Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Katoomba Court House

Aerial view of the court House in 1972
By the early 1890s Katoomba had become, through coal and tourism, a town with a future. Municipal status had been granted in 1889 and the possibilities of continued growth held promise of glittering prizes for local commerce.

Civic pride flowered in the hearts of the town's citizens and men prominent in local affairs began to seek expression of Katoomba's new prestige through the erection of appropriate public buildings.

A new brick post office was erected in the Bathurst Road in 1887 while, in 1891, a substantial timber railway station replaced its earlier counterpart at the gateway to the town. A year later, in 1892, a deputation of aldermen travelled to Sydney to argue for the construction of a court house at Katoomba.

Three years later, on Saturday 4 May 1895, a large crowd of locals and visitors gathered by the Bathurst Road on the Sydney side of Katoomba. They watched as the Lieutenant Governor, Sir Frederick Darley, accepted a silver, ebony-handled trowel and mallet of lignum vitae and proceeded ceremonially to lay the foundation stone of the latest jewel in Katoomba's crown. The new court house, said the Mountaineer newspaper, would be a building whose "outward appearance will delight those with architectural tastes, while its inner compartments will be a terror to evil doers".

In his speech Sir Frederick acknowledged that he was no stranger to Katoomba, declaring that the last seven years he had spent at Lilianfels, his country retreat on the cliffs at Echo Point, had been the happiest of his life. He had watched the town grow from a village, huddled around one main road and a few bridle paths, into a municipality with the potential to become the playground of Australia. He had no doubt that Katoomba would prosper and praised the energy of her leading citizens.

All who spoke, both at the ceremony and at the "capital lunch" which followed in the Carrington, echoed these sentiments. And, as the building took shape over the ensuing months, the quality and style of its construction seemed to personify this prevailing spirit of optimism.

The stone used for its outer walls was a "perfectly white" freestone quarried locally, within a mile of the building site. It was claimed by one of the contractors that "he had never met its equal". Internally, the story was the same. The walls were finished in smoke coloured plaster, the ceiling curved and paneled with heavy cedar moldings. The acoustic properties were especially commented upon as was the large semicircular, lead-lighted front window through which a softened light suffused the court room. When the building was opened for business on 19 February 1896 the presiding magistrate declared it to be "one of the most comfortable and elegant in the colony".

At the laying of the foundation stone several dignitaries had expressed the hope that, while the court house was a credit to the district, it would be little, if ever, used. Throughout the first day of business, in these admired and civilized surroundings, such fanciful expectations were grounded by reality. A succession of flawed humanity stood before the bench charged with everything from drunkenness and obscene language to assault and robbery. Later, by 1926, business was such that the building had to be enlarged.

The civic optimists were soon reminded that not all Katoomba's citizens shared their faith. The court house served other functions than the mere provision of "an architectural ornament to the town".

Ref: The Court House, Katoomba, in: Historic Blue Mountains, 1987 by John Low

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