Creative arts & culture,

The stories behind rare architectural gems

Tim and Kirsten Baker | September 17, 2017

Rare architectural gems are in our midst and their fascinating stories often pass unnoticed. Tim and Kirsten Baker discovered a few of the Coast’s most intriguing historic buildings.


The Gold Coast is often thought of as a young city without a great deal of history, yet fascinating historic buildings abound on the coast.

For those on the lookout, unexpected discoveries are possible and a little digging reveals some fascinating local stories.

Who knew one of Australia’s most acclaimed modernist architects Harry Seidler designed a prominent Currumbin beach house? Or that Southport’s original old ambulance station is now a thriving, modern, co-working space? As the old saying goes, we shape buildings and then buildings shape us.

Many of these historic buildings have been re-purposed with surprising and delightful results that the original owners, architects and builders could never have imagined.

“Adaptive re-use is really important,” says Philip Follent, former Queensland Government architect and co-chair of the Australian Institute of Architects (Gold Coast and Northern Rivers region).

“The original purpose of most buildings in Queensland of historical significance has changed over time, almost every building is used for another purpose … The public demand is for a quality of outlook or ambience which allows buildings to be rejuvenated.”

Come and discover a few of the Coast’s most intriguing historic buildings and how they’ve been adapted to changing times…




The Station, Nerang Street, Southport


Nearly a century ago when Southport first got its very own ambulance station, its founders could have barely imagined what a co-working space even was.

Today the grand old ambulance station has had a modern facelift and provides bustling office space for a range of local businesses and freelancers, including architects, engineers, ad agencies and accountants.

With more than 1000 square metres of office space, 30 businesses, four meeting rooms, two kitchens and its own café, the Station is now one of two co-working spaces managed by CoSpaces.

Originally built in 1922, the old ambulance station serviced the Gold Coast for more than 50 years and went through a series of renovations in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The most compelling facelift, though, came in 2002 at the ripe old age of 80, when its new owners, the Howe Family, engaged Burling Brown Architects to restore the exterior to its original grandeur and modernize the interior as office space.

“As part of our commission, we undertook extensive historical research and drew on our experience to recreate the original envelope of the building through historical detailing and building methods,” the Burling Brown website explains.

CoSpaces, Southport Ambulance Station
CoSpaces, Southport Ambulance Station
CoSpaces, Southport Ambulance Station

“At the rear of the building sits a modern addition, which along with the traditional building, houses Co Spaces. This workspace is a flexible, dynamic environment, offering companies (both big and small) the opportunity to rent office space of varying sizes.

“Unique collaboration spaces, meeting rooms and an awarded coffee shop also contributes to the space, creating a flexible and dynamic environment that fosters creativity and embraces the history of the building. 45 Nerang St has become a landmark project in the Gold Coast CBD, having received multiple urban design awards.”

“It is a fantastic example of adaptive re-use,” says Philip Follent.

“There are business and social demands for smaller collaborative work spaces. The ways in which people are working these days, the best results are often through collaboration, allowing for ideas to spark and enrich solutions for whatever you work on.”




La Coast, Bilinga, Gold Coast


It’s hard to imagine too many property developers celebrating the impact of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008.

But for John and Diane Cartmill, owners of La Costa Motel in Bilinga, there was a silver lining when their plans to redevelop the site were scuttled. They decided instead to lovingly restore the old timber ‘50s motel and have turned it into award-winning boutique holiday accommodation.

“We wanted to knock it down,” said Mr Cartmill, a glazier by trade who had no experience in hospitality when they bought the property in 2001.

“But when the GFC hit there was just no value in selling it.”

At the time the buildings were run down and provided cheap housing for an array of colourful tenants. The previous owner, Coral Halley, managed La Costa for 30 years and lived upstairs but eventually sold it due to poor health.

