Shimmy Back in Time with Innisfail’s Art Deco Treasures

By Brett Leigh Dicks*

As we patiently watched Far North Queensland’s latest tropical low slowly intensify into a cyclone, we decided to squeeze in a fleeting trip to Innisfail before the wind and rain started lashing the surrounding region. Cyclone Kirrily was spinning away around 500 kilometres offshore of Cairns, pulling all of the meteorological inclemency out to sea and leaving the Far North with eerily clear blue skies. The interlude presented the perfect palette for a photographic examination of the art deco capital of Australia.

As fate should have it, Innisfail’s art deco legacy actually owes its genesis to a cyclone. The town and its surrounding region have long been home to the Mamu people who followed migratory lifestyles in the rainforest and traversed the area’s many rivers in string-bark canoes. As the sugar industry took hold of the region, in the late 1800s a burgeoning settlement arose at the north and south branches of the Johnstone River. Originally christened Geraldton, in 1910 the town’s name was changed to Innisfail to avoid confusion with Geraldton in Western Australia.

With most of Innisfail’s buildings constructed from timber, when a devastating tropical cyclone swept across the coast on 10 March 1918 as many as 100 lives were lost and much of the town was destroyed. As few as 12 buildings remained standing. Given the continued climatic threat the tropics posed to Innisfail, it was determined that concrete would provide a more cyclone resistant construction option. And given the era and prevalence of the style at the time, Innisfail soon became a bastion of art deco architecture.

Today Innisfail is celebrated as the art deco capital of Australia and you need only stroll the city’s downtown precinct to see why. Lining both sides of Edith and Rankin Streets is an array of ornate buildings, sleek and linear in appearance and painted in pale pastels. From the grandiose Johnstone Shire Council Shire Hall through to the neighbouring Queens Hotel, Blue Bird Café, and nearby Masonic Temple, the ornate buildings still serve a variety of the town’s commercial, retail, and administrative needs.

The Cassowary Coast Regional Council, the regional council under whose jurisdiction Innisfail now falls, has implemented the Cassowary Coast Art Deco Strategy which aims to invigorate and celebrate the region’s art deco legacy and serves as a guide for the protection and promotional of the region’s art deco heritage. Part of that promotion is the Cassowary Coast Art Deco and Historical Self-Guided Walk where visitors can take a step back in time to the roaring 20s and discover the hidden tales behind the Cassowary Coast’s art deco and historical buildings.

The guide features a walking map with accompanying information and comes as both a downloadable app and brochure. While the imposing grandness of the Johnstone Shire Hall on Rankin Street serves as the town’s art deco centerpiece, there is no shortage of other jewels to explore.

A little further up Rankin Street resides two stately churches. The sprawling Mary, Mother of Good Counsel Catholic Church was built in the 1920s on the back of the region’s booming sugar industry while St Andrew’s Presbyterian Memorial Church reflects the international influence of famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The Blue Bird Café, with its eclectic details, serves as a fine example of interwar modernist style as does the symmetrical façade and small height windows of the Masonic Temple while the stylistic influences of the town’s water tower perfectly encapsulates the town’s art deco character.

Everywhere you turn the Art Deco movement’s influence can be seen.

It’s well worth the visit.

* Words and photographs by Brett Leigh Dicks, a Fremantle-based, Australian/American photographer and writer. Brett has recently concluded a period as Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of the Goldfields, Western Australia. Here’s his fab website.

** Don’t miss our earlier Fine Photography podcast with Brett Leigh Dicks right here.

*** And here’s more Fremantle Shipping News articles with photographs by Brett Leigh Dicks.



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