Welcome to Hidden Histories: Palace Memorial Building, the ninth episode of series two of the Bundaberg Now Podcast.
Once a backpacker hostel, the Palace Memorial building now houses a moving commemoration to the 15 travellers who tragically lost their lives as a result of arson.
It was the second devastating fire in the building’s history.
The original building was lost in the great Childers fire of 1902.
It was reopened in 1903 and was converted to backpacker accommodation in the early 1990s.
This month marks 22 years since a second fire devastated the Palace building, as a result of arson, and 15 people tragically lost their lives.
University lecturer and artist Sam Di Mauro was asked to create a memorial for those who lost their lives which is featured in the Palace Memorial building.
“Once something is put into the mind, the mind doesn't stop thinking about how can this be interpreted,” Sam said.
“Who are the people that I am responsible to? How about the families of these young people? Who were these young people?
“All those sorts of things are sort of going through the mind and trying to come to terms with an interpretation of this word ‘memorial' in the context of this disaster.
“It was very traumatic for me to be taking on that that task.
“But it was very, very, very rewarding.”
Listen now to hear more about the backpacker memorial:
In this series we shine a spotlight on the heritage buildings and infrastructure in our region.
Listen as we uncover memories, mysterious ghost stories and bizarre facts about some of our most iconic structures.
Hidden Histories: Palace Memorial Building transcript:
Gennavieve Lyons [00:00:06] Welcome to this special series of the Bundaberg Now podcast where we shine a spotlight on the history of our region. My name's Gennavieve Lyons and I'll be your host as we uncover history and stories about some of our most iconic buildings and structures. Once a backpacker hostel, the Palace Memorial Building, now houses a moving commemoration to the 15 travellers who tragically lost their lives as a result of arson. It was the second devastating fire in the building's history. The original building was lost in the great Childers Fire of 1902, which also claimed many buildings in the CBD. It was then rebuilt and reopened in 1903. Throughout the 1930s and forties, it was a premier hotel in Childers, serving thirsty cane cutters and offering accommodation, a dining room and at one stage a grand ballroom before being converted to backpacker accommodation in the early nineties. This month marks 22 years since that second fire burnt down the palace building two years and four months after the devastating fire. The Palace Memorial Building was opened. The restored building houses, the Childers Regional Art Gallery, the Childers Visitor Information Centre, as well as a mural of the Victims of the Fire by Josonia Palaitis and a moving glass memorial. University lecturer and artist Sam Di Mauro was asked to take charge of developing and creating the memorial. The result is a glass memorial 7.7 metres wide by 2.7 metres high, with 15 memory boxes depicting the lives of each victim with photographs supplied by their families. Sam spoke with Adele Bennett from Bundaberg Now about the memorial and his process in developing a peace so meaningful.
Adele Bennett [00:01:58] Thanks so much for joining us on the Bundaberg Now podcast. We are here to talk about the Palace Memorial Building. Can you tell me a bit about the memorial and describe it to our listeners?
