Sunday, 9 October 2016

Remembering the Institute building

Readers of this blog will be aware of the history of the building which once housed our collection. Recently we were very pleased to receive a letter (reproduced below) describing the building as the writer remembered it in the 1960s. The image below was taken on 9 September 1969 from the roof of the Town Hall. At the foot of the post is a photograph from the front page of The Examiner newspaper, on October 6 1971, illustrating the demolition of the building.

Mechanics' Institute North Facade 1969

Dear Friends of the Mechanics Institute,

A friend in Launceston sent me an article in the Examiner last November concerning your organization. I just wanted to write and say how pleased I was to learn of your efforts to save the collection. I have many memories of the Institute which was an important place in my childhood. My mother worked there for many years and I knew nearly everyone who was associated with it when it was the Launceston Public Library. I first began going to the library there in 1962 and from 1965 I took music lessons from Walter Sutherland whose parents, Walter and Edna Sutherland, lived in the elegant Librarian’s flat at the top of the building.

The place always enchanted me and it was with shock and disbelief that we and many of our friends learned of its fate. Everyone I know did everything possible to save the building and was horrified when the State Library overruled local decisions on the matter. The debate on this subject raged for several years the beautiful building was deeply missed from the moment it was closed and to this day many of us are still aggrieved by its destruction. The decision to demolish was very unpopular amongst certain groups in Launceston and it was seen as arrogant and interfering on the part of the Hobart-based State Librarian, Mr A. E. Browning who was more or less demonised over the issue not that he had been greatly popular anyway. Phil Leonard was distressed by the whole issue as he had to straddle all boundaries on the matter and satisfy everyone.

My mother bought the bricks from the demolished building and had them delivered to our house in West Launceston where they remain to this day in the form of a courtyard and a wall. As children my sister and I spent many tedious weekends and afternoons cleaning thousands of those bricks of which a great many were handmade and retained the thumb print in the corner where the clay had been removed from the mould. I very much doubt that the present owners of the house have any idea of the provenance of the bricks which surround them now.

Most people will not remember the areas of the building that were not open to the public in the second half of the 20th century because very few people ever went into them. They were quite splendid and included several lecture theatres and a magnificent auditorium replete with a gilded proscenium arch. All of the rooms were of massive scale and had perfectly made Italianate tiling, highly decorative wrought iron, pressed tin and exquisite mouldings, all of the highest quality, which remained until the building closed. The children’s library, adult lending library and reference library were wood-panelled with beautifully wrought wooden bentwood chairs and more substantial reading chairs in the reference room. I think the library remained more or less as it was when it opened in the 1850s and its loss was unique and great.

There are so many wonderful stories of the building and of the remarkable people who worked there, many of whom I knew and some were remarkable characters. It was delightful to learn that the collection survives and that you are doing what you can to preserve it.

Kind regards

Marc Ellis