Perth temperance hall reopens, albeit with four bars after extensive restoration
Towards the end of an exhausting multi-year project to restore four levels of the old Rechabite Hall in Northbridge, Marcus Canning made an ironic discovery.
"There was a bit of TV coverage and my mum was watching at home, and she texted me a photo of an Independent Order of Rechabites (IOR) certificate with my father's name on it," he said.
The IOR, a group that formed part of the temperance movement, built the hall in 1924, and it became one of the city's popular dance halls and also home to shops and public meetings.
Mr. Canning's bid to revive it — albeit with the addition of four bars (one on each level) — went on without knowing there was a family connection.
"[Dad] signed a pledge in 1935 when he was 17. It's an amazing certificate and it's quite nice that I've found out."
After World War II, the hall was used as a theatre and live music venue, but a fire went through in 1980 and it began to fall into disrepair, closing altogether in the early 2000s.
The restoration effort began in 2016 and aimed to keep as much of the original fabric of the building as possible while adding modern facilities like a lift and restaurant kitchen.
Now renamed The Rechabite, it features a rooftop space — complete with graffiti from the building's shuttered period — and a basement dance club.
Even some fire-charred walls and stains from when the Rechabites allowed smoking in the hall have been left in place to help tell the building's 95-year story.
"We've very much left certain elements exposed so you can really read where some things start and where other things finish," Mr Canning said.
"That whole faux-heritage thing that sometimes happens, we've tried to avoid at all costs."
It's an approach to restoration that the Heritage Council, which funded some of the conservation work, applauded.
"That's really an important part of how we restore buildings now," council chair Anne Arnold said.
"In the old days, before heritage practice changed, everyone wanted to make everything brand new and fabulous and sometimes completely recreate it the way it was.
"Really, a building should be restored in a way that tells the story about how it progressed in its uses."
The Rechabite's centrepiece is its grand hall, designed by renowned architect Edwin Summerhayes (1868-1944) — a few of his Perth buildings remain.
"It is the only temperance hall left within the Northbridge environment," Mr Canning said.
"There used to be about seven different temperance halls in this area, and this barrel-vault ceiling, which is a real feature, is one of the largest ones left in the Southern Hemisphere."
To preserve the pressed-tin ceiling, a new rooftop was installed above the original, while elevated seating floats on a kind of scaffolding without touching the walls.
"As people go up to the different levels, it's actually a really interesting way to start to read the heritage fabric right up close," Mr Canning said.
Other key elements, like the grand wooden staircase, required some alterations to meet modern safety standards.
"We had to put this new handrail in ... because to be compliant now, handrails need to be a little bit higher," Mr Canning said.
"People used to be a lot shorter, they are getting taller each year, and this is an interesting indication of that.
"The amazing tile work at the lobby entrance to the stairwell is also original, which I find amazing because it just looks so contemporary."
He said much of the heritage detail on display came as a surprise because it had been covered by grime or additions made over the years.
"It was a wreck — when you leave a building for 10 years with a window slightly ajar ..."
Asked if he had ever felt overwhelmed by the size of the task, Mr Canning said "it was like one continuous moment for last two years", but that seeing it completed was hugely rewarding.
"Everyone was very dedicated on this site and was really into the spirit of the development.
"For the builders and all the subbies working on it, it is so rare to be transforming an old heritage building like this, especially one that sits right in the heart of the city."
For the Heritage Council, it is an important addition to the historic streetscape of William Street.
"It's such an iconic building and William Street is a really important precinct," Ms Arnold said.
"It went into the register permanently in 2002, and one of the statements of significance is about the early beginning of the entertainment and arts function which is so important in Northbridge now.
"It's lovely that it is being used for social and entertainment use, which is what its original use was.
"I think it's kind of ironic that the Rechabites encouraged abstinence from alcohol and other intoxicating substances."
For Mr Canning, it was the culmination of years of work when The Rechabite reopened this month with a cabaret show.
"It's fantastic seeing people filling the space and starting to enjoy the mysterious magical labyrinth which is this venue," he said.
As the former artistic director of Perth's summer Fringe festival, he hopes the venue will offer a year-round fringe experience.
And did his father keep the Rechabite pledge never to drink?
"No, no certainly not from my memory he didn't," Mr Canning laughed.