From the architect:

The heritage adaptation of Cairns oldest public building, the School of Arts, has seen it restored to reflect its original appearance. A new street-front extension now houses the Cairns Museum. 

The building occupies a focal corner of what is known as City Place, the historical heart of the Cairns CBD. The design approach to this project began with the idea of this central streetscape as a living museum.

The School of Arts, constructed in 1907, had undergone a series of extensions throughout its history in response to the city’s changing needs. In 1932 the existing two storey building was continued further along Lake Street. 

In 1939 an ‘Egyptian’ art deco style wing was added to provide a larger, purposed design public library and more retail space below. This art deco façade was later concealed behind a veranda during a major renovation in 1984. 

The opportunity existed to uncover this story about the growth and development of Cairns by restoring the integrity of each successive extension. The new Cairns Museum wing was conceived as the latest chapter in the story.

Works included the refitting the ground floor shop fronts to their original use as retail and dining spaces. Silky Oak tongue and groove ceilings, decorative cornices, ceiling battening and shopfront glazing were reinstated or restored where possible. 

The previously hidden ‘Egyptian’ art deco columns were restored and the 1939 awning and School of Arts signage were reconstructed. Documentation of the restoration works was extensively researched, drawing from the analysis of paint scrapings, old photographs of the building and knowledge of historical paints and colour palettes. 

A full modernisation of the mechanical, electrical and air-conditioning system was undertaken to allow the Cairns Historical Society to safely utilise the existing building as an archive for their collection of significant artefacts and provide a museum space of contemporary standards.

The new Cairns Museum on Shield Street repeats the motif of prominent building name signage found on each of the previous extensions. ‘School of Arts’ is cut into the timber screen façade as an iconographic element. 

Exposed concrete is used throughout in reference to the original 1907 School of Arts, which is one of Cairns’ first insitu concrete structures. The museum stair functions as the central circulation spine and a device for separating the new and old. Concrete floor slabs bridge across the stair void connecting the museum to display spaces in the 1907 building. 

A three-storey strip of glazing is used to visually separate the new museum façade from the existing enclosed veranda. The western 1907 façade is entirely contained within the new museum volume. The façade is kept readable as a building exterior by continuing the sea-green exterior paint finish and retaining window hoods to the original sash windows. 

In a gesture of deference to the heritage architecture, the contemporary extension utilises a neutral colour palette of whites and greys. The Cairns Historical Society manager’s office, kitchenette and meeting room are placed within the existing School of Arts as Silky Oak clad insertions. These spaces are angled to contrast with the orthogonal structure of the heritage building.