Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Executive Building: Charlie wasn't as drunk as tourists are told...


Many visitors to Brisbane who enter the CBD via North Quay on William Street or the Riverside Expressway off-ramp onto Elizabeth Street, may well formulate a false impression of the city's colonial history.  Travelling along the first stretch of Elizabeth Street, two incredibly impressive sandstone buildings loom large on either side, coaxing the onlooker into believing they are commuting between two of Brisbane's original buildings.  However, both came into existence many decades after Brisbane became a free colony, although what lies beneath holds amazing value to Brisbane Town's genesis.  The Treasury Casino to the left of Elizabeth Street was the original Treasury Building, taking an amazing 42 years to complete in 3 separate stages - during these stages, the expanding building was utilised at some point by almost every Government Department including the Premier, until the final stage along George Street was officially opened on the 4th of May 1928 by the Minister for Works, Michael Joseph Kirwan.  On completion, the building earned a reputation as one of the finest public buildings in Australia.  However, from a colonial & historical viewpoint, the building now rested on the original site of the since demolished Moreton Bay Penal Settlement's Military Barracks.

To the right of Elizabeth Street, Queens Gardens exists - a green zone with park benches & a plinthed statue of Queen Victoria & Queensland Premier Thomas Joseph Ryan.  In the bottom corner, another memorial topped by an eagle pays tribute to the R.A.A.F. servicemen & women who paid the ultimate sacrifice during Australia's involvement in the Second World War.  What appears to be a quaint park is anything but that, however - on this site, the Cathedral of St. John existed from 1854-1904, commemorated by a marble slab alongside the Queen Victoria statue marking the site of the original altar.  Later, a stone Rectory & Church Institute building was constructed in the late 1890's, however all were bought soon after by the Queensland Government.  The area behind became known as the Executive Gardens in 1905 & displayed an enviable selection of flowers, available for public view "at all hours, day & night."  During this time, the associated outbuildings were utilised by the Brisbane Criminal Investigation Branch, aiding in the buildings' survival through until 1962 when they were finally demolished in the name of progress.

However, our building of focus lies beyond Queens Gardens to the right of Elizabeth Street, but is no less spectacular than the Treasury Building in size or appearance.  Our building of note is the Executive Building, or current Treasury Heritage Hotel.  Commenced in 1901 & officially opened in 1905, the building housed the Lands & Survey Department, including the offices of the Premier on the second floor & Queensland National Art Gallery along the George Street side of the building's third floor.  Similarly, the site on which the building stands also has an amazing history dating back to Brisbane Town's early years - on the 13th of April 1851, the United Evangelical Church Chapel was opened on the site, intended to provide religious service to the massive influx of immigrants who had arrived in Brisbane as a part of Dr. John Dunmore Lang's immigration scheme.  The Chapel was eventually sold to Dr. Lang on the 7th of April 1857, & again to the Government in December 1860, becoming Brisbane's first electric telegraph office. This amazing piece of Brisbane's history was sadly demolished in June 1899 to make way for the current building.

In an article published in the Sunday Mail on the 4th of October 1998, reporter Lou Robson detailed a tour she had taken in Brisbane, which included one of the best known ghost stories of the old Executive Building - "In the public bar a drunk called Charlie, who fell to his death from the top floor, is said to open doors for patrons & fondle barmaids as they work."  Exactly 10 years later in October 2008, Jetstar Magazine published an article about the same tour, reporting an amazingly similar story, albeit with slightly modified details - "It also takes in the Treasury Casino, where a decanter of expensive whisky has a habit of being mysteriously moved. "They believe it’s the ghost of an old man who was once a regular," says Senescall [the tour guide]. "A security guard once walked in just as the whisky had been poured, and saw the bottle return to the bar without a hand holding it.""  However, like all good ghost folk law in Brisbane, historical sources rarely stand in the way of good stories.

There is a very sound historical basis to this story, however the major glitch in the telling lies in the fact that the bars in both the Treasury Casino & Treasury Heritage Hotel are only about 15 years old - how on earth, could an old drunk be haunting a bar he frequented many years before the bar came into existence?  Ultimately, Charlie does not exist & he was not an old drunk...the truth lies in the story's single detail of a fatal fall.    

On Tuesday the 9th of February 1937, at 11:25 in the morning, 37 year old Kevin McMahon stood up from his work table in the Government Survey Office & walked into the hall on the third floor of the Executive Building towards the men's rest room on the forth floor. Kevin had grown up in Warwick, where he attended St. Joseph's Christian Brothers' College, affording him a high score in public examinations.  As a result, straight out of high school, he was offered a position as junior draughtsman in the Government Survey Office in 1917, which he pursued until a change of employer saw him move to the State Insurance Office as an assistant draughtsman in 1919.  Seven years at his second workplace elevated his experience & knowledge, resulting in Kevin finally returning to the Government Survey Office as a fully fledged draughtsman in 1926 to see out a further ten years in his chosen profession.  Focused on their work, the other 15 to 20 employees of the Government Survey Office paid little notice to his exit from the room - it would be the last time they would see their colleague alive.

Witnesses stated that Kevin looked pale & weak as he ascended the stairs toward the rest room, moving slowly & clutching the bannister for support.  A few minutes later, a horrible crash was heard throughout the building - on descending the stairs, Kevin had relied too heavily on the bannister's support & had toppled over, heavily striking a concrete ledge & the second floor stair railing.  On the ground floor, a woman & salesman Colin Campbell were sitting on a bench seat waiting to enter one of the offices - without a second's warning, Kevin's body impacted the concrete floor a few feet from where they sat.  The woman, suffering severely from shock, was escorted immediately from the scene, whilst Colin was called before the Inquest to provide evidence.  As a result of the Inquest, Kevin's brother Joseph was called upon, testifying that no underlying issues existed to hint at suicide (Kevin was happily married with four children), & the Coroner J. J. Leahy requested to personally see the stairwell before judgement, as testimony had alluded to a dangerously low stair bannister.  Ultimately, the Inquest deemed Kevin's death to be a tragic accident.

So, next time you walk past the old Executive Building (Treasury Heritage Hotel), spare a thought to Kevin & his family's loss - he wasn't named Charlie, he wasn't a drunk, & he sure as hell never frequented a bar that didn't exist for another nearly 60 years.

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