Sam Di Mauro [00:02:10] Well, the memorial building has got an incredible history. I think the original building was burnt in the early 1900s. And then, unfortunately, this disaster that occurred much later and the building was always recognised as quite an icon in the town in terms of its architectural qualities and design. When the disaster occurred, they asked where their communication with the parents gave a commitment by the Queensland Government that a memorial and maybe in the form of a mural, would be produced to acknowledge the people who had died. I then was lucky enough to be contacted in relation to the design and ultimate creation of the memorial. At the time I was travelling in Japan and so this came as quite a surprise. Now, once something is put into the mind, the mind doesn't stop thinking about how can this be interpreted? Who are the people that I am responsible to? How about, you know, the families of these young people? Who were these young people? So all those sorts of things are sort of going through the mind and trying to come to terms with an interpretation of this word memorial in the context of all this disaster. I then started working on the project. The council gave me a space in town and in a little corner of an office and it was there that I would go up. I think it would probably have been once a week from uni after lecturing at uni at the time. And so the university saw this as research and said, if you know it's part of your professional development and project at the same time. So they gave me the okay to work from that perspective. So I would be up there on average one day a week and it was very public. So the public knew that I was there and that I was looking at trying to interpret this and they were most welcome to come in and chat about the progress. And so eventually then I came up with the concept and presented that concept. Made a full size section of what I had thought a memorial, and we put it on display in the cultural centre where my little office was. And invited the public to come and have a look at it. Quite a few people came and we had a public gathering for the public to come and have a look at it and have a listen to what the Council were planning to do with the building and with the interpretation of the memorial. So there's one huge piece of glass. The glass is symbolising the family of backpackers. So it's huge. It's an international family. It's a family that grows and grows and shrinks. Yeah. The family of the individuals was then needing to be featured because when one becomes aware of that those little journey boxes, those crystalline journey boxes. What you're doing is you're looking at someone as a person could be. The kid next door. Yeah. It could be. It doesn't matter about the nationality stuff or about about the country that these people originate from. The images that parents sent me as an explanation of who their child was and how they wanted their child remembered. They were international and I can remember a lot of those images, like the ones that we took as kids taken of us as young kids. So if it's related, then back that notion of, well, these could be any children. They could be anywhere in the world. They could be their experiences are basically individual, but basically they're the same as well. And so it was important to have that one piece of glass to represent the family and then these uniquely knit, crystalline boxes with the images telling the story of each of those individuals.
Adele Bennett [00:07:09] And then how was that received by the families? I know that was an opening event. And most of the families were able to make it for that.
Sam Di Mauro [00:07:19] Yeah, I think there was. There was one family missing, if I can remember correctly. Yeah, well, two basically, because there was one chap who we had no knowledge of. We knew his name and that's all. We couldn't find any information. He had a bit of a history that sort of scattered around a couple of places, so we didn't know this man. And so we just put in, know what we could find out about him was that he was a Moroccan Australian. Yeah. And that he left Morocco at the same time that I went to Morocco on a holiday. Oh, wow. So on my travelling around, I was going, I was in Morocco and he was not that we knew at the time, but just coincidentally. And the reason I say that is because I was then able to take some of my images that I took in Morocco and use them in his little journey box. Couple of those images in there. The ones at the same time, same era. Yeah. Of his departure from Morocco and then places that we thought he would have gone to.
Adele Bennett [00:08:37] That's nice, yeah the connection.
Sam Di Mauro [00:08:41] Yeah. So that that worked out well. And there's another story that goes on from that, which if I've got time, I'll mention that. But the launch of the artwork, you know, the Childer's City Council. Did such an amazing job. They thought of everything. They thought of the possibility that some people might become traumatised by this. So they had social workers and they had psychologists and they had the ambulance handy and, you know, Nancy and Steve and I think they are probably the ones who are most instrumental in coordinating these people to be able to be on hand should they be needed.
Adele Bennett [00:09:27] How did it I feel for you I mean, being tasked with such a meaningful project was it daunting at first.
Sam Di Mauro [00:09:38] It was one of the most daunting thing I've ever done in my life. Yeah, it was. And the realisation came on the night of the preview of the parents. We had a meal up at the Isis Club and everyone was great meeting new people and you know, laughing and telling stories. And then slowly we've been down to the Palace Hotel and walked out of hotel. Once we got to the hotel, the emotions changed. There was more silence. There was a sense of, we've arrived at. What arrived at? What are we expecting to be seeing? So they made their way up the stairs slowly. Now, in the process of this whole process of making the memorial, Bill Trevor sort of brought to our attention that, you know, we have promised the parents a mural and we're not giving them a mural. So the Queensland Government I think came in and said, you know, well, you've got to give them what you had promised. Steve found an artist in Sydney who was a realistic, super realistic paint artist so she could produce almost a photographic painting. All these people from the images that were sent to us. Josonia Palaitis was her name. So Jo produced painting. And so when you're down one end of the hall, which is now the gallery space upstairs in the Palace Building, and you look down and you see a big glass wall and it's lit with a cool light. Then these journey boxes are a warm glow on that big, massive piece of glass. And so we're looking at a piece of glass eight metres long by three metres high, one piece. So it's quite a large has a large impact in the space. Yeah. So you look out and you see that illuminated wall and you can't, you don't identify with anything that's inside of those box. So you look across at the painting, you can identify straight away your child in the painting. Yeah. So the parents moved on mass down and went straight to the painting. Yeah. And the emotion that was really like nothing I'd ever seen in my life. And, you know, these were people from different cultures. And, you know, so much sadness. Death in the family is death in the family. So they then looked and cried and, you know. But slowly they then moved across to the wall. And they went searching on that memorial to find their child when they found the child. They then spent a lot of time looking into those boxes because their design, the images are laid out in those journey boxes. Such a way that you can't see all the images, you can see them, but you've got to take your eye on a journey through that collection of images if you really want to see all of those images individually. Yeah, and that was part of the process. They were on a journey. You take your eye on a journey into that person. So they sort of, you know, looking at that and their emotion started to move from that very distressed state to one of reflection, now reflecting on their child and the life they had together, the life that they enjoyed. And so the emotions changed. Now, deep inside, there would have been still a lot. Deep emotional responses continuing. But it was really reassuring for me by the end of the night to see parents standing into the side of their child's journey box and having another family photo taken.
