Merger and Redevelopment
12 September 2021
1. The merger and redevelopment of the Club took place between 1969 and 1972. They occurred in the context of a modernisation craze that swept Sydney in the 1950s and 1960s. Let me mention a few examples that epitomise what was happening:
1953 – Tram Network
The government announced that, to make way for cars and buses, Sydney’s extensive tram network, which was the second largest in the southern hemisphere and second only to London in the Commonwealth, would be closed. The last tram journey was in 1961 to La Perouse. Most of the tram cars were doused with sump oil and burned.
1955 – Cahill Expressway
Construction started on Australia’s first motorway – the 2.2 km long Cahill Expressway. It opened in 1958 and was heavily promoted by the motor vehicle and oil lobbies, who had also pushed for the closure of the tram network.
1957 – Opera House
Joern Utzon won the design competition for the Sydney Opera House. And work began two years later with the demolition of the castellated structure on Bennelong Point known as the Fort Macquarie Tram Depot.
1961 - Australia Square
Harry Seidler conceived the Australia Square project, which was completed in 1967. It was Australia’s first version of a glittering skyscraper. One Australian architecture writer, who had obviously never seen the Coliseum or the Tower of Pisa, remarked: ‘The idea that a building could be circular had never entered my consciousness’!
2. By the time the Australia Square tower went up in the mid-1960s, some members of the Club had become fired with their own enthusiasm for a concrete and glass tower.
3. Peter Sayers was one of the leading proponents, a member of the Committee at the time and later, when it was all over, a President of the Club. At the age of 91, he reminisced in an interview with Stuart Renwick:
‘Since early 1967, the idea of the development of the Club had been pursued behind the scenes…urging people along and working towards a special meeting to consider it. We were always hoping to carry the matter at the meeting, as we did a lot of homework before that’.
4. Opinions were divided but Peter was confident in his own view and thought the position was clear. He recalled:
‘Anybody who thought at all about it, saw this as the only possible way to go. The Club could not go on in its present form. It was a very awkward club to run. It was full of Victorian brass which had to be polished daily…The loading dock was built for a horse and cart…It was quite unsuitable for a modern club and was made for a lot of live-in staff’.
5. But there was a problem. In Peter’s words again: ‘There was never any possibility of our doing it ourselves. We had no money. We were flat broke. We were always, in my long membership of the Club, strapped for cash.’
6. For two years, throughout 1967 and 1968, a process of lobbying, persuading and cajoling took place. And word got out to developers. In November 1967, the old Richard Stanton firm (R. A. Stanton & Sons) submitted a proposal on behalf of the Hong Kong Land Company.
7. The basic deal was a 17 storey concrete and glass tower to be built at the developer’s expense, with the club to have five floors rent-free, with reversion of the entire title after 75 years.
8. In February 1968, the Committee informed the members and summarised the submission – without identifying the developer. Some thought that selling out to a ‘foreign power’ was controversial. And this was when Hong Kong was still British. There were many other grounds of opposition. Sir Victor Windeyer thundered that he ‘did not become a trustee in order to preside over the destruction of the club’s premises’!
9. A related but inescapable problem was the need to accommodate the Club and its members during the estimated 3-year construction phase. There were a number of suggestions including the old Australia Hotel and the Union Club.
10. But talks were going on behind the scenes with the New South Wales Club, which owned valuable premises in Bligh Street. Peter Sayers was centrally involved. But the Committee, over which Sir Denzil Macarthur-Onslow presided as President, was not supportive. At one stage, the vote on the Committee was 13 to 1 against. Peter was a minority of ‘1’. He characterised the general opposition to a merger with the NSW Club as a ‘very expensive piece of snobbery’.
11. Three times during 1968, the NSW Club very politely put a proposal for amalgamation to the Australian Club, and like St. Peter, three times the Committee rejected it…without telling the members.
12. When news of the confidential merger proposal, and the Committee’s rejection of it, got out – as these things inevitably do – some members were disturbed by the Committee’s secrecy and its failure to take members into their confidence.
