For the past 120 years, a familiar red-brick clock tower has stood watch over South Brisbane.
Rising above the clouds and rooftops of Brisbane, its tip still visible across the winding river, the familiar chime of the South Brisbane Municipal Chambers clock tower whiles away the hours as it has every day for the past century. Known by its neighbours at Somerville House as ‘The Chambers’, the building appears to be straight out of a history book with its distinctly Neo-Italian Renaissance style. Located on the corners of Vulture Street and Graham Street in South Brisbane, this beautiful building with its stained glass windows, spiralling marble staircase, and intricately moulded ceilings, has a past as varied as it is everlasting.
In 1888, the borough of South Brisbane was established. In 1891, construction began on a two-storey red brick building, designed by prominent architect John Smith Murdoch. This would later be known as the South Brisbane Municipal Chambers. Though never actually used as a town hall, The Chambers nevertheless became inextricably connected to the South Brisbane Town Council, until the council was disbanded upon the establishment of the City of Greater Brisbane in 1925.
After this, The Chambers led a mixed life. During World War II, it endured occupation by the US military and in the 1950s was partitioned into flats for the families of council engineers recruited from England. After extensive refurbishment, it served as the temporary home of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in the 1960s and 70s before its move to South Bank Parklands. In the 1980s, the building was used by the South Brisbane College of TAFE before being purchased by Somerville House in 1999.
Professor Peter Roennfeldt, Head of Music Literature Studies at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University and researcher interested in the social history of Australian music, said that the Chambers’ varied history enhances its story. “It is one of those buildings that is interesting because it has had so many uses and therefore has multiple meanings for different generations,” Roennfeldt said. “It has that long-term memory. It was designed at a time when Brisbane was trying to make a statement about how it saw itself. There are not many buildings of that style around; it is quite unique looking.”
Though best known as a historical landmark of Brisbane, The Chambers also has a playful side. Venture close and hear the tales of the detention cells in the basement, established under the US military in World War II, where The Chambers’ very own piano-playing ghost Joe is believed to have died of unrequited love. Dare to try Brisbane’s best chai latte at the aptly named Under the Clock café, located in that same basement. From the ground below, admire the famous clock, which was the first electronically-driven clock in Australia when it was installed in 1904.
For those interested in having a closer look, the South Brisbane Municipal Chambers holds an open day every October 10 and 11. Check out their website for more information at: www.brisbaneopenhouse.com.au.
Words by Shannon Coward | Images supplied by Somerville House Archives