Brisbane City Hall

The main thing I learned from my tour of Brisbane City Hall is that if things hang around for a long time two things can happen: they start to stink, or they are framed and preserved in perpetuity. Or both.

Before the tour started, I took myself to The Shingle Inn for a cup of tea. The original Shingle Inn opened in 1936 in Edward St, and ran continuously until it was pulled out for the building of Queens Plaza shopping centre. It is a great example of the complete disregard Brisbane City Council has always had for its heritage. Objections were voiced about the demolition of The Shingle Inn, but the developers assured everyone that once construction was complete, they would put it back. But guess what happened? They didn’t.

Fortunately, the fittings were not destroyed, but stored in a warehouse, so during the renovation of City Hall, The Shingle Inn was partly reconstructed within the building. It does look the same, albeit smaller. The rotating cake display still sits in the centre but they no longer pass the freshly-made cakes up through a hole in the floor, and they don’t turn the sugar bowls forty-five degrees after they take your order like they used to, which is why a second person turned up to take mine. Fortunately they did bin the uniforms (complete with mop hat in an awful floral design). They still make an excellent cup of tea.

The tour began with an acknowledgement of country, paying respects to the Turrbal and Jagera people, the original owners of the land. We subsequently learned that City Hall stands on what was once a waterhole where these people used to meet to fish and swim. There was a drought on when the site for City Hall was chosen in 1914, which is why they thought it would be a good spot. An acknowledgment of the original inhabitants on top of where those people used to meet freely before being shunted out of the way (specifically across the river to the other side of the purposely-named Boundary Street) sat pretty uncomfortably.

We were then taken outside to view the stone carving that sits above the entrance. Known as the “tympanum”, it was carved by sculptor Daphne Mayo and is meant to depict the settlement of Queensland. So presumably someone wearing a toga held up their hands and lo! men clad in breeches and three-corner hats, and other naked men, brought horses, cows, guns and exotic plants and quite literally drove the original inhabitants onto the ground before them. To the left of the edifice, two Aboriginal men are seen lying on the ground, one under a shield, the other still clutching his shield and spear. A kangaroo and a koala are squished into the remaining space in the corner, looking distinctly uncomfortable. It’s really a pretty distressing scene. Our guide acknowledged that this was now seen as a regrettable depiction.

The whole of City Hall had to be closed down in 2010 when it was discovered that the foundations were disintegrating. Restoration ended up costing more than it would have to build a whole new building. I can’t help wondering if this wasn’t karma or just payback for the sheer folly of building on top of what was once a water course. Concrete cancer was diagnosed in the foundations, caused by the use of water from the Brisbane River to make the concrete; the water is salty and therefore apparently makes the concrete weaker.

(It’s probably lucky that this disintegration wasn’t discovered during the Joe Bjelke-Petersen era or city workers would have walked past an intact city hall on their way home, and returned in the morning to a pile of rubble and the sound of the Deen Brothers‘ truck rumbling away.)

When the floor of the main auditorium was dug up, they found the remains of the street that originally ran along there. The stones and the drain were lifted and now sit in one of the courtyards that serve as light-wells (and, before air-conditioning, to aid in cooling). You can walk on the stones, which still have the markings from horse’s hooves, but the drain is roped off. See? Hang around long enough…

Down in the basement, we were shown one of the supporting pillars where concrete cancer had eaten it away, preserved behind glass. Down a corridor and around a corner and there was a wall covered in graffiti. The old Red Cross centre leads on to this corridor and during the war it was where the servicemen collected their supplies. These supplies included pencils and they used to test them out by drawing on the wall. Presumably this wasn’t welcomed at the time, any more than someone taking out a pen or a can of spray paint and signing their name on one of the City Hall walls now, but because it’s now almost 80 years old and happened during war time, this section of wall sits behind glass.

At the top of the building a door has been mounted on the wall. It came from the Scottish house of Sir Thomas Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales, after whom the city was named, despite him never having set foot here. It was he who commanded the explorer John Oxley to set off up the river to find fresh water and the best place to establish a more punitive penal colony for those incorrigible convicts for whom Sydney was not punishing enough. Sir Thomas’s house was originally built in 1636, but was destroyed in operations during the second world war. The door survived, so in 1958 they offered it to the city named after its former owner.

Of course, no visit to City Hall is complete without a jaunt up the clock tower. Back in the old days, anyone could go up there any time, and as a kid, I was accidentally taken up there right on midday. We were admiring the view when the bells began their deafening tolling. Now, one must book a time and the tours are done between the quarter hours to avoid hearing loss. The lift is the original, a cage operated by a lever. The four clock faces are connected to a grandmother clock that sits against one wall and has been telling Brisbanites the time since the tower was built. Until 1967 it was the tallest structure in the city; now, apart from the view to the north-west where you can see across Roma Street Parklands to the hills around Samford, all you can see are other buildings.

There was originally supposed to be an “Angel of Peace” statue on the very top of the tower, but after construction was completed in 1930 there was only about five pounds left in the budget. So what sits on top instead is all that could be built for five quid: a globe cobbled together by a plumber with scraps of copper from an old toilet cistern and bits of an old bed frame.

Brisbane City Hall remains a focal point for Brisbane, used for concerts, ceremonies, memorials and others events. The new dome in the auditorium is a beautiful addition; it can be lit up with different and sometimes changing colours to match the theme of the event, as can the building itself. And the addition of a commercial kitchen in the basement means events can be catered for in-house, rather than being brought in from restaurants, as used to be the case.

(And of course there’s the enormous pipe organ, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, but there is so much to say about it that it will need its own post.)

Despite its regrettable depictions of oppression and unfortunate choice of site, Brisbane City Hall is still a valued and valuable part of Brisbane’s history.

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