13. Two convulsive issues were brewing, on neither of which was the Committee united, let alone the membership.
14. The rest is history:
a very unruly extraordinary general meeting attended by 304 members was held on 3 December 1968 to consider the re-development proposal;
many members, quite rightly, thought that the issue of a merger with the NSW Club (which was not on the agenda) was essential to the re-development proposal;
feelings ran high;
the President had grave difficulty retaining control;
after 3 ½ hours, it was decided to adjourn the meeting to 20 December, so that notice could be given of another meeting to be held in tandem to consider the merger issue;
15. In the meantime, much work of a different kind went on behind the scenes. All became clear when the meeting resumed on 20 December. Sir Denzil renounced the chairmanship of the meeting. He nominated the Vice President, (Gordon Welsh). Mr Welsh then renounced the chairmanship of the meeting. He nominated Sir Norman Cowper, who accepted. It had been pre-ordained.
16. Sir Norman Cowper’s nomination to take over the chairmanship of the contentious meeting was an inspired choice:
the members behaved themselves and the ensuing meeting was civil;
the two special resolutions were duly passed with the requisite majority; and
the merger and redevelopment went ahead.
17. In 1969, at the age of 73, Sir Norman became the Club President. Nearly four years later, the Duke of Edinburgh officially opened the new club premises - courtesy of his personal friendship with Sir Alexis Albert, a friendship that began during the Queen’s first royal visit. Even more significantly, the NSW Club premises were sold and the proceeds provided the substantial windfall that forms the basis of our current financial strength.
Reflections and Musings
18. Could I conclude with a few humorous musings from Peter Sayers late in his life, who came through the whole troubled process of merger and redevelopment and emerged at the end, in calm waters, in 1975 as President. The topics remain relevant to us all today.
Presidential Portraits & Naming Rights
Peter had an interesting comment to make about the fine portrait of Sir Norman Cowper by June Mendoza in the room next door. He said: ‘It was slightly controversial. It was not a unanimous decision of the Committee. I was one who who did not think at the time that it was quite suitable. He was the last President, and I think he will be the last president, to be painted’.
As to the re-naming of the Smoking Room as the ‘Norman Cowper Room’, he was forthright: ‘It was a silly name’, he said. ‘David Playfair did that. He shouldn’t have named the room. I think eponymous rooms are never a good idea…I think it would have been better if the room hadn’t been named’.
As to ladies in the Club, Peter’s views were ahead of their time. He recalled that ‘One of the things that some of us saw as necessary for the future of the Club was the usage of it by women and the old club didn’t really lend itself much to that…This was going to be important and the place was really designed with that in mind and that really was the key to our success…that’s the way the club has been run since and its coming along very well and it is busy and used by women… deliberately planning to make certain rooms available for them, that was a sound move. I am glad we did that’.
On honorary members, Peter’s views were reminiscent of some recent discussions in the Club:
When asked whether we invariably made male Governors-General honorary members of the Club, he responded: ‘Not Kerr’.
When asked whether female Governors-General would be made honorary members, his answer was ‘perhaps’. Certainly, he said, the first paragraph of the Constitution makes clear that the club is intended for ‘men only’ but ‘honoraries’, he mused, may be a different matter.
19. Finally, a word about a form of prejudice that we do not see in the Club anymore. Peter delighted in recounting this story of the member who unfortunately rebuked a visitor from the Australian Club in Melbourne who had entertained certain guests in our Club. Here is how Peter described it:
‘The chap in Melbourne wrote back and the letter is in the archives…he noted the rebuke and said for your interest, my Oriental visitor was her Imperial Highness the Crown Princess Yum Yum, and I had thought to show her Imperial Highness a side of Australian life she would not have seen on a formal visit. Obviously, I was mistaken in this and I am on close terms with Baron what’s his name, the controller general of the imperial household, and when I am next in Tokyo, I will make a point of calling on his excellency and you may be sure he will see to it that no other members of the imperial household call on your club and so offend the sensibilities of your members’.
20. Lastly, as we reflect on the momentous changes to the Club that occurred fifty years ago under the stewardship of a few courageous and visionary souls, could I suggest that they will not be the last changes that all of us in this room are likely to experience.
21. I leave you with some wise words by the author of the official history of the Club: ‘The secret of success for a club in the modern world is the blending of elements of continuity and change, with tradition preserved discriminatingly, and with change accomplished gradually and with subtlety’.