Showing posts with label Frederick Menkens. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frederick Menkens. Show all posts

Thursday, 7 November 2013

From Freemasons to Katie Noonan

The queue surged with a life of its own along Beaumont Street. An excited buzz rose from the young crowd, dressed to dazzle in their up-to-the-minute gear.

I was on an evening walk with my husband, not long after we had moved to Hamilton, when we encountered what we thought was a nightclub with a line of people waiting to enter. A little surprised that our new suburb apparently had a nightclub, we crossed the street. Looking back, we saw that the building creating so much anticipation was the Masonic Hall, alias The Depot.  

A year later, as I sat in The Depot chatting to business co-owner Chad Taylor with Lynn MangovskiI discovered that Australian singer-songwriter Katie Noonan had been the drawcard that balmy October night in 2012.

“Yes, that was a big one,” Chad said.

The Depot has music a couple of nights a week in a soaring space perfect for acoustic sound.

Photograph courtesy of The Depot/Brad Parsons Photography

But that is not the only change that has transformed this fine building, designed in 1907 by prolific Newcastle architect Frederick Menkens into a twenty first century building that embraces its past with confidence and style.

Who were the Freemasons, and what did they do in Hamilton?

The Hamilton Lodge, ‘Star of the East’, was formed in 1886. Its first meeting place was the Northern Star Hotel, and then the Mechanics' Institute until 1906. The Masonic Hall, a fine single story building, was opened in 1907. A second storey was added in 1918.

Masonic Hall in Beaumont Street, Hamilton (1967)
Photograph by Ronald John Morrison, courtesy of Newcastle Museum

 At its peak, the Freemasons was one of the largest men’s organisations in the world. Many Novocastrians will remember having a father or an uncle who was a Mason.

Mason’s square and mallet
Newcastle Museum Exhibition on Beaumont Street, Hamilton
The square was one of the Stonemason’s most common tools. The phrase “being on the square” comes directly from Freemasonry

Before universal health care and government funded welfare programs, organisations like the Freemasons had a vital role in helping Masons – and later, anyone in the community – who had fallen on hard times.

In the dangerous work of the early Hamilton coal mines, as I’ve learned already, the sudden loss of a breadwinner can leave a large family destitute (read more here). With its strong networking capacity, the Freemasons cemented the community in a way we can only imagine today, with our more fragmented society.

In Britain, the Masons are still one of the largest single philanthropic bodies in operation.

Masonic Youth Welfare Fund Leaflet
Courtesy of Newcastle Museum

Hamilton resident Brian Agland, whose father was a Mason, remembers the children’s Christmas parties held in the Masonic Hall in the 1950s. He tells me:

“I always looked forward to it for two reasons. First, Santa always brought great gifts (much better than the ones we received from Dad’s BHP work party). The second reason was the Scotchies, as we called them. Men in kilts escorted Santa in and I always found bagpipe music quite special and exciting as a child.”

If you’ve ever marvelled at the immense cathedrals or castles of Europe, on television or in reality, and thought about the labour involved in cutting and carving the massive blocks of stone, then you are touching on the history of the Masons.

The Giralda (Clock Tower) of Seville Cathedral,
the largest Gothic cathedral in the world

In medieval times, Stonemasons formed guilds or lodges, and young men joined to be apprenticed and learn from others in the guild. As many could not read or write, secrets of the trade had to be guarded, and certain handshakes identified them as being able to work at certain levels in a work structure.

That is how what became known as the secrets of Freemasonry probably began. Over time, as their relevance declined in the modern era, outsiders made fun of the Freemasons. The aprons worn by office bearers, their collar sashes, pendants, and secret handshakes were puzzling and anachronistic.

Masonic Apron (1880)
United Grand Lodge of Ancient Free Masons of England
Courtesy of Newcastle Museum

I was surprised to learn about the extensive role that Freemasonry has had in American politics. American President Bill Clinton grew up in a Freemason youth organisation, and learned his early leadership skills there.

Garry Sayed, a Lebanese Muslim and an example of the new face of Freemasonry in Australia, spoke recently on an ABC Compass program:

“Freemasonry taught me about honesty, about truth, and how to conduct my daily life.”

Men like Garry are now being heard as Freemasons seek to arrest declining membership, and reinvigorate the organisation with members from diverse backgrounds.

