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The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel

We came across a skeleton of a building bristling with warnings: Asbestos, Stay Out; Danger, Do Not Enter.  The sense was that entering this site of history in Townsville, North Queensland, would kill you. And damn well it would have, sending you keeling over in fumes, damning you even if, on entering, you had hoped to see a miniature copy of the nubile Chloe overseeing the meal counter, taken from a painting that resides in holy majesty at Young and Jacksons Pub in Melbourne. The Victoria Park Hotel, it seemed, was no more, consumed by hellish fire.

Funereal rites for burned buildings are as significant as they are for humans.  For within them, there existed men and women who flitted about, performed their tasks, discharged their duties.  People caroused, gossiped, cooked, ate, defecated, and fornicated.  A life history, in a fashion.

Grief produces misinformed and paranoid children; anger much the same.  Such offspring demand the answers that only deities could provide, a record of evidence that no mortal could satisfy.  The account from the Townsville Bulletinon this tragic burning screams of suggestion and theory: there were three in the hotel near the moment when the sparks began (around midnight); one went for a walk (not in of itself odd, though teasingly curious, given that few people walk in that part of town), but they came back.  Were the other two burning Rome as the other fiddled on the stroll?

Then there is the sense that another story was humming away in the background, enticing alternative explanations and hypotheses.  The building was up for sale – some $2.5 million.  Ideas do the rounds, and soon, the tangled cliché of an explanation comes to provide some false certitude: the insurance job, or a vengeful rebuke.

This does not need actual knowledge, merely enthusiastic speculation. But the implications in a town where the heritage building is deemed the enemy of modern and vulgar construction projects is hard to avoid.

Well moneyed history buffs should have rushed in with the enthusiasm of an Antiques Road Show judge to purchase this wonder; the hotel was a model piece of clumsy adaptation and glorious modification for public use.  It spoke, in that characteristically broken note, of old Australia, the unforgivingly cruel and brutal settlements of north Queensland in the 1880s, the White Man’s goal hewn into a remorseless earth. For here, there would be drink, relief, and rest.

In design, it was an installation art piece – of sorts.  Nothing of the Florentine about it (no trace of the geometrically dogmatic Leon Battista Alberti, nor lined purity of Filippo Brunelleschi) but there was effort, like so many architectural experimenters in North Queensland, to create something handsome and easy on the eye.  In this alien landscape, you adapt, tinker, mould, bruise the dry earth, temper resistance, conquer the variables.  From the street, it had perpendicular forms that would have inspired sighs from the neat minded.

The toilets were conventionally ordinary, reeking with the testosterone meanderings of provincial Queensland; the timber reeked of historical readings and additions, the bric-a-brac of lateral thinking. There was a sense of the gaudy, the lights taking you back to retro disco.

Everything else was fiercely authentic: the canines outside waiting for their owners, anguished by neglect, lapping from water bowls; the all-female meetings at dinner celebrating, not merely their triumph of being alive but the absence of the Man and the more vicious plural (husbands, sons, man children), those irritating sport freaks who find rugby more arousing than heterosexual banter. And families – and so many: the birthdays, the anniversaries, the special occasions.

To go into this joy of a structure, this wood citadel promising libation, would be to find yourself in a drinking hole of garrulous louts in smeared singlets and stained shorts resistant to the wash; coarse fortune tellers and liver-corroded impresarios keen to noise you to death; and bar tenders with a fluffy grace in serving drinks with deft soft hands; strong women capable of breaking backs and building the Tower of Babel.

One stood out, a rock strong heroine cut with just enough humour to be cut from the script of Stephen Sondheim, garnished with mad hair and touched with lipstick. She steered the show, directed the performance, insisting that the “Verdello” (Verdelho pulverised by Australian pronunciation) was the best, and the absolute best, and making sure that the other ladies performed accordingly in understanding and discharging the orders at hand.

To go to the side of lout land and rough trade was to find yourself on an odd assortment of cafeteria style seating that should have revolted.  Instead, you could only marvel at a menu that suggested promise – and danger.  The fillet mignon tended to inspire. Portions were enormous and challenging.

Now, gone. Disappeared in an asbestos released conflagration.   But from the great structures of life comes prospects for renewal.  A new project, perhaps.  In the European tradition of churches, buildings lost to fire were spiritual promises rather than actual regrets; for in those charred remains came seedlings of promise.  The Victoria Park Hotel may be no different and there is already talk of salvation.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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