QUEENSLANDER – A HOUSE FOR THE TROPICS
The hot and humid climate of tropical Australia has given birth to a characteristic type of wooden house, commonly known as the ‘Queenslander’. The basic structure of the house is a wooden frame erected on round timber stumps, sometimes up to 2 –2.5 metres above the ground. The elevated position provides the house with more breeze and better ventilation, doubling the living space as well as helping the occupants escape flood waters, termites, mosquitoes and snakes.The steeply pitched roof of corrugated iron with a system of vents allows hot air to be expelled, while deep verandas provide shade and privacy.
Although Queenslander houses differ in size, the basic space layout is similar, with a central corridor providing access to living and sleeping rooms. The kitchen is usually located at the rear of the house, separated from the main house by a small covered veranda. This served two purposes: to keep the heat and cooking smells out of the rooms as well as providing some degree of fire separation from the main part of the house. These light-weight houses were easy to move, some of them having been relocated two or three times as old settlements died away and populations shifted to new places.
COMINOS HOUSE AS AN EXAMPLE OF A QUEENSLANDER
Cominos house is a typical example of a middle-class residence from the end of the 19th century. Originally, it stood at the corner of Abbott and Florence Streets, on a site which today is occupied by the Holiday Inn. A four-roomed house with a centrally positioned corridor, it is surrounded on three sides by deep verandas. Initially the house had a detached kitchen but it was in too poor a condition to be relocated to the present site. However, the caretaker’s flat and the roof linking it to the house replicate the form of these lost parts.
Subsequent users modified the original plan of the home, adjusting the space to their personal needs. Major changes occurred in the early 1930s when all verandas were enclosed with wooden louvres and coloured glass windows to provide security and additional living space, while the backyard toilet was replaced with an in-house facility. The dirt space underneath the house was used as a laundry and storage area, although at one stage (early 20th century) it was used to give private tuition classes to a small group of children.
At this stage of research we cannot determine whether Cominos House is one of the pre-fabricated, light-weight houses shipped to Cairns from more developed centres in the south, or whether it was constructed of local timber.
THE FIRST OWNERS - ALFRED AND ANNIE STREET
For the first 45 years (1877-1922) the property belonged to the family of Alfred and Annie Street who rented it to a number of tenants. Alfred Street, a builder by profession, arrived in Cairns with the first group of settlers in 1876. Records indicate that the following year his wife, Annie Street, purchased a large block of land on the outskirts of the then village of Cairns, on the corner of Abbott and Florence Streets. Sometime between 1877 and 1886 a queenslander house was erected on the block.
Alfred Street was very active in the social and political life of Cairns, having been elected as an alderman of the first Cairns Council. He was also a member of the committee for the first state school in Cairns which opened in 1887.
On the business side, he was a pioneer of the coffee industry in northern Queensland and owned the coffee plantation ‘Fernhill’, situated on the banks of the Barron River near Kuranda. His coffee, marketed under the name ‘Barron Falls’, won many prizes at local shows as well as in Paris and London.
During the years 1886-1922 the house was occupied by a number of tenants, many of whom contributed to the development and growth of Cairns.
The first recorded tenant was Mrs A. Liddle who during the years 1886-88 ran it as a private boarding house. The longest tenant was Arthur Mears, an insurance agent, who lived in the house for almost 10 years (1901-1910). Another tenant was William Lennon – a local grocer and draper.
The most well-known identity who occupied the house between 1893-92 was Robert Sturt, an auctioneer and commission agent, who facilitated the sale and lease of many properties in Cairns at the turn of 19/20th centuries. He was also a member of the Cairns Chamber of Commerce and was instrumental in establishing the Harbours Board for Cairns. When Cairns Stock Exchange opened in May 1906, Robert Sturt was given the position of Treasurer. As acknowledgement of his contributions, Sturt Street in the Westcourt suburb was named in his honour.
THE FORBES FAMILY
Following the death of Annie Street in 1921, the property was subdivided and the land with the house was sold to William McDonald Forbes, who lived here with his family until 1927. The Forbes were one of the most prominent families of Cairns at the turn of 19/20th centuries. William’s father, John, worked as customs officer in Cairns between 1895 –1903 and is remembered for leading the Federation of Australia parade in Cairns in 1901. William MacDonald Forbes worked as the manager of the firm ‘Joseph Pease Wholesale Merchants’ in Cairns, which specialised in the local distribution of spirits.
HOUSE FOR THE COMINOS FAMILY
On his return from Greece, George Emanuel Cominos needed a comfortable house for his growing family and so in 1927 he bought the Forbes’ house for £1,255 which was then a very significant amount of money. It served as a home to his family and relatives for almost 40 years, until its relocation to the present site.
George and Bylio Cominos had three children: Emmanuel George who completed a degree in science and education to work as a teacher; Peter George, a well-known Cairns pharmacist, and a daughter Toula who helped with running the family café and later with management of her brother’s pharmacy. When the children were young and George spent long hours working at the café, various relatives were invited to stay at home helping with odd jobs and to provide some protection. In 1930 Georges’ mother moved from Greece to stay with them. Most of the time Greek was the language spoken at home and on special occasions and gatherings Greek music was played.
Following the death of George in 1962, Bylio continued to live at the house during the day receiving her relatives and friends, while for the evening and night she used to move to the nearby house of her son Peter. In 1977, when she passed away, the house was closed up until 1986 when the property was sold and the house was moved to its current site.
COMINOS CAFÉ: THE CAIRNS’ LEGEND
For several decades, Cominos Café acted as the social hub of Cairns and nearby towns. Established in 1906 as a small catering business, it grew to become one of ‘Australia’s most modern cafés’, which at one stage employed over 100 people.
For most of the time the café was situated in Abbott St, on the site of today’s ‘Orchid Plaza’ shopping centre. It occupied two floors with a mezzanine area and provided its customers with high quality food and drinks as well as with a range of services appreciated especially by country clients on visits to Cairns: showers, toilets and rest rooms.
Cominos was a ‘departmental’ café: it had a cake counter, sandwich counter, milk bar, sweets counter as well as a bakery.
George Cominos paid the utmost attention to all details creating a relaxing and welcoming atmosphere: cages of birds placed all over the café entertained the customers! The place was well-known far beyond Cairns for the high standards of food and services as well as for the progressive ideas of its owner. For instance, in 1935 George Cominos installed in the bakery the first electric industrial oven in this part of Australia.
The café served as a venue for many big social functions such as wedding receptions, as well as a rest place for visitors to Cairns. During the Second World War it became a favourite meeting place for Allied service staff based in Far North Queensland.
In 1952, due to declining health, George Cominos decided to close the Café. However even today the legend of ‘Cominos Café’ lives on in the fond memories of many Cairns residents. The closure was reported in the Cairns Post in 1951.