Queensland Shopfitting History 1927-1938 Part 3

Perry Brothers was a large wholesaling hardware/ironmongery business, well established at 201-205 Queen St Brisbane (on the site of the current Wintergarden Centre), supplying materials and tools to all the local tradespeople of the time. Eventually their premises stretched from Queen St to Elizabeth St. However, even this store was to be outgrown in time, so they decided to construct a building to contain their offices and much larger storage of goods for their many customers. The building was on the corner of Elizabeth and Albert Streets and was named Perry House. The eventual building – when finally completed – was ten stories in height, the tallest in Brisbane at the time. The business grew to be a large wholesaling enterprise and at the same time they continued to trade from their original Queen St premises. The building remains and in 1996 the building underwent a major redevelopment to become The Royal Albert Hotel.

In 1927, there appear to have been 36 shopfitting companies and 143 cabinetmaking companies in Brisbane City and surrounding suburbs. Many cabinetmakers also advertised their ability to carry out shopfitting works. In regional towns the numbers varied from 3-14, dependant on the prosperity of the local economy at the time. However, Brisbane shopfitters were, in the main, supplying full store fitouts to most regional towns, a practice that continued well into the 1980s –1990s.

Brisbane Central Business District underwent almost two decades of rapid growth throughout the 1920s and 1930s, with numerous high-rise buildings and shops being built. Of note, was the completion of the Brisbane City Hall, after 11 years of construction and the magnificent Regent Theatre, which was completed in 1929 and capable of seating 2,600 people.
The AMP Society Building in Queen Street was demolished, and the current ten-storey building was constructed over four years. At the start of World War 2, however, the American Army, led by General MacArthur, occupied this building as their Pacific Headquarters, as they tried to protect the Brisbane Line from the invading Japanese. Hence, when a Shopping Centre was installed at this site in 2009-2010, it was renamed MacArthur Central Shopping centre. There was also the construction of the beautiful Brisbane Arcade, the original T&G building in Queen St and the Treasury Building additions.

At this stage, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon, after Wall Street stock markets in America collapsed and worldwide trade was thrown into chaos, this era became known as the ‘Great Depression’. Locally, wages for those lucky enough to keep their jobs, were on ‘short time’ while their wages dropped 10% and by 1932, 32% of the Australian population was unemployed, a situation that remained until after the end of the Second World War. Families were on coupons for ration relief.

To make the situation worse, the Federal government introduced Sales Tax in 1930, a curse to the shopfitting industry as the rate increased over the years, especially in the 1970s. As well as being ambiguous to charge out on products, it proved difficult to administer, and was finally thrown out when the GST system was introduced in July 2000.
An item of interest when researching the shopfitters of the time was the office of the Brisbane and District Joinery Association, which had an office in Adelaide St. It’s good to know the shopfitters of that time had support if they needed it. As they do today with the Interior Fitout Association.

A great story is of a retailer, by the name of James Burns, who opened his first successful retail store in Brisbane. He decided to extend his business to Townsville and open another store. A couple of years later, he formed a partnership with one of his employees and they co-founded Burns Philp and Company Limited. In time they went on to become one of Australia’s largest retail and shipping operations. Both were knighted and James Burns, among many things, was Premier of Queensland for two separate terms.
In 1931, they decided to build their own department store in Brisbane, an eight-storey building from Queen St through to Adelaide St, with access to Edward St. The plan was to expand their wholesale business by means of a chain of retail stores and, after opening Penney’s in Brisbane in 1936, they went on to open 25 Penneys stores in Queensland from Brisbane to Cairns and in northern New South Wales. Their motto ‘Penneys saves you pounds’, was used in all their media advertising. The chain was sold to EB Coles in 1956.

Advertisements by Brisbane Shopfitters and Glaziers proudly stated they’d been selected to work on the Brisbane City Penneys store and, probably hopefully, on some of their stores that followed. Low & Company Shopfitters advertised that they made and fitted the shopfronts in Penney’s new premises, and RS Exton advertised that they’d carried out all the glass and glazing works.

The fit-out to the Penneys store had inviting displays of goods on long counters served by one sales attendant with a cash register, or on gondolas in the aisles. This introduced the idea of self service. On the opening day of the Brisbane City store, there was a large newspaper story in The Brisbane Telegraph, advertising the store. It mentioned the special finishes to the stepped counters and to the escalator sides. “They were finished in an ‘opalescent cream tinted quilted maple veneer’. This is a choice variety of the Canadian Rock maple, one of the Empire’s most beautiful timbers skilfully used in a restrained modern style”. Their modus operandi was that there would not be home deliveries or special orders, nor was there any pressure to buy – temptation seemed enough.

In 1936 the Federal Government included paid annual leave in a Federal Award, which ultimately flowed down to State Awards. In 1937, The Pig ‘n Whistle came to town. Situated on Queen St, it was promoted to the Brisbane public as a ‘new experience’. It was easy to find because of the ultra-smart lettering, the Carrara marble facade, the stainless-steel ventilators, the shining and fascinating refrigeration plant, Queensland timbers of the utmost beauty and comfortable leather lounge chairs. The store made juices from crushed fruit in front of the customers, which was added to nourishing milk to make delightful refreshing drinks. As far as milk bars go, this was something new at the time, along with all the latest equipment and fittings. It was the first in Australia to be opened to a full page spread in a metropolitan newspaper and broadcast by a radio station. The store was fitted out by Blair Cunningham & Sons Shop and Office Fitters of South Brisbane.

