ADFAS is undertaking a new project similar to the current Church Recordings; the recording of the Schools of Arts buildings and Mechanics Institutes. These public places, sometimes humble timber structures, sometimes grand “statement” buildings, have served communities well, some for almost 150 years, and survive to tell a story of ambition, aspiration and the best of the human spirit.
The Schools of Arts and Mechanics Institutes are in abandoned Hunter villages, such as Baerami, and fast-changing cities, such as Newcastle and Maitland. Even individual suburbs had their own; Tighes Hill’s is a true beauty and is now a retro dress shop. In a throw-away age of obsolescence and residential expansion, most of them have defied change. Even better, they have supporters and protectors to provide the help they will need to survive into a third century. Without places such as these, Hunter rural communities will be without a heart, a place of refuge and a central focus for the ceremonies that underpin our social life. The schools of arts and mechanics institutes offered unprecedented opportunities for education. They were the only place where women could get an education above primary school. They evolved into free public libraries and from 1913, a government public education system, including technical colleges that we know today as TAFE.
The buildings were often paid for and built on land donated by the philanthropist businessmen of the day, men such as William Arnott. Top Hunter architects, such as the Penders and Frederick Menkens, designed the buildings. They were statement buildings about the importance people placed on education. Mechanics institutes were more likely to be left-wing, controlled by the workers and catered for “miners and their lanterns”. Schools of arts delivered a more general, perhaps more genteel, education.
It is feared that these buildings, often a symbol of rural history, will be swept away by the pressure of development and the desire for newer and bigger community assets. It is the ADFAS mission to record as much as possible of these buildings before they become but a memory