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Building Facts – Did you know?
Why are the windows in the basement?
Those members who have ventured to the bowels of the Institute building will have noticed the windows in the basement. This has led to a number of theories about the building and the street level in Sturt Street. The Courier ran an article last year about our hidden street. I am so sorry to tell you that this is just a romantic myth. The street level today is very similar to the street level in 1859 when the Minerva Space building was constructed and in 1869 when the front section of the building was added.
The drawings for the basement are labelled in the architect’s own handwriting as “Basement” and illustrations and early photographs clearly show the existing entrance arch at street level. So why are there windows? The architect’s plan has the space in the east of the basement labelled “Restaurant” and the section that now houses the newspaper stacks was a kitchen. The room at the west end of the basement was the “Smoking Room” and entered separately though the west stair. The entry to the restaurant was through a stair and door opening off from Sturt Street.
To make the basement seem brighter and not so subterranean it was usual practice in the 19th century to place cast iron grids in the footpath above and then install windows in the room to allow natural daylight to filter through. Reference to these grids has been found in the minute books of the 1870s. The arched vaults at the north end of the basement are actually under the Sturt Street footpath and would appear to have been installed as part of the footing system to support the tall building.
From early minute books it does appear that a restaurant operated from the basement in the 1870s but was discontinued. The street grates probably caused a lot of concern with storm water, dirt and rubbish having to be regularly removed. Letting light in to basements from street level was a general practice and is used at Her Majesty’s Theatre with pavement lights set into the footpath to light the basement toilet areas. In London and Bath you see narrow railed “areas” leading down to the basement with below ground windows. I hope this clears up the mystery for our members.
If you would like to know more about the history of the building you may like to consult the Conservation Management Plan, 2001. A copy is held by the Institute.
Wendy Jacobs, Heritage Architect