Art Deco In The Tropics

May 8, 2024

White Horse Hotel By John Fison

Tropical North Queensland is best known for palm-fringed beaches and dangerous marine life, but the regional town of Innisfail, just south of Cairns, has a surprising claim to fame. It is home to an impressive array of Art Deco buildings. The town of 7,000 people might be small in size, but it’s a heavyweight when it comes to architecture.

Europeans first put down roots at the confluence of the North and South Johnstone Rivers in 1880, and the region quickly became the hub of the sugar cane industry. The shire was initially called Geraldton, but after a Russian ship, bound for Western Australia’s port of Geraldton, turned up in North Queensland, the authorities decided a name change was needed to avoid further confusion. The town became Innisfail, a poetic name for Ireland.

Disaster struck in 1918, when a cyclone tore through the region, leaving only 12 houses standing. When the town was rebuilt, European craftsmen opted for concrete structures, using the popular style of the era. To cope with the wet seasons, wide awnings and peaked rooves were incorporated. The result was Tropical Art Deco.

Some of Innisfail’s buildings are now just brightly-painted facades, repurposed as chemists, gyms and healing centres, but others remain grand tributes to a former age of prosperity. The mothership of the Art Deco movement is the Johnstone Shire Hall, which rivalled anything Sydney had to offer, back in the day. The building lost its roof to cyclone Larry in 2006, but after a 17-million-dollar facelift, has been returned to its former glory.

Download an app for a self-guided wander through an intriguing chapter in North Queensland’s history, or book in with the historical society for a guided tour. Every September, Innisfail goes all out with a five-day festival celebrating everything Art Deco.

Expect music, markets and movies, and don’t forget your flapper dress and pearls! Julie Fison is a Brisbane author and travel lover.

Her debut novel for adults, One Punch, is a compelling contemporary drama that tells the story of two mothers facing impossible decisions after one life-changing night. When not at her desk, you can find Julie hiking a bush trail with her energetic border collie, exploring the outback, or chasing the perfect sunset. She is a committed traveller and enjoys sharing tips for midlife adventure.

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