Surely the most widely known fact about Wilson Hall is that the original building burnt down on 25 January 1952 – some 58 years and two months ago.
Wilson Hall is named for pastoralist Samuel Wilson (later Sir Samuel Wilson) who in 1874 donated ₤30 000 to the University. Thanks to the growth of the secondary education system in Victoria, the University saw an increasing number of students seek entry and required a space in which to hold examinations and graduations.
When Samuel Wilson made the bequest, he wrote in a letter to then Chancellor Redmond Barry “The true greatness of every country consists chiefly in the right use of the cultivated intellects of its gifted sons” and he felt that after 23 years living in Australia, it was time to give something back.
At the end of 1875 Architect Joseph Reed of Reed and Barnes Architects was appointed to design a hall in the Tudor Perpendicular style, with pointed arches, built of Hawkesbury Sandstone and Oamaru limestone for the inside.
It took four years to build the original Wilson hall, from 1878-1882, with the first examinations held inside that year.
The Hall was not used strictly for examinations and graduations though. In 1884 it served as a drill hall for the University Militia corps, and the Sports Union used the space for boxing matches.
Stained glass windows also featured in the original hall, with Mr Edward Stevens presenting the great window in 1928, and John E Leckie the window named after him in 1935. The Leckie window was the only one to survive the fire and is now a central feature of theUniversity’s Ian Potter Museum of Art.
After the fire, the University saw the opportunity to build a hew hall and from 1952- 56, the new Wilson Hall, called the ” the crowning jewel of Australian Featurism” by architect and critic Robin Boyd was built after much public controversy.
The most prominent and well-known of the artworks that grace the current Wilson Hall is the mural on the wall behind the stage. Titled “A Search for Truth” it was designed by artist Douglas Annand depicts a male nude reaching for the sky, symbolising humanity freeing itself from chaos, reaching towards the sun, to truth and enlightenment.
The new Wilson Hall holds true to the purpose of its predecessor and is used for examinations and graduations and many other University events – though not as a drill hall or location for boxing matches. An exhibition about Wilson Hall opened at the Baillieu last week, see here for further information.