The Atrium development at Hamilton features the restoration of the old mechanics' institute

A historic building at Hamilton has been restored to its former glory, providing a glimpse of Newcastle in the 19th century.

The building, at the corner of Tudor and Milton streets, was previously a mechanics’ institute.

These institutes were established at a time when education was reserved for the elite and privileged.

“Their aim was to provide working men with access to technical education,” Hamilton historian Ruth Cotton said.

The institutes gave these men access to lectures, courses and books.

Books and library subscriptions were too expensive for many workers, so the institutes filled this gap.

The Hamilton institute was originally a wooden structure built in 1862.

This was replaced in 1888 with a Victorian building designed by renowned Newcastle architect Frederick Menkens.

“Upstairs was a reading room with daily newspapers, a library, a meeting room and a billiards room,” Ms Cotton wrote in her blog Hidden Hamilton. 

Downstairs was a large hall that seated 400 people.

Membership of the institute rose to about 800 in the early 1920s.

“Its educational role changed to a recreational one, as it became more like a community club,” Ms Cotton said.

Income was raised through dances, musicals, motion pictures and hire of billiard tables.

“In the 1940s the Hamilton RSL Sub Branch purchased the premises, which became Anzac House,” she said.

It became a place for educational, social and political activities.

In more recent times, it fell into disrepair.

Brother and sister developers Bernadette and Dan Connolly restored the old building, as part of a redevelopment of Hamilton RSL.

The project is known as the Atrium. 

Restoring the institute building was difficult, given its local heritage listing.

“Despite the cost of restoring that side of the project for its heritage elements, we thought it was the best use for the site,” Ms Connolly said.

“If we didn’t restore it and went with a modern adaptation of it, that history in Hamilton would now be lost.”

She said they had a “desire of seeing great new modern buildings transitioned beautifully with existing heritage”.

“If that can be done well, the result is excellent. Hopefully people would agree that we’ve done that with this project.”

Ms Cotton said the project had shown “great care for heritage detail”.

“Working with the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and the Connolly siblings, I have had a heritage plaque made for the building,” she said. 

“I am very glad this important piece of Hamilton’s architectural heritage has been saved and given a new purpose.”

Apartments and townhouses in the restored institute building are planned to be released in April. Apartments built on the old RSL site have been sold.