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Centenary of Oakleigh Mechanics' Institute

27 September 2006

Monash Mayor Joy Banerji toady unveiled a plaque commemorating one of the City's most historic buildings - the 100-year-old Oakleigh Mechanics' Institute.

The building has been a Council chamber, a Civic Centre, a picture theatre, a concert hall, a ballroom, a drill hall during World War I and an army control centre during World War I

In February 1906, Frank Madden MLA for what was then Boorondara, laid a commemorative stone for the building.

The current building is the second Mechanics' Institute on the site. The first, built the in 1886, was burnt down in 1905. That initial building was described by the press as "an ornament and credit to the town as well as a place of instruction for residents". This in fact was the purpose of an Institute to provide an adult education centre, in the form of a library service. It was also a venue for lively debates, particularly around the time of Federation.

The second Institute was designed in the Italian-renaissance style and was constructed of local bricks and opened in July 1906. One of the first tenants was Oakleigh Masonic Lodge, which had its own lodge room upstairs.

In 1906 the Borough of Oakleigh moved its Council chamber into the Mechanics' Institute and remained until it could afford its own chamber, built in Atherton Road in 1921. (This is now the Monash Training Centre) The town clerk was here too and he brought with him his office, rate books and a horse-drawn road roller.

Numerous committees, lodges, political parties, a school, a church, successive Oakleigh bands, sporting clubs, societies and groups have met in, or been tenants of, the Mechanics' Institute.

Vaudeville shows, the first movies screened at Oakleigh, school performances, mayoral balls, dances and concerts of all types, have entertained citizens for generations.

Cr Banerji said the Mechanics' Institute had been significant to the social, cultural, civic, and sporting life of Oakleigh.

"It was however especially important during the world wars," she said. "Patriotic committees, rallies, rousing troop farewells and emotional welcome-home ceremonies were all conducted within its walls.

"Perhaps its most significant role came in 1928 when the Institute was vested in the City of Oakleigh and was declared as its Town Hall, thereafter performing an important function as the former City's civic centre. Many of Oakleigh's official functions have been hosted here including the celebratory dinner to mark the declaration of the City, in 1927."

A proviso of municipalisation of the Mechanics' Institute was that Council maintain a library function which it did until the 1960s when a public library opened in the adjacent building. The building continued to serve the City for decades but in the1970s its capacity to cope with the demands of a growing municipality, was tested. There was a proposal to demolish the Mechanics and rebuild but there was a public outcry and the idea abandoned.

It was then partly refurbished and its terracotta roof replaced with iron. It was not until the 1990s that a more sympathetic renovation for the much-loved hall was arranged, returning to it a sense of its heritage.

"This building is one of the City of Monash's most significant in terms of its place in our history," Cr Banerji said.

The new plaque reads:

Mechanics Institute of Victoria inc. (MIV)

Oakleigh Mechanics' Institute
First built on this site in 1886

The Mechanics' Institute movement began in British urban industrial centres in the early 1800s. A "mechanic" was a person applying skills and technology. During the 19th century, most towns in Victoria established a Mechanics' Institute or Athenaeum with library and meeting hall. Common objects were the "spread of useful knowledge" and provision for "rational recreation" in the community.

This plaque, No 18 in the MIV series, was placed in 2006 to commemorate the centenary of the rebuilding of the Oakleigh Mechanics' Institute and to record its educational, social, cultural and municipal importance to the community including service as Oakleigh Town Hall.

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Published: 27 September 2006

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