La Costa, Bilinga
La Costa, Bilinga
La Costa, Bilinga

The Cartmill’s now run a successful business they love that affords them a great lifestyle while preserving a building of historical value. Consisting of 12 self-contained flats with kitchenettes and modernised bathrooms, La Costa was voted Queensland’s best budget hotel and third best bargain hotel in the South Pacific by Trip Advisor (2014).

Distinctively retro, the fibro building with classic skillion roofing is a quintessential 1950s era structure with a whimsical nautical theme. Nominated as one of the original ‘Highway Heritage’ motels of the Gold Coast, it was featured in 2014 Bleach Festival’s Fibro Coast Exhibition at Gold Coast City Gallery in which senior curator Virginia Rigney reflected that “the coastline of South East Queensland is the home of some unexpected architectural gems.”

“The owners have been very savvy. You can tell now it’s much loved and the owners are picking up on the iconography of the Florida beachside holiday,” says Philip Follent.




Houston, Pacific Parade, Currumbin


In contrast to the colorful retro aesthetic of the Gold Coast’s beach houses and motels of the 1950s and early 60s, sits Houston on the Currumbin beachfront. A modernist design built in rendered brick and concrete and comprising four apartment dwellings, it’s permanence since 1955 gives it an iconic status.

Unlike many heritage buildings on the Gold Coast, Houston retains its original purpose of providing beachfront accommodation, capitalising on its ocean views and environment. There is nothing quite like Houston on the southern GC.

The building was in fact designed by then Sydney-based architect Harry Seidler (Seidler left Austria prior to WW2), a world renowned exponent of modernist architecture. It may be the only example of his domestic work on the Gold Coast.

Houston, Pacific Parade, Currumbin
Houston, Pacific Parade, Currumbin
Houston, Pacific Parade, Currumbin

The story goes that Seidler was ultimately unhappy with the iron work detail used in the balustrade of the building, a flowery affront to his modernist principles, and thus disowned his original work.

What remains though is an authentic rendering of architectural modernism timeless in its contemporary appeal.

“It has quite a timeless quality. It would be hard to date that building,” observes Philip Follent.

“With its deep veranda view of the Pacific and well established frangipani in the front garden, I doubt many would argue the desirability of this address on a balmy Summer’s eve.”




Kirra Pavilion


This Southern Gold Coast landmark features a striking Tudor Revival style façade designed by architect John Beebe and built in 1935.

It provided new and improved rooms for the Kirra surf life saving club as well as public change rooms and was opened in 1936 with great fanfare.

The building was a vast improvement on the simple shed the surf club was first housed in after its formation in 1916 following a tragic drowning.

At a public meeting held at the Coolangatta Town Hall the following day, a group of residents decided to form the Kirra Life Saving Club.

Its first club house measured just 12 feet by 20 feet, the result of a working bee by a group of public spirited locals.

A larger pavilion was built in the 1920s on Kirra Point at a cost of 300 pounds. By 1927, after further renovations, it featured a rooftop dance floor that ran the length of the three-story building.

Kirra Pavilion
Kirra Pavilion
Kirra Pavilion

After the pavilion was nearly washed away in a storm, state government funding allowed for the construction of the current Kirra Pavilion at a cost of 7500 pounds. Kirra Beach was packed for the day of the grand opening by Queensland Minister for Public Instruction and Assistant Treasurer Mr F A Cooper

The pavilion has been extensively renovated over the years, with a restaurant and bar added at the western end of the building and a Pizza Hut outlet incorporated at the eastern end. Other renovations were forced by nature, due to extensive storm damage.

The surf club and Kirra Surfriders club (whose members include world champ Mick Fanning) still operate from the premises, and public change rooms still occupy the middle of the building.

Bunk room accommodation for visiting surf club members usually lays idle these days and is in need of upkeep.

New and creative purposes have been imagined for this iconic beachfront location over the years and hopefully it won’t be too long before a new vision is generated for this grand old building.

“It’s a strong form in the manner in which it addresses the ocean,” says Philip Follent. “It is a building that is hungry for maintenance. It really is an icon of the southern Gold Coast.”