The star of Customs House

20151010_104657 (3)In the shadow of an 11th century steeple in central Scotland, a boy drew as close as he dared, observing intently. His father, sweating and face blackened, forged hand-made nails while his son dreamed of things they could make. The child was fated to train in one of Glasgow’s best architect’s offices, and design the most beautiful building in Queensland half a world away.

Charles McLay was born in St Ninians, Stirlingshire, and in 1885 joined the Queensland Colonial Architect’s office. He became responsible for many remarkable designs. The Fortitude Valley Post Office, Bundaberg Post Office, and the Baillie Henderson Hospital in Toowoomba. His talents were celebrated with anonymous verse in 1912. McLay’s luxurious Brisbane vaudeville theatre “The Empire” is today sadly gone.

Of architecture modern, and
Also of styles antique;
Of Gothic and Byzantine, too;
Of Roman and of Greek,
Of Norman, Scots Baronial,
Of Tudor, and Queen Anne,
McLay knows just as much, perhaps,
As any other man.
One of his works which all admire
Is Holland’s show called “The Empire.”

McLay’s masterpiece, however, was commenced in 1886 set on the Brisbane River. It took three years to build. Corinthian columns, pedimented gables, a massive colonnade, exquisite cornices, and a magnificent dome that stamps authority. An elegant red cedar staircase was secreted inside the two-storey street entrance, growing to three levels on the riverside. A fortune passed across its tables every day, as customs and excise were levied on ships berthed just metres away. McLay had mastered the Victorian free classical style. The soul of colonial commerce was captured forever. Even now, you can still smell the money in the receiving room main hall. And outside, an enormous Moreton Bay fig tree, planted when the place was built, exudes the same cool subtropical air of back then.

Today the grandness of Brisbane’s historic Customs House is threatened by council. It’s approved a 47-storey tower block next door. The usual 25 metre heritage setback apparently slashed to under 3 metres. McLay lays buried in the Bulimba Cemetery a couple of bends downstream. Those nails his father made will be driven into his heart, should the council be allowed to tarnish his legacy’s undisputed integrity and grandeur.

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