The North Beach Bathers' Pavilion has been regarded by most people as a grand old building, a relic from a distant era, which sits there as a prominent landmark yet is not used to its full potential.
Some, although they are dwindling in numbers, can remember the pavilion in its heyday in the late 1930s and 1940s when it was the centre of activity at the beach and, on a scorcher, was used by up to 2000 people for dressing before and after a swim.
Now, courtesy of a big restoration budget and best practice planning, Wollongong City Council aims to re-establish the historic building as a focal point for the community.
The council is expecting the pavilion to be well patronised with the addition of a contemporary drawcard: a cafe that offers postcard views of the beach. Of course there are numerous new appealing features in the $13.9 million facelift, yet the cafe is expected to give the pavilion a viable pulse.
"This building not only celebrates our community's long-standing beach and surfing lifestyle but the new cafe highlights our coffee culture, bringing together two of our most relaxing experiences - good coffee and the beach," says Wollongong Lord Mayor Councillor Gordon Bradbery.
Next Sunday the council will officially re-open the pavilion, which has been closed since March 2011 for refurbishment. Cr Bradbery says the event will "mark the return of [the building] to the community".
With festivities including a longboard surfing competition, a performance from the City of Wollongong Brass Band, a lifesaving display and march past, the event will be similar in spirit to the original opening of the dressing pavilion and the nearby refreshment kiosk on November 12, 1938.
Hundreds gathered to watch the Minister for Works and Local Government Eric Spooner perform the ceremony. The Wollongong Town Band played on the lawn terrace and North Wollongong and Wollongong Surf Life Saving Clubs held an interclub display featuring a march past, musical flags, belt race, chariot race, beach relay and surf race.
"The modern design of the new buildings adds a distinct beauty to the beach and the composite picture is one that would be hard to equal in Australia," the Illawarra Mercury reported at the time.
Shirley Stevenson, 82, of Unanderra, will attend the reopening of the pavilion ceremony in honour of her late father, Ernest Clifton Welsh, who was a bricklayer on the project which started in April 1938 under the builder W. J. Anderson.
"The ceremony will mean a lot to me, in memory of dad," she says.
"He died in 1972 so it's great that his work, although he didn't do it all by himself, lives on and that I can still see it.
"My family is so pleased that they didn't pull the pavilion down or turn it into something else." Welsh, known as Cliff or Sid, had been a champion lightweight boxer who adopted the ring-name of Sid Maguire, in honour of his trainer, the famous Newcastle-based boxing coach, trainer and referee Tom Maguire.
Welsh moved his family from Newcastle to Corrimal to start work on the bathers pavilion when Mrs Stevenson was aged eight.
Mrs Stevenson has few childhood memories of the pavilion yet she remembers it well in the 1950s when she took her own four children to North Beach to swim.
"Dad and mum didn't have a car and we didn't have a car when our family was young," she recalls.
"I would always take the bus in with the kids to swim at the Continental Pool and we would walk along to North Beach to the bathers' pavilion where we would often get changed.
"That's a long time ago and the kids have now grown up and got kids of their own."
Mrs Stevenson, a widow, is a grandmother of 14 and a great grandmother of 21.
"The bathers' pavilion was filled with people," she says.
"It used to be very busy, particularly in the school holidays which is mainly when I took my kids."
Beach culture and swimming played an important role in the life of the Stevenson family.
"Our sons were in the surf club and all our kids were in the swimming club so the water, the surf and the pool were big features in our lives," says Mrs Stevenson who was a swimming teacher for 40 years.
The council's general manager David Farmer says the pavilion is "quintessentially Wollongong" and that it represents the importance of the surfing and beach culture and the community's affinity with the coast.
He says the pavilion and the nearby kiosk have a strong aesthetic relationship to each other, as well as the surf life saving club, which also dates from the 1930s. The whole precinct between North Beach and Flagstaff Hill - which is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register - was of historical and cultural significance because it showed the evolution of swimming as a popular pastime.
"It started off as segregated swimming and then the continental baths was where men and women swam together and then the bathers' pavilion, surf club and kiosk were about that later evolution of really popularising the surf culture in the 1930s," he says.
Farmer is proud that his organisation has been able to succeed in an area which is generally challenging to government authorities: finding ways to make heritage buildings and sites serve a modern, practical, and commercially viable purpose.
"We often struggle when we have historical buildings and Gleniffer Brae is a perfect example of trying to find a use for that building within the context of council services," he says.
"But with the pavilion we were able to provide adaptive reuse of that building with new public amenities, public services and lifeguard services.
"It's fantastic to be able to have a grand old building and to be able to deliver services that improve the amenity and safety of the area."
Farmer, who grew up in the Illawarra, can remember as a child glancing at the clock positioned within the parapet on the main entrance to check the time when he was swimming.
"When I was young it didn't have a real use," he reflects.
"It was used to an extent by the lifeguards but for it to be able to used for the cafe, the toilets and the public showers means the community can both enjoy the aesthetics of the building and actually use it."
The new upgraded facilities include six standard toilets and five showers in male and female areas, as well as an accessible parent room and accessible toilet and shower.
"The outcome of this process is that it has actually allowed for a reinvention of the building to accommodate the original uses of the building but in the manner that we now require in terms of what people's expectations and standards are," says the council's strategic project officer for heritage Joel Thompson. "By doing these works and providing new facilities we are actually matching the equivalent of what it was originally intended for."
While the completed project is impressive, there has been some criticism from the public about the cost of restoring the pavilion, built in what is known as the Interwar Functionalist style, and surrounds.
Farmer says the project is not over budget and the funds required are in the current 2012-13 budget. The original budget allocated was $12.8 million plus a budgeted contingency allowance of 15 per cent.
"That's a reasonably high contingency because we were dealing with a heritage asset, and working in the marine environment, and dealing with the saltworks in which there was a whole heap of unknowns under the ground," he says.
"Yet fundamentally the project is within budget. It's within budget because we always anticipated there would be some problems with a job of this sort."
During the pavilion's restoration works, remnants of an experimental saltworks, set up by English pharmacist Courtney Puckey at the southern end of the beach, were unearthed. The saltworks operated for about ten years from the middle of the 1890s onwards.
Farmer says the $13.9 million figure takes into account work on both the pavilion and the Blue Mile project.
More than half the cost was in the Blue Mile works including the new pedestrian promenade and retaining walls, and replacement of the seawall, he says.
"We've been able to dramatically improve the access around the building and access for those recreational walkers and cyclists," he says. "[Before] ...it was quite a dangerous space - now it's six metres wide at the narrowest point, plus we've redone the steps and disabled access down there as well.
"The building has cost a lot of money and when you go in there you will realise why. The fittings and fixtures are all stainless steel and high quality glass that is built to last for a long time."
The brickwork has been cleaned, repaired, and repointed to ensure the new repairs to the brickwork matched the original colour.
The glass roof and light materials have retained the light-filled feel of Harvey Ennis Gale's original design. ■