Such initiatives came too late to save the Hamilton Lodge, 'Star of the East.' In 1981, the Lodge Trustees put the iconic building up for sale, along with 54 James Street, the car park.

Could this historic building be saved for future generations?

Every day between 1966 and 1971 on her way to work, Suzanne Evans walked past the Masonic Hall to and from the Hamilton Railway Station. As she took in its fading elegance, did she imagine that one day, she would be a co-owner?

As it happened, the Masonic Hall (the site 104-110 Beaumont Street, with 54 James Street) was purchased in 1981 by a Unit Trust set up by Suzanne’s solicitor husband, Peter Evans. He told me:

“Sue and I were attracted by the heritage value of this wonderful building.”

I wondered whether Peter and Suzanne had a particular connection with Hamilton.

They did.

Peter had moved to Hamilton South with his parents in 1958, and in 1964 was articled to the late Ian McKenzie, of Harris Wheeler Williams and McKenzie in Hamilton.

Suzanne came to work in the law firm in 1966; she and Peter married at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Hamilton in 1971. In that same year, Peter became partner in the firm, and Suzanne left to have a baby, the first in their family of five children. They lived in Hamilton for five years. Later, Peter set up his own practice in the city.

The Trustees of the Lodge cleared everything from the building except some trestle tables.

“Three or four of these are still used for fund raising activities at the Evans farm,” Peter explains.

What happened to the Masonic Hall next?

One of the then owners of units in the Unit Trust considered developing an arcade on the site, with retail and commercial uses. This idea was dropped when the NSW Department of Family and Community Services sought the space. A mezzanine floor was built to meet the Department’s needs.

The 1989 earthquake devastated Beaumont Street, as described in earlier posts about  The Greater Building Society, and Wesley on Beaumont.

Beaumont Street, Hamilton - 1989 earthquake
Courtesy Newcastle Region Library

As for the historic home Fettercairn in Lindsay Street, Hamilton, an engineering assessment of the Masonic Hall was obtained. The advice was to demolish the building, which was covered by insurance.

The Evans’ had bought out the other Unit owners in 1985, and were not going to lose their piece of Hamilton’s history. They embarked on the extensive works required to provide structural integrity to the building, and ensure safety.

BHP Computer Centre was their next tenant, eventually followed by Hogs Breath Cafe Saloon and Grill.

Hogs Breath Cafe, Hamilton (2010)
Courtesy of Google Maps

In 2011, the Hogs Breath Cafe closed and moved to new premises on Honeysuckle Drive in the city.

Then with great good fortune, Peter and Suzanne found the collaborators they needed to realize their dream of transforming the Menkens building into something spectacular.

The result flowed from a partnership involving new tenants Chad Taylor, Adam Baker and Shane Brunt.

Chad had opened his first restaurant at the age of 21, and had been Operations Manager at Hunter Valley Restaurant Management Services. There he learned what he would need to know in the future about catering for hundreds of diners at big functions.

Adam was a fitter and turner by trade. His entrepreneurial instincts had found an outlet as the owner of the successful Port Container Services, in Newcastle. He would bring his practical understanding of the operations of Newcastle’s portside to the redesign of the old Masonic Hall.

Shane Brunt would be Executive Chef, a daunting role. While he began his career at Scratchleys in Newcastle, he had ventured far beyond Newcastle as well as overseas, to hone his skills.

The Masonic Hall would become the venue for a bold new contemporary function centre, right in the centre of Hamilton - The Depot.

Despite the post-earthquake investment in the building, it needed to be reconceptualised and restored to fit its new use. An extensive fit out would be required. Weddings, parties and other large functions would be core business, as well as casual drinks and dining.

The building was massive in scale; intimate spaces needed to be created. At the same time, the business owners wanted the building to reflect the gritty industrial architectural heritage of Newcastle.

White ants had invaded the building. The walls needed to be re-braced, the building rewired. Initial cost estimates proved hopelessly inadequate.

Designers were engaged to work with the business owners, ensuring that the restoration would be not only authentic, but also futuristic in its use of the vast space.

The Depot, ground floor and mezzanine
Photograph courtesy of The Depot/Brad Parsons Photography

Gleaming with glass and stainless steel, the interior plays with the concepts of massive industrial, intimacy, and modernity.

