While in the USA town hall is a generic term for 'local government', in Australia it refers to a building used for civic functions. Traditionally, Melbourne's town halls were the focal point for the municipality, providing public meeting spaces, council chambers and, often, libraries and municipal offices.
Melbourne's older suburbs tend to have the most ornate town hall buildings, the most notable of which is the Melbourne Town Hall, completed in 1870. The Prahran Town Hall, opened in March 1861, was one of Melbourne's earliest. The subject of heated community debate on every point, from its siting on the corner of Chapel and Greville streets to its Italianate design, the hall designed by Crouch & Wilson housed one of the city's first free public libraries. Richmond opened its town hall in Bridge Road in 1865. Emerald Hill (later South Melbourne), proclaimed a town in 1872, later engaged leading 19th-century architect Charles Webb to design a classical-style town hall featuring a grand Corinthian portico for the Bank Street site previously occupied by the Protestant orphanage. The neighbouring suburb of Port Melbourne built its town hall on Bay Street in 1869.
When Fitzroy separated from the Melbourne City Council, the new council chose to use the Market Square site in Napier Street for its town hall. Opening in 1874, the initial building, classical in style, was designed by W.L. Ellis. A library and municipal buildings, designed by the prolific municipal architect George R. Johnson, were added three years later. The ornate Collingwood Town Hall, which opened in 1887, is a fine example of 19th-century boom-time classicism. Situated on busy Hoddle Street, it was designed by George R. Johnson, who also designed town halls for Northcote and North Melbourne.
The tradition of building substantial municipal buildings survived the collapse of the land boom. Proclaimed a town in 1890, Northcote located its new town hall in its commercial centre on High Street. Dandenong's grandiose town hall, featuring a large clock tower, was completed in the same year, situated on Dandenong Road in the centre of town. Other noteworthy town halls are located in Preston (High Street), Hawthorn (Glenferrie Road), Box Hill (Maroondah Highway), Williamstown (Ferguson Street) and Moorabbin (Nepean Highway).
For most of the 20th century the local town hall served a range of functions. The seat of municipal government, it hosted council and public meetings, mayoral balls and other civic functions. In the absence of other facilities, it could also serve as a cinema or school assembly hall and provide a venue for local concerts, dances, theatrical performances, community singing and vaccination sessions. Although many of the original municipalities have disappeared through amalgamations, town halls - many refurbished for purposes as varied as function centres, performance spaces and tertiary institutions - continue to serve as the symbolic centre of their local area.