FINDING MEANING IN A BUILDING
by David Roach February 2020
A visitor driving up the hill from the iconic Sea Cli Bridge on the coast just south of Sydney, cannot fail to notice the two storey Victorian landmark looking out across the Paci”c. #ey may glimpse the sign on the front; Clifton School of Arts. What most visitors miss as they pass by are the words, “A Community Building since 1911.” A modest claim that hints at an extraordinary history.
Built by striking coal miners, the building cost £100 which was raised by public subscription. In a village of rudimentary weatherboard cottages, it was a structure to be proud of. #e building was furnished with a small reading library, an upright piano and rooms where the community could gather for meetings and classes. #e miners had plans for a second stage but before work could commence on the rear section, the industrial dispute was settled and the men headed back to the pit.
Not long after opening its doors, the little
School of Arts was being bueted by history. In
1915 army recruiters made their way up the
coast road gathering local men to “ght at
Gallipoli and on the Western Front. #e
following decades saw the Great Depression
and another World War, years of turmoil that caused wild $uctuations in the fortunes of Clifton.
Throughout all this upheaval, a chain of committees somehow kept the Clifton School of Arts functioning. #ey repainted and repaired, they kept the lights on and the doors open so that locals could still meet their sweethearts at a School of Arts dance, have their receptions in one of the beautiful rooms overlooking the ocean. It was a place to vote, a place for art classes and music lessons, a place to shelter from storms and “res.
By the 1980’s the Clifton mine had closed down and the town’s population had dwindled. #e landslides that had regularly blocked the main road would force the last hotel to shut its doors. #e School of Arts too was on shaky ground. Blasted by decades of salt-laden winds, saturated with damp rising up from dodgy foundations, the building was showing its age. #ere was talk of demolition.
With its prominent position and magni”cent views it wasn’t long before developers began sning around the old School of Arts. It would make a great restaurant, a cute hotel, a spectacular weekender. While this was not what the original miners had intended who could
have blamed the members if, after almost a century of hard work, they had decided that selling o the School of Arts was the only way to save it?
But the members had no intention of letting this building slip through their “ngers. Cobbling together funds from cake stalls, raes, jumble sales and grants, they raised $200,000 and, with help from local tradies, they set about giving the building a new life, slowly transforming it from crumbling ruin to the neat little School of Arts that now draws the eye of visitors as they come over the rise.
Today the Clifton School of Arts is as vibrant as it has ever been with a growing membership, fully equipped gallery spaces and ambitious plans to complete the work that the miners started all those years ago.
This past Australian summer has been a brutal one with capricious weather, deadly bush”res and $oods. For many of us it has meant a growing uncertainty about our future as well as a loss of trust in institutions that we thought would always be there for us. Modest buildings like the Clifton School of Arts are now more valuable than ever, not just because of their architectural heritage but because they represent an unbroken chain of love, a belief in the simple, transformational power of a community working together.
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