Also at this stage, a hairdresser and tobacconist started business at 288 Queen St. The owner was Charles A Spurgin, who advertised his store as having the largest, most up-to-date fitout of any salon in Queensland. It was very popular, noted for its cleanliness, and was able to keep 40 chairs working, making it the largest hygienic salon in Australia.
On the opposite side of Queen St was the office of Williams Johns and Co., the proprietor at one stage owned 30 restaurants and cafés in the city and Fortitude Valley.
Around the corner was Rowes Café and Dining Rooms at 235 Edward St and, in the early 1920s, it was extended to seat 380 guests. In 1925, a ballroom was built internally to the building, over a lower garage. In 1958, the building was converted into a shopping arcade, which links Edward St to Queen St, Adelaide St and Post Office Square. In the early 1990s, the arcade was totally refurbished by local shopfitting company Dear & Flannagan.

During the 1920s and 1930s, there were many new Greek restaurants/cafés in Brisbane City and in the larger provincial towns. There were upwards of ten in some larger towns, as well as some of the current premises being upgraded to the latest trends and the installation of the latest beverage-making equipment coming out of Europe.

It was almost as though there was a challenge in the restaurant trade to see who could beat the opposition, with architectural masterpieces, new uniforms for staff, and the introduction of orchestras, etc. to entice new customers. One such new café was The Astoria, “The most luxurious and up to date café in Brisbane,” according to Brisbane’s Café Beautiful, with the opening described as “The Event of the Year”. Designed by architects Hennessy, Hennessy and Co, the owners took a courageous step during a time of financial depression, to create an artistic triumph with its ornate pillasters, textured walls with recessed arches, a recessed glass illuminated dome to the ceiling and a mezzanine for the orchestra. The Astoria catered for 250 diners.
Another extensive fitout at 217 Queen St was for Christies Café, in 1938. A well-known meeting place in the city that existed until 1976. It was known as the ‘Cloudland of Queen St’, with its beautiful art deco theme modelled on continental lines, with the ground floor having space for 48 and the top floor café 104 diners. The orchestra played on a raised dais decorated with glass and chromium grilles and artistically illuminated by concealed neon lights in green, a colour new to the neon process. The interior of the café on each floor was lined with Carrara glass to a height of 4ft, and the remainder of the walls were lightly textured and off-set by heavily stepped cornices and coloured textured ceilings.

A feature of Christie’s upstairs dining was an open-air balcony, which was covered by an awning and brightly-coloured blinds, giving an uninterrupted view of Queen St. The fitout at the time cost £20,000 and the architects paid tribute to the standard of Australian workmanship. A list of the contractors involved was part of the Courier Mail press coverage. Although it’s unclear who the shopfitting contractor was, Christie and Walker Shopfitters fitted out other quality Greek family cafés in the city at the time.

In 1938, less than two years after opening Penneys department store, the full second floor of their building was devoted to the fitout of a new departure in restaurant design in Brisbane. Embodying the most modern layout and appointments of European cafés/restaurants, the most spacious of any in the state. The design of the café followed that of a famous Chicago hotel.
The luxurious layout combined both the buffet and loges (now referred to as banquet or booth seating), a long way ahead of anything previously attempted in Australia. There were 400 seats in the loges, having leather upholstered cushions made up of two, four and six seater loges, all numbered so that a favourite loge may be reserved. There were two separate buffet areas provided for the service of hurried diners, like a bar, with seating for 100 diners at each buffet. “The chrome-backed seats were designed to be self-centred, swinging out and back into position at the centre”. There were advertisements by all the varying trades who provided their services in the major fitout, but all the shopfitting works were carried out in-house by Penneys staff as they had created their own shopfitting workshop with employees, in the basement of the store.

In 1938, City Joiners, based in Toowoomba, started out in business and, in the 1950s, they had 70 staff. At one stage, they traded as City Joiners Hodge. They still trade today, carrying out work all over Queensland, and have always had a name for producing a quality product. They have carried out million dollar fitouts and cater for specialty work in areas such as Health, Education, Government, RSL, Golf, Recreational Clubs, Resorts, Hotels, Law Courts etc. They have always fostered the employment of apprentices.

Also in 1938, under ‘Technical Trades’ in a daily newspaper, was an ad by the Polytechnic School of South Brisbane. It read ‘for Youth and Men’ and catered for 15 varying trades at their South Brisbane premises. The classes to be held in the day and at evenings in well-equipped workshops, which prepared the students for examinations under the Inspection of Machinery Act. It seemed that these trade courses could only have been preliminary trade skills, as a means of creating – eventually – further pools of tradespeople during the harsh economic conditions.
Once a week, in a daily newspaper, would be a page devoted to the latest finishing materials for homes, offices, etc. These consisted of wall and ceiling sheeting, tiles, carpets, timber and woodwork, but there was a permanent building exhibit in the basement of the AMP Building (now MacArthur Central Shopping Centre). Perhaps this was an early version of the home & building/design centres of today, with companies setting up their product in cubicles, as per current display methods.


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