design simply do not recognise the Heritage values of the Yarrawonga precinct, its history and its potential future role in honouring that Heritage. Consideration must be given to formulating a more considered design that melds with the current Town Hall/Shire Hall building and the immediate surrounds.