The John Mills Himself building is a slice of Brisbane heritage housing some of the city’s well-known local gems including the heavenly Archives Fine Books and the quirky John Mills Himself Café and Bar, owned by a West Ender.
Located between Charlotte and Elizabeth Streets in the CBD, the tallest of a series of stunning brick buildings, the John Mills Himself Building was constructed in 1919 by John Charles Mills. Comprising an office, printery workshop and warehouse, the building soon became a representation of John Mills’ ambitions for his printing company.
Mills himself was a character, famously commissioning an engraving of the back of his head on the John Mills Himself sign, now visible above the entrance to the café and bar, as an invitation for potential customers to come in and see him face-to-face. Mills often travelled abroad, seeking out the latest printing technology and bringing it back to Australia. The business spanned a staggering 70 years, from 1890 to 1960, passing to Mills’ sons, John and Sam Mills, after his death in 1934.
Birdy, co-owner of the John Mills Himself Café and Bar and long-term 4101 resident, said that John Mills’ tenacity was a major reason for the success of his business. “Doing business for John Mills was about putting a folio under his arm, knocking on the doors of businesses and saying ‘We can do your printing; we do the finest printing; you’re going to get the best job at the best price and we will not let you down’,” Birdy said. “He had a really interesting and humorous twist to how he marketed himself and his business. Obviously, having a big building with a giant pediment with John Mills Himself written on it helps.”
After leaving the ownership of the Mills family in the 1980s, the building fell into a state of disrepair until local architecture students took over and repurposed it for the construction of studios and exhibition.
An artist company, known locally as the John Mills Himself Nationals, also transformed the space into the perfect stage for performance and visual art exhibitions.
For Birdy, whose deep appreciation for Brisbane’s heritage fits right in with the famous West End vibe, John Mills Himself represents more than just another old building. At nearly 100 years old, it has a strong sense of living memory for many of Brisbane’s residents. “Every person that has visited this building has, somewhere in them, a memory of being in the building, and the building has a memory of them,” Birdy said. “It’s a social and cultural thing beyond the physical thing, in my mind … We are at that point now where the living memory of this building is getting very old,” she said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone … The more we lose, the more iconic it becomes.”
The John Mills Himself building is accessible via 55 Elizabeth Street and 40 Charlotte Street for those wanting to see it in person.
Words by by Shannon Coward | Images by Georgina Ashford