If you’ve ever wandered down Wickham Tce near the Edward St intersection and wondered about that imposing old timber building with the little dome on top, then join the club.
The brick building next door (the Baptist Tabernacle is on the other side) has a highly-polished plaque at its gate advising that it is the United Service Club. When curiosity got the better of me, I weaseled my way inside to check it all out.
As it turns out, the two buildings are linked and have been from the start. Both are more than a century old.
Certainly, entering the United Service Club is stepping into another time and place.
It’s reminiscent of a more genteel time, the type so popular in British period dramas. You can almost see the grey-haired old chap with the pipe in the wing chair and a four-piece ensemble playing Mozart in the corner.
There are chandeliers, pressed metal ceilings, polished brass rails, heavy timbers, columns, fireplaces, military portraits – and a portrait of the Queen, of course.
It oozes English gentlemen’s club but in fact is open to women (25 per cent) and a military connection (50 per cent of membership) is not a prerequisite.
So, there are two stories here, one of the buildings themselves and the other, the United Service Club which has occupied them since 1947.
Although built by the same architect, Claude William Chambers, within a few years of each other, the two buildings are completely different in style and appearance.
The timber house is called the Green House and was built first, in around 1907. It is now connected to its neighbour, the brick house which was built in about 1910, on the site of an earlier masonry building called Montpelier. It retains the name.
The federation-era Green House was originally a residence and medical office, and during World War II was the home and surgery of General Macarthur‘s doctor. It put him close to both his boss in the city and the Enoggera Barracks.
Montpelier was purpose-built as a boarding house or private hotel at a time when Wickham Tce with its city views was the favoured address of the affluent middle classes.
It remains something of a rabbit warren with stairs and corridors, although many of the rooms have been opened up for lounge bars and meeting rooms. The old lift at the entry is now a cloakroom.
Eight different styles of pressed metal ceilings near the entry is the only clue that there were once eight separate rooms.
The old drawing room with its bay window, chandelier and fireplace, is now a meeting room and a salon part of a private bar that opens to the verandah.
The original Montpelier was built in 1864, for the Anglican Archbishop Edward Tufnell. In 1885, it provided accommodation for respectable young women who arrived in the colony to “take rest or board while waiting a new situation”.
Then in 1897, Welshman William Davies, cashed up from the Gympie goldfields, bought it as an investment and in 1910 replaced it with the current three-storey building.
It was leased by the widow Annie Forsyth and was a first-class private gentleman’s hotel that was so exclusive that even distinguished gentlemen need references to obtain lodgings.
It was another 50 years before it changed hands again, and the United Service Club moved in. Founded as a private military officers’ club in 1892, the club had to move from its George St premises to accommodate its surging membership after World War II.
Then, in 1974 when it became obvious that it could no longer rely on world conflict to provide membership, the club opened up to the wider community. Eligibility for membership now includes men and women from the wider Queensland professional community.
Today, the United Service Club continues to offer accommodation, has reciprocal arrangements with 110 clubs around the world and is one of only two service clubs remaining in Australia. The other is in Adelaide.
Members from the country always have a relaxed place to stay with private bars and a reading room, and although dress standards have relaxed, it’s still smart casual.
There’s also the bonus of a city carpark out the back, four levels below the top level accommodation.
“The United Service Club provides hospitality to members in an atmosphere of time less elegance,” it says. Well they certainly got that right.
It’s an oasis in an urban desert that provides an escape for its members, a step back to a more sedate time that shuts out the noise of the city and turns back the clock.