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The Australian Hall is the first non-Aboriginal structure to be recognised in Australia as an Aboriginal heritage site. Prior to this, European places were not recognised for their importance as Indigenous sites, and the saving of the building generated a protracted battle of ideas as well as of protest actions.
The hall, located at 150–52 Elizabeth Street, was the site where the first national Aboriginal civil rights gathering, known as the Day of Mourning, was held in 1938.
This first national conference was convened by the Aborigines Progressive Association to campaign for citizens' rights. The conference endorsed a resolution calling for such rights and a 10-point list of demands, which was presented to the Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons, on 31 January 1938. One of the participants was Pastor Doug Nicholls, who was later knighted and appointed Governor of South Australia. The 1938 conference was a milestone in the campaign for reforms in government policies towards Aboriginal people, and ultimately led to the 1967 Referendum.
The building has a long and varied association with Australian national and political history. The original building had been erected between 1910 and 1913 for German migrants to meet and gather and their club was known as Concordia. In 1920 it was purchased by the Knights of the Southern Cross, a right-wing Catholic fraternal lay group. This group constructed the Australian Hall in the building in the 1920s. They sold the building in 1979 to the Hellenic Club and Greek Cypriots used it as the Cyprus Hellene Club.
In 1994 an interim permanent conservation order was placed on the building. This recognised its architectural significance, as a good example of the Federation Romanesque style which provided a strong supporting element in the streetscape. But the Indigenous community wanted the interior Australian Hall, constructed in the1920s, recognised for its cultural significance as well. The National Aboriginal History and Heritage Council was established to explore ways of ensuring the building’s retention and purchase. One suggestion was that the hall be used to establish an Aboriginal History Centre to promote Aboriginal history and heritage awareness.
The Cyprus Hellene Club lodged an objection to the conservation order, which led to the Simpson Enquiry, and Aboriginal and other heritage groups were active in making submissions.
The social significance of the building was not in dispute. It was a meeting place for diverse groups and served as a cultural venue (including theatre and film) for the people of Sydney. It was also a rare example of a city social club building which had been in continuous use for that purpose since its construction. In July 1995 William Simpson, who acted as Chairman at the Inquiry for Environment and Planning, commented specifically on the Aboriginal significance of Australian Hall. He noted,
In my view, the Day of Mourning conference should now be recognised as a significant event in the post European history of Australia…It is of historic and social significance for all Australians, being the first formal and recognised step towards the promotion of ‘equality of rights’ between indigenous and other Australians. It must also be acknowledged as the embryonic assertion of land right claims which have been recognised in the historic and contentious 1992 Mabo decision of the High Court and the subsequent Native Title Act 1993… Thus the Day of Mourning conference may properly be regarded as the foundation of contemporary Aboriginal political and civil rights movements and on the evidence is a major Aboriginal event associated with renowned Aboriginal leaders, advancement of civil rights for Aborigines and of great social, structural and cultural significance to the Aboriginal community and to the history of Australia
Despite Simpson’s strong recommendations, and despite being placed on the register of the National Estate in 1996, the New South Wales Minister for Planning, Craig Knowles, granted the owners, the Cyprus-Hellene Club, an exemption order in March 1997 allowing construction of a high rise tower. This order stipulated only that the building’s facade must be retained, and specified that the old Australian Hall, then being used as the Mandolin Cinema, could be demolished. This was, at most, a token recognition of the building’s architectural value, while ignoring the larger cultural significance.
A renewed campaign
By now the National Aboriginal Heritage Committee, under the leadership of Jenny Munro, Tony McAvoy and Doreen Kelly, was well organised and well connected to other history and heritage organisations. A concerted campaign culminated in a 60th anniversary march from the Sydney Town Hall to the Australian Hall on 26 January, 1998. Back in 1938 the Town Hall had been blocked to Aborigines, and they had marched in protest along the same route. This time the Australian Hall was barred to them. Around 1,000 people listened to the 1938 story over again from the street, and over the next few years the battle went on.
Eventually in 1999 the building was purchased and refurbished by the Metropolitan Aboriginal Association Incorporated with funds from the Indigenous Land Corporation. A victory party was hosted by the Lord Mayor at Sydney Town Hall, the venue that had been so unwelcoming to Sydney’s Aboriginal people in 1938.
The building still stands today and is in good condition. The hall has been restored to its 1938 state. There have been some modifications to the interior of the building but these have not affected its heritage significance in connection to the stated historical events. In 2008 it became one of only 78 sites across Australia to be listed on the National Heritage List.
New South Wales Heritage Branch website, 'Cyprus-Hellene Club', http://www.heritage.nsw.gov.au/07_subnav_01_2.cfm?itemid=5045005, viewed 17 February 2009
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts website, 'National heritage places: Cyprus-Hellene Club', http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/cyprus-hellene/information.html, viewed 17 February 2009