Adele Bennett [00:14:00] Yeah. Oh, that's lovely.
Sam Di Mauro [00:14:04] So that was, that was quite rewarding for me as far as to know that well it has worked and you know, in chatting with the parents at that time and two of them said to me, you asked us to do what we thought that would be impossible to go back and open up again because it was there was 12 months later even more that, you know, my request of going to them to say, you know, please bring me send me 25 to 50 photographs of your child as you want them remembered and if you could prioritise them. And they, a lot of us said, you know, we couldn't do it, we didn't want to do it, it was too difficult. We had put closure to that and you asked us asking us to open it up again and they said, you know, we asked them for their, their children, siblings to take that responsibility. A few of them did. And they said, you know, it wasn't long before. You were in there selecting photos of our children.
So, you know, it was look, it was very traumatic for me to be taking on that task. But it was a very, very, very rewarding. And to be asked to do professionally. I in a strange way I did enjoy the process. But, but you know, the support from, the support from Steve Johnston was absolutely astronomical. I wouldn't have thought that someone in Steve's position would be so open to some of these abstract suggestions that I have made. In relation to the memorial. So I see him very much as a genuine man and Nancy Calder as well. They really are people who went out of their way, as did Bill and the Queensland Government too. But Steve and Nancy were, you know, they were fantastic.
Adele Bennett [00:16:24] I also read that you made the glass memory boxes that tell the story of the building. Could you share a little bit about those and what they mean?
Sam Di Mauro [00:16:34] Sure. We are in the process. I work that I've done in public artwork. My own artwork always comes inspired from a community that I've gone and investigated or a culture that I've gone and investigated. So there will be reference to that culture in the artwork. And the original idea for the memorial. I wanted to include some references to the community and how they helped the backpackers who survived to move on and to survive on that around that time. And unfortunately and maybe it was fortunate in that in the big picture the parents of one of the parents disagreed. They preferred to not have the community being referenced in the artwork directly. So I then put together an idea that Steve that I'd like to maybe talk about how the building was used by the community and how children, how it was a central part of that community of children. So we then I then sort of looked at the individual spaces and then interviewed people past and present, not past, but present residents and past residents and did some research and found out, you know, the different use of a building that people who had been there. And so that in each of those spaces in the building, not in the we didn't put anything in the way of the record spaces of our path on the veranda stairs going up to the gallery and the information centre. So we used most of the other spaces and in there there are these stories or visual references or symbols that talk about what this building did. So if you went into the information centre, inside the information centre, there's one box, one memory box, and inside it I found out that that space was where a lot of the young women had their wedding photos taken. So I then found people who had had their wedding photos taken in that space. And they very generously, generously allowed me to use their photograph within that space.
Their great little narrative about place. Yeah, they are. And I think that they've worked well. I suppose they're in the shadow of the memorial, which is fair enough, but they're there so that we can remember the community of Childers.
Gennavieve Lyons [00:19:30] Thanks for listening to that account of the Palace Memorial Building. Join us again next month for another look into Bundaberg's historic buildings and places.