In the midst of restoration work in preparation for the University’s centenary celebrations, the roof timbers of Wilson Hall caught fire on a hot, gusty mid-summer afternoon on 25 January 1952.
There was little that could be done to halt the spectacular blaze. As thousands gathered to watch, the University’s dominant landmark, together with some of its records and artworks stored in the basement, and the recently-installed memorial window to honour Melbourne women graduates, burned beyond repair.
A rebuilding appeal raised £96,733 but the Government made no contribution. The initial decision was to build a replica but cost and a prevailing enthusiasm for modernity overwhelmed those who felt a degree might lack substance were it not conferred in a Gothic-revival style structure. The design sought from Bates, Smart and McCutcheon was modern, though not quite modern enough for Melbourne’s self-appointed arbiters of architectural taste Robin Boyd and Roy Grounds. The new Wilson Hall opened in 1956.
Its 'confident modernism contradicted by its featurism', it was a building of its time that effectively proclaimed a new national academic independence from the 'old world'.
The loss of Wilson Hall caused the postponement of the Centenary Celebrations until 1956 when the new Hall was completed. The Centenary Appeal was launched in 1955 and combined with a broad program of opening the University to the public gaze raised over half a million pounds.