The Depot, ground floor and bar
Photograph courtesy of The Depot/Brad Parsons Photography

The ground floor bar is solidly underpinned by smart wood and stainlesss steel shipping containers.

The Depot, showing the bar supported by shipping containers
Photograph courtesy of The Depot/Brad Parsons Photography

Chunky wood benches and tables are everywhere - 250 guests can be accommodated.

The Depot, ground floor and mezzanine
Photograph courtesy of The Depot/Brad Parsons Photography

Aloft, the visiting musician can perch above the diners, and be heard on every level.

Musician and tower
Photograph courtesy of The Depot/Brad Parsons Photography

Huge acoustic blocks line the warehouse-high walls and help to absorb noise.

While heritage colours have been used, there are some surprises, like dusky yellow walls upstairs.

A VIP lounge at the top has recently been completed.

At last count, the business owners expected the restoration and fit out bill to come in around $500,000. That is a real investment in Hamilton and its future.

The Depot - Masonic Hall, Hamilton (2014)

Photograph by Matthew Ward

The core values of Freemasonry are caring for others, helping those in need, and acting with honesty and integrity.

In rescuing the old Masonic Hall, the owners of The Depot function centre and the owners of this unique Hamilton landmark have reinvoked something of the spirit of the Freemasons.

In her song “Sweet One”, Katie Noonan sings:

I was down on my luck and you picked me up
I was only a breath from despair...[1]

The sentiment expressed here is surely a human one, but it could just as easily be the ghostly voice of the old Hamilton Masonic Hall....

Newcastle Mason  members crowd (1887)
Courtesy of Newcastle Region Library


Thank you to Peter Evans, Chad Taylor, and Lynn Mangovski for the story; also to Brad Parsons Photography for permission to use images.

[1] K. Noonan/S. Furler/L Mendez: “Sweet One”.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Tale of Two Buildings

At the end of last week’s post, I reflected on the lost hotels of Denison Street, and asked the question – why do some buildings endure, while others crumble or face demolition?

I found at least part of the answer in two local buildings.[1]

One used to be the Hamilton Fire Station in James Street, and the other the Mechanics’ Institute, on the corner of Tudor and Milton Streets. Each has a fascinating history.

It was May 1882 when the need for a local Fire Brigade was first discussed at a Hamilton Council meeting. Already some terrible fires had occurred. While the first brigade was established the following year, it was not until a decade later, in 1892, that it acquired a home – a tiny wooden structure (including a fire tower) that can just be seen in the photo below, next to the Municipal Chambers in James Street. Neither of these buildings have survived.

Hamilton Council Chambers, Hamilton NSW December 1892
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

That Fire Station proved inadequate, and in 1901, a new, single story fire station was purpose built for the cost of 300 pounds, also in James Street. A grand community opening was held. In 1906, a second story and belfry was added for a further two hundred and twenty two pounds. Yet another opening was held - Hamiltonians must have loved an excuse to celebrate! 

Fire Station James Street Hamilton 23 October 1906
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

By the mid 1920s, the station had ceased to be used, and was converted to flats. The building was extensively damaged in the 1989 earthquake. Peter Murray describes what happened next:

“Saved from demolition, it was bought by Merve and Robert Lindsay, who restored and converted the building into an office and an apartment....Fortuitously a descendant of Sam Donn supplied a photograph to assist in the construction”.[2]

The former Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station, 2013

This graciously proportioned building, seen above as it is today,  bears the name Hamilton Flats, replacing the words Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station. Above the front door is a sculpture of a man’s head, thought by a local resident to have been King George V. In the event, it was found to be a likeness of Sam Donn, who had been Mayor of Hamilton in 1901. 

The restored sculpture of Sam Donn, above the entrance to the building 
that was former Hamilton Volunteer Fire Station, 2013

The sculpture was painstakingly restored by Mervyn's father, Mr Victor Lindsay. Mervyn Lindsay explained in an email to me how Victor spent many, many months trying to fix the sculpture, and work out its identity.  At the last moment, photos were received of Sam Donn from Sam's granddaughter. Mervyn writes:

"The fragments recovered after the earthquake refused to fit any attempts to replicate George V, but of course worked perfectly for Sam."

