Art Deco in the Tropics

Innisfail,   North  Queensland  


The Birth of Innisfail

The region of Innisfail was rather late to develop, compared to the rest of the North Queensland coast. This was due to its location along the coastline within the Great Barrier Reef. With the earliest explorer of Captain Cook and his voyage of discovery in 1770, he sailed in the safety of open ocean beyond the dangers of the unchattered Barrier Reef. For over 100 years, many ships did the same, sailing far out at sea, unaware that this beautiful land of the joining rivers existed. No Europeans noticed this area until 1872, when the brig, Maria carrying gold prospectors to New Guinea became wrecked on Bramble Reef. The government of the day sent a rescue party to look for survivors, and on this recovery expedition was Sub-Inspector Robert Johnstone. As they searched for survivors, they discovered a large river outlet and were amazed at its size. With great river access and rich fertile soils, an Irishman, Thomas Henry Fitzgerald came to settle with the intention of growing cane. In 1880, Fitzgerald's expedition resulted with the first cane being planted and the building of the first sugar mill in 1881. Fitzgerald's success brought other sugar plantations, encouraging the growth of a town which become known as Geraldton, in 1883. With the additional exports of banana, timber and tropical produce, the town slowly grew. Then a confusion of names arose with an older town of Geraldton, Western Australia, highlighted when a Russian ship bound for WA arrived in Queensland. So in 1910, the town's name was changed to Innisfail, again in honour of Fitzgerald and his sugar estate. A name meaning "the Isle of destiny", derived from an ancient and poetic name of Ireland.                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                      Pic above : Shows Fitzgeralds Sugar Mill


From the ruins of a Tropical Cyclone

From its origins in 1880, Innisfail slowly grew. With the development and growth of the agricultural industries, a strong labour force arrived from both national and international ports. Even though the individual markets rose and fell, the prosperity of the town slowly improved. There was a pub on every corner, and all the nation's banks were present competing for the

pound. The towns street scape was predominately wooden structure, with only a few landowners constructing reinforsed cement buildings. But on

the 10th March, 1918 to most destructive Cyclone of its time paid the town a visit.



The following excerpt is from 93 year old Cyril James Graham, personal account of that ferocious storm. Taken from the

                "Innisfail & District Historical Society",    Vol.7  1991"


      Cyril James Graham   

" For a period of 8 to 10 days before the cyclone the sky had been overcast, not the slightest breeze, all plant life motionless, the humidity almost unbearable night and day. In the early hours of 10th March this was changed when a lovely breeze sprung up. By daylight it was a bit uncomfortably strong and by 9am any loose iron or fittings were rattling ominousily. By 1pm there was no doubt that we were in for something special. By that time, fowl and outhouses and even some dwellings were being torn apart and blowing away. The cyclone continued to increase in volume and power reaching its maximum about 6pm, and as it was getting dark, it appeared as if all hell had been let loose on us. It continued full blast till about 8pm when, without warning, it stopped dead and a lot of people walked around inspecting the damage. After about 3/4 of an hour, again without warning, it returned full blast in the opposite direction. There did not appear to be any noticable reduction in its power till about 1am on the 11th and by daylight in the morning it was just a breeze rattling the vast quantity of debris. "


At the height of the storm, Cyril's family was hiding in their family home which was slowly being torn apart, the top floor was already gone. When the winds died down during the lull, it was decided to find safer ground to shelter from the ferocious storm. Some wanderers reported that there were a lot of people in Nolan's new concrete building, so the family set off towards this safe haven. They had only travelled a short distance when the fury returned in full force. Huddled together they navigated their way through the enormous amount of rubble that was once their town. The bullet-driven rain with a vast throated roar of the wind, felt like a heavy freight train was crushing down upon them. A chaos of iron and timber missiled through the air and it was blind luck they survived. Hammering on Nolan's locked door, when admitted, were ushered down stairs to spend the rest of a seemingly endless night in safety.


Morning fetched a sorry, and to many a heart-breaking sight. All buildings that hadn't been completely destroyed, were badly damaged. The scrub all around, as far as the eye could see, had been stripped bare to the ground. The entire landscape was in desolation.


Yet from all this destruction a light shone. Two concrete buildings stood like a top hats above the rubble. Nolan's conviencce store and A.J Mellicks, both safetly sheltered the stranded during the storm. It was from the integrity of these solid buildings that led the authorities to decided all future construction should consider the safety and strength of reinforced cement. Thus Innisfail and the surrounding district began to embrace the style of reinforced cement, and at the time, the designs of ArtDeco. 


The Van Leeuween brothers, had recently migrated from Holland. With them they brought the knowledge of concrete construction, quickly becoming the region's most reputable builders. Some of their most renowned projects include : Johnstone Shire Hall built in 1938

                                             The Water Tower on Mourilyn Road

                                              Queens Hotel

                                              Hotel Grand Central

                                              Bank of New South Wales

                                              The National Bank

                                              The Commonwealth Bank


The new buildings were adapted to the tropical climate of Far North Queensland. These include peaked roofs and wide awnings to cater for the tropical down pours. These features help give Innisfail Art Deco a more unique style, compared to the rest of the world.

A scene of Rankin Street,

showing the street scape pre-1918



Innisfail Streets after one of the most destructive cyclones

to ever hit Queensland Coast,    1918


Edith Street,

Looking towards the location where Westpac now stands.


Cane Cutter Court, the town's buildings now built with reinforced cement.

On the left, cross the street, the Nolans building still stands.  Now ANZ Bank