AT the heart of suburban Waratah lies a hidden historic gem that has narrowly escaped destruction twice.
It's been around for about 133 years, but in recent times the structure has slid under the public radar. After being such a versatile community hub for so long, lately it's been hiding in plain sight, really.
Welcome to the former Waratah School of Arts building. Off Station Street, just near Waratah railway station and a familiar palm tree avenue, the benevolent institution itself has been in Waratah since 1879 at various sites.
Such popular places in the late 19th century provided facilities for residents to study, to educate themselves and improve job prospects.
But in 1888, a new era began for the facility to better serve to Waratah/Mayfield population with the foundation stone laid for the present permanent building. Since then, the huge hall also operated as a movie cinema from 1915 to 1921.
Much needed extensions were done in 1934 to both the front and rear of the long, wide building, with back rooms being used as Waratah Borough Council Chambers. In the 1950s, the rear space was even converted into a branch library for Newcastle City Council.
In between, the premises probably served as a polling place during elections, and even as a recruitment centre in two world wars. From 24 years, from 1960 to 1984, it then became home to the Scouts Association who left behind two distinctive wrought iron gates with the scouting logo.
Extensively damaged in the 1989 earthquake and in a 1997 fire, the landmark faced possible demolition. The building was then sold in 2004, then again in 2006.
Now, with the impressive building re-roofed and refurbished, it is ready to face another 100 years.
Long ago, the building caught the eye of the Waratah Heritage Group, which lobbied to raise awareness of its historical significance. The group's members, who include Wendy Swan, Karilyn Pawley, Ed Tonks and Ian Sherman, gathered background information to bolster a public case for the building's retention.
Spokeswoman Val Anderson says research revealed some surprising information, such as travelling showman using the school of arts hall to screen silent films, such as Keystone comedies, as early as 1907. The Waratah Municipal Town Band played there before the film.
"Waratah School of Arts was once such an important part of social life here. The centre of community activities. Many people don't realise that," Anderson said.
"The current owner, Jackie Wilson, has just re-floored the stage there. We must go and have a look. The hall is now Jackie's story."
Sir Henry Parkes (1815-1896), once the NSW premier and "father of Federation", laid the foundation stone of the community facility on December 15, 1888.
Sydney's Mitchell Library is now believed to be the custodian of the silver trowel Parkes used on that occasion.
So impressed was the NSW political leader, he later said: "There is no reason why the Waratah School of Arts should not be a model for school of arts buildings for the whole colony".
High praise indeed. But many decades later, when the then derelict building was up for auction, the future looked bleak.
Nevertheless, the building's new owner, Jackie Wilson, summoned her inner strength to tackle what must have seemed like the ultimate "renovator's delight".
"We had a garage sale inside the (gloomy) hall in the early days, when a potential customer asked me, 'Can you turn on the lights?" Wilson says. "That's when I said, 'Lights? There aren't any'.
"And, at one stage, part of the ceiling was also missing, with walls blackened from the (1997) fire.
"There also wasn't a pane of glass in the place," Wilson says, pointing to about a dozen tall, slender restored window slots.
"The place was broken into eight times. You wouldn't believe the condition the building was in after I bought it at auction in 2006. But there were clues the site was going to be turned into flats," she says during a tour of the renovated building.
After the sale, she was asked by a real estate journalist how she intended to use the big, empty, trashed building. Wilson laughingly replied she was buying it as a Christmas gift for her mother, well-known Sydney artist Brenda Humble
In a way, that idea is set to become reality, possibly very soon when she hopes to open the cavernous Interior to the public as an art gallery showcasing her late mother's art.
"My mother years ago was involved in the Green Bans movement with Jack Mundey to save buildings in Sydney. He even later spoke at her memorial.
"We lived in Sydney's Woolloomooloo, so I also became interested in saving the architecture up here.
"One day in future here at Waratah we might put solar panels on the main roof, but we'll probably have to win Lotto first.
"The 'new' (1934) extension out back is still roofless, but we're getting there slowly with the main structure good.
"Out the back, there were only building piers and walls left when I arrived, so chooks were once kept there."
Nearby, also a small roofless space, is what Wilson calls for now her "little Italian garden", where shy blue tongue lizards lurk in a strawberry patch.
Wilson says the initial clean-up years ago inside the enormous, empty hall was daunting and eye-opening. She points to the floorboards on the once burnt-out stage that have been beautifully restored by her partner, Michael Roberts.
"There were all these mattresses we had to remove from under the old stage because, well, this place was once derelict," she says.
"I then found a man asleep outside on the grass. He'd just got out of jail, but he obviously knew about the place (as a doss house). People just thought it was a big, empty public building to be used."
The main floor in the old hall though is surprisingly durable, except for two tell-tale small burn scars left on the original timber.
At this, heritage activist Val Anderson says: "Jackie. This is Watarah's history and it was very uncertain until you came along and saved it after it had been earlier threatened with demolition."
Wilson says her research indicated Waratah's old community hall had been used for everything from showing movies, to chocolate eating competitions, to flower shows and fancy dress 'frolics'.
"It'll be all different in future though," Wilson says. "Hopefully, this place will re-open as an art gallery in December, fingers crossed."
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