We often walk past this building, admire its simple lines and appreciate what the Lindsays have done to ensure it endures.

The second building I want to tell you about is The Mechanics’ Institute in Hamilton. The wooden precursor to the current brick structure was built in 1862 – thirty years before the first Fire Brigade building was built.

The cultural history of the Mechanics’ Institute is every bit as interesting as the history of its building. I’ll touch very briefly on it here.

 In the early nineteenth century, a time when education was the privilege of the elite few, Mechanics’ Institutes were set up in Britain and later, Australia. Their aim was to provide working men with access to technical education – through talks, courses, lectures and books accessible in a reading room. Since books and library subscriptions were beyond the financial means of workers, the Institutes filled this gap, expanding from technical subjects to the humanities, especially literature. Even debating was encouraged.

Eventually, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, initiatives such as TAFE, free community libraries, adult education and compulsory public education for children made the role of the Institutes far less relevant.

Walking past the former Mechanics' Institute building in its unloved state, I feel so sad that this impressive building has lost its purpose

Anzac House, formerly The Mechanics' Institute, Tudor Street,
Hamilton, 2014
Photograph by Matthew Ward

The story of the Mechanics’ Institute building in Hamilton explains something of how the organisation navigated these changes in society.

The first modest weatherboard building experienced a troubled twenty plus years, financially and in terms of its role, from 1862 until 1888. Then, as a result of strong advocacy from some community leaders, a fine new building was commissioned on the same site. It was opened by the NSW Premier, Sir Henry Parkes in August, 1888.

 Designed by Newcastle architect Mr F B Menkens, the Mechanics’ Institute was described as “the handsomest building of its kind in the district”. [3] Upstairs was a reading room with daily newspapers, a library, a meeting room, and a billiards room. Downstairs was a large hall to seat 400 people, with a stage. It must have been a marvellous resource for the growing community.

Three years later, in 1891, an extension to the building was completed, making it symmetrical in accord with the architectural plans. As with many buildings from the 1800s, the graceful cast iron lace verandahs have not survived.

Mechanics Institute Tudor and Milton Streets Hamilton February 1892
Ralph Snowball photograph from the Norm Barney collection, courtesy Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, Australia

By the early 1920s, membership of the Institute was a healthy 800, and its educational role was changing to a recreational one as it became more like a community club. Income was raised through dances, musicals, motion pictures, hire of billiard tables --- until the growth of a range of other social clubs usurped this role, too. Once more, the Institute faced big challenges.

In the 1940s the Hamilton RSL Sub Branch purchased the premises, which became Anzac House, next to the RSL Club. It was intended to be used for the future expansion of the Club, which never happened, although it was rented out as a function centre at one stage.

Yet another organisation has had to cope with the changing times, and came off second best.

Effigy above a doorway today, in a deteriorated state, 2013

For a time, though, The Mechanics' Institute had served as a focus for many of Hamilton’s most important educational, social and political activities.

So what is the difference between the former Fire Brigade building, and the former Mechanic’s Institute? Why has one been able to be successfully reinvented, while the other languishes? Both are fine buildings, excellent examples of the architecture of their times.

I’ve begun a list of what I think a building must have to endure -

1.    A solid structure, with durability – while brick is better than weatherboard, brick buildings can disintegrate, and both can survive.

2.    Aesthetic appeal which transcends the passage of time.

3.    Location that is still relevant to its purpose.

4.    Able to be adapted to a new purpose, if its former purpose is superseded.

5.    Someone to love it (with money).

The Mechanics' Institute has stumbled on Point 4, and crashed on Point 5. The Fire Station/Hamilton Flats ticks all points – most importantly, it has someone to love it.

Unattributed photographs by Ruth Cotton.


In 2015 it was reported in the Newcastle Herald that the Hamilton RSL and former Anzac House/Mechanics Institute buildings were to be redeveloped by DJB Developments. Mencken Award winning architect Kevin Snell was engaged and has incorporated the heritage building into Atrium, a landmark residential apartment building. It was completed in January, 2018

Another  story relating to the Volunteer Fire Station is at Whose Head is it, Really?

[1] Historical details about the two buildings gave been obtained from Peter Murray: From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee 1848 – 1921. Self published (2006)
[2] Murray, P: as above, p. 83
[3] Murray, P: as above, p. 112.