At the front of the Illawarra hotel, there's a small room running along Market Street that, up until last year, was full of secondhand smoke and the jingle jangle of poker machines.
Now, after the pub's dramatic renovation which has restored its Art Deco flair, a small glowing sign instead proclaims the room: Hilda's Bar.
Stepping inside, rich colours, carefully composed floral arrangements and dark wood-clad walls transport you right back to the 1930s, when trendsetter and trailblazer Hilda Condon began her decades long tenure as the Illawarra's first licensee.
Together with her sisters and daughters, Mabel and Jessie O'Meara and Margaret and Pamela Condon, Hilda ran the pub from its opening in 1938, after being granted the licence by Tooth and Co (which became Tooheys).
In November that year, the Illawarra Mercury of the day described the pub as "magnificently appointed, and indeed almost palatial, and everything that is necessary for modern comfort has been provided.
"All rooms and hallways on the three floors are expensively furnished and carpeted throughout, while the bathrooms are almost ultra-modern in their luxuriousness," the paper wrote.
"Ample reading rooms, writing rooms and dining rooms leave nothing to be desired. The well-being of guests is the personal interest of the proprietress."
In the 50s, after her daughter Margaret died young, Hilda retained the pub's license but handed over the management to her other daughter, Pamela, and son-in-law, Robert East.
With her family, she remained living in an apartment on the first floor overlooking Keira Street - and holding court in the Wollongong social scene - until her death in 1962.
The bar used to curve around in a U, with a raised island in the middle and she used to sit there at the cash register and command the room with her presence. There was no misbehaviour tolerated.- Hilda's granddaughter, Penelope Kearney
For new pub manager Nikki Aitchison, who runs the hotel with her licensee husband Ryan, bringing Hilda's history back to life has been central to the renovation.
"We live and breathe hospitality - we met in a pub and now we're here raising our family while running a pub - so to take on a venue where there's a history of family and passion for the industry, we're living that too and we can relate to that," Ms Aitchison said.
"She had her daughters living there with her upstairs, she lived here, and she lived and breathed this venue."
Hilda's feminine, uncompromising attitude - which stood out in mid-century Wollongong, which was brimming with blue collar workers from the booming steel industry - has also been an inspiration.
"She moved here as a single woman, in the 1930s during the war and she was very strong and business minded," Ms Aitchison said.
"Even as a woman now, this is still a very masculine industry especially once you hit management, so to see that she did that back then was inspiring.
"She knew what she wanted, and she didn't care that she was a woman in a man's world.
"She worked really hard and she was a socialite here in the Illawarra, everyone knew who she was because of how she dressed. "
"She always wore beautiful suits and pearl earrings, her hair was always done up beautifully. If she was walking down the street, people knew who she was."
Hilda's granddaughter (and Pamela's daughter) Dr Penelope Kearney, grew up in the hotel and remembers her grandmother as an imposing and somewhat fearsome figure.
"She ruled the public bar with an iron fist," Dr Kearney said.
"The bar used to curve around in a U, with a raised island in the middle and she used to sit there at the cash register and command the room with her presence. There was no misbehaviour tolerated."
"She was exceptionally stylish and committed to the Illawarra also being a stylish place. My mother, Pam, was the same.
"They didn't necessarily conform with fashion, but rather created their own style. My mother was always berating me about being 'different', saying that stylish difference was valued rather than being like everyone else."
When Dr Kearney was a teenager and Hilda had handed over the reins to Pamela and Robert, she remembers how her grandmother would make the whole family dress for dinner and meet at the main foyer, off Market Street, at 6.45pm sharp.
"There was a foyer and reception office, and a few large, beautiful timber armchairs, so we'd come downstairs from the flat dressed for dinner and Hilda would be there holding court.
"She'd have a drink and people would sort of come and pay their respects: old customers, Wollongong business people, whoever, and it was all 'oh lovely to see you Ms Condon, or Mrs H or whatever."
Another piece of family lore - involving a Wollongong-invented gun which was used extensively by the Australian Army throughout World War II - shows just how much Hilda was a force to be reckoned with.
"The Owen Gun was invented by a man called Evelyn Owen and he was a bit of an odd sort of character and he was a friend of my Aunt Margaret's", Dr Kearney remembers.
She gave him the gun in a sugar sack and told him 'you've really got to have a look at this, it's got a lot of promise', and he did and then Lysaghts was involved in the development of it.- Ms Kearney, describing Hilda Condon's role in the production of the Owen Gun during WWII.
"He invented this gun and tried to get the army to take notice of it, but they said no. So, apparently, he asked Aunt Margaret if she would get Hilda to give it to the head of Lysaght's [Vincent Wardell] at Port Kembla who used to come into the Illawarra for drinks on Friday nights.
"So she gave it to him in a sugar sack and told him 'you've really got to have a look at this, it's got a lot of promise', and he did and then Lysaghts was involved in the development of it."
"Some of the history of this gun doesn't include the bit about Hilda [simply saying Wardell 'found the gun in a sugar bag'], but I believe the story of her being involved, because she was just so fierce.
"If she decided to do something, she'd do it."
Working with Dr Kearney, Nikki and Ryan Aitchison hope to restore even more history to the hotel by placing photos - and even a pair of Hilda's signature costume earrings - on display in Hilda's Bar.
But already, just a few weeks since the hotel reopened after the renovation, they can feel the heritage of the place coming alive.
Ms Aitchison's mother has been working alongside the couple and, sometimes on a Sunday, the couple's two children will sit in the closed pub's back room while their parents do the accounts from Saturday night.
"Even now, having my mum here working with me and with my kids, it feels a bit like we're resurrecting the good old days," Ms Aitchison said.
"When you go upstairs in the apartment, you can almost feel the way their family would have lived up there. We've looked at old photos of their family sitting on the central stairs, and here we are walking up the stairs ourselves."
"I know it's funny to say, but it feels like the energy is back in the place. It's humming again."
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