Interpreting Wodonga’s Urban Heritage

From Canoes and Trains to Cattle and Coal Dust: Interpreting the history of urban Wodonga.

In this project, Wodonga City Council employed me to find six ‘stories’ interpreting key themes in the history of urban Wodonga, and to convert these stories into panel text matched with historical images. The themes included: Aboriginal history (the story of Wodonga’s Aboriginal postman, Yarre, who plied the Murray’s floodwaters by canoe in the 1840s), water supply infrastructure (from Wodonga’s Water Tower to the celebrated construction of Lake Hume — a dam 2 1/2 times the size of Sydney Harbour), Wodonga’s former sale yards (once among the largest in Australia, far-famed among cattlemen and drovers across the land), and of course the railway (Wodonga was the site of the notorious ‘break in the gauge’, and its line carried beloved trained such as the deluxe ‘Spirit of Progress’ and Australia’s Mightiest Engine, ‘Heavy Harry’.)

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The project was challenging in that some of the sites to be interpreted, such as the Wodonga sale yards, have little-to-no physical historic fabric remaining, and could only be interpreted with the help of suitably located historic photographs.

The first of the interpretive panels were mounted in Richardson Park in September 2019, with more to come.

The project ended up with more interpretive ideas than were required, and some were ultimately put aside, such as this concept (below), interpreting the comparatively recent history of Wodonga Plaza:

Wodonga Plaza — A Theatre of Retail

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In 1980, Wodonga shoppers had their first taste of a new suburban pastime, as they flooded into Wodonga’s first ‘shopping centre’. Built by the Myer Emporium, Wodonga Plaza replaced the old Wodonga sale yards with seven speciality shops surrounding the discount department store Target.

The idea of a fully enclosed shopping complex was pioneered in 1950s America. Myer Emporium quickly adopted the concept, opening Melbourne’s first self-contained regional shopping centre, Chadstone, in 1960. Wodonga Plaza, along with its up-market sister development ‘Myer Centrepoint’ in Albury, were emblematic of Myer’s desire to bring its ‘theatre of retail’ to regional Australia.

The Plaza’s spacious architecture and extensive use of glass and mirrors, created a sense of abundance, while its disorienting floor-plan lulled shoppers into passing as many shops as possible. In 1972, ‘Friday late night shopping’ had changed shoppers’ habits. At the Plaza, artificial lighting was blended seamlessly with natural light to extend daylight hours, prolonging the shopping experience. 

In 1987, Wodonga Plaza was enlarged with a supermarket and more than 30 speciality shops; which grew to two supermarkets and 49 shops in 1995. The Plaza had reinvented shopping in Wodonga as a recreational experience for the masses.