Talking point: BMI’s Paula Nicholson, Member for Wendouree Juliana Addison and BMI venue manager Sam McColl under just some of the candle-smoke graffiti. Photo: EDWINA WILLIAMS

Renovation sees BMI basement reborn

July 22, 2021 BY

RESTORATION of the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute’s historic basement is now complete.

Builder Peter Broadhead and his team began the renovation and preservation works worth $175,000 earlier this year, which were funded by the State’s Living Heritage Program.

Heritage architect Wendy Jacobs worked with the BMI and tradespeople to refresh the space which was designed in 1869 to accommodate both a restaurant and men’s smoking room.

Most recently a storage area, Ms Jacobs has been advocating for the basement’s renaissance since 2004, aware of its significance, value, and potential.

“We’ve given it some TLC and improved the air system to ensure we don’t have a build-up of mould again, and that it can be safe and healthy for people down here,” she said.

“The original plans have ‘restaurant’ written across them. We can see what was the servery on one of the walls, and the kitchen was behind.

“But the basement flooded before it was originally finished, so I can find no information that it was actually ever used as a restaurant. It was used as a wine store and storage, but that’s all we could find out.”

Candle-smoke graffiti on walls and ceilings, estimated to date between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has been left as it was. New discoveries have been made too.

“I had never seen the fireplace next to the servery before. I had no idea it was there until they took away the stuff that had been stored in here,” Ms Jacobs said.

“The basement is perhaps the least-known but one of my favourite parts in the building. We’ve tried to keep the character of age. That’s a hard balancing act.”

BMI acting president Paula Nicholson said this restoration and refreshment means the organisation can offer “unique experiences to new audiences.”

“We’re not going to use it as storage anymore. This is a brand-new, more contemporary space for us to share with the public,” she said.

The BMI plan to host functions and run heritage tours throughout the basement. COVID-19 restrictions permitting, the first event will run as part of the 2021 Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

The board also has a goal to install a lift to connect the commercial kitchen above, and improve accessibility.

Member for Wendouree Juliana Addison said the State Government recognises the historic and educational significance of the building.

“We are proud to be a part of preserving it for future generations,” she said.

“The dedicated team who manage the venue run outstanding programs and events, and the restoration of this space will provide many opportunities to continue that excellent work.”

BMI patron, City of Ballarat mayor Cr Daniel Moloney congratulated volunteers on their championing of the “beautiful and well-loved” local icon.

“The City of Ballarat has proudly supported the restoration of the BMI over many years, and this funding from the Victorian Government enables the final piece of the puzzle,” he said.