Farewell to Arms
Saturday, 29th October, 2011
By Paula Doran
Marjorie and Michael Raetz leave Broken Hill today in what Michael describes as a “Clayton’s move”.
They might return to their beloved hotel, the Miners Arms, but if they don’t it will definitely hold a very special place in their story.
Six years ago the couple bought the historic pub on the corner of Crystal and Kaolin streets. Michael, a geologist, had been working outside Broken Hill and kept driving past the building.
“I knew it was for sale and I just kept thinking, ‘what a beautiful building, what a beautiful dimension,” he said.
Eventually, they leapt in and bought it, moving house and hearth and a truckload of antiques from their home in bayside Melbourne.
“I’d tried to talk Marjorie into buying a hotel another time, in Rutherglen, but this time it was right.
“I just consider it an absolute privilege to have been able to buy a bit of Australian history, and to be able to renovate, and afford to do that...”
And renovate they did. The couple, with the help of a German tradesman, basically rebuilt the former pub from the ground up - and with vision, determination and artistic grace transformed it into a luxury hotel that is a delight to the unexpectant traveler.
To walk into the Miner’s Arms today is to feel like you’ve found a well-styled oasis by surprise. There really is no way of telling the comfortable escapism that is within from just the daily drive past.
The former saloon is now the long thin guest lounge, complete with piano, warming fire and bar. A few more steps from there you are in the guest dining room, and this, like the rest of the building, could be a dining room found in Broken Hill a century ago.
It took two years of hard slog by Michael and co, in which every floorboard in the building was pulled up, walls were rebuilt, stone supports re-strengthened, and blood sweat and tears mixed with the faded remnants of beer on the bar room floor boards.
“It wasn’t all a joy. There were some nights where I’d crawl into my swag and cry. I was trying to get a mining company set up at the same time, so during the day I’d be sanding floorboards and at night I’d be editing the company prospectus,” Michael said.
“You can feel quite underwhelmed when a place like this is pulled apart. You wonder whether you’ll ever get it back together again.”
But eventually every wall was scraped, the massive job of installing modern sewerage into the guest bathrooms was complete and it was time to begin the painting.
“I remember when we first got to paint the first room, that was a real milestone. I thought, ‘wow! We can do this,” said Michael.
“But really, it wasn’t until Marjorie moved up here and made it a home that it all came together.”
It’s Marjorie’s artistic bent that is now evident in the feel and charm of the place. Four years after the project began, she is evidently still conscious of maintaining a standard of hospitality that has met and surpassed the expectations of countless of weary travelers.
“I hadn’t been in hospitality before so that was a steep learning curve. But I’ve really enjoyed it. We’ve met a lot of interesting people while we’ve been here.
“People come to Broken Hill and probably don’t expect the city to be so interesting and rich in its social history. I’d like to think that for those who have stayed here, their experience has been enhanced by the Miner’s Arms,” she said.
“Staying in a place like this - this building and its history really does complement the whole experience of the town.
“Buildings like this are so valuable. It’s really a shame to see them go to ruin. Their heritage value can never be replaced.”
History, the bush and the sea
In Paul Armstrong’s compilation of the history of the Miner’s Arms, the hotel has had many owners and possibly even more personas since it opened as a dusty pub in Crystal Street in 1888.
De-licensed as part of the city-wide scale-back of hotels in August 1924, the hotel had been run by over 10 licensees since opening as a weatherboard and corrugated iron hotel .
It later became a boarding house and then a lodging house until artist and High School teacher Tom Offord bought it in 1973 and reshaped the Miners into a private residence and gallery.
In 1984 Tanya Fay DeBono bought the building where she lived until Michael and Marjorie arrived to start their dream in 1996.
After a two-year renovation, it’s only Broken Hill-appropriate that the couple should arrive for the official move on the day of one of the biggest dust storms in 2008.
A photo taken by local photographer Boris Hlavica of the grey/black dust cloud looming over the city later became their Christmas card to send back to friends and family in Melbourne.
Michael agrees it might be his European determination which saw through the tedium and hardship of renovations. Born in Vienna, he now considers himself a “semi-bushy”.
“I love the outback. I love the light, the space, the wind, the remoteness.”
Having continued to work in the field with various drilling programs, this cultured man from Vienna describes the dunes of the back-station country as like waves.
“You stand there in the silence and you could be in the rolling ocean.
“There is something just so unique about Broken Hill. There’s only a handful of places around the world that have the same mining culture and history. Everyone has heard of Broken Hill,” he says.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop coming here.”
For sale - a lifestyle in the Hill
The Miner’s Arms is one of several iconic accommodation businesses for sale in Broken Hill.
A search of the newspapers and realestate.com.au cites fellow luxury hotel, The Imperial for sale, as well as the Old Vic B&B, the West Darling Hotel and Outback Villas.
According to real estate agent Zeta Bennett, those sales are mostly natural attrition in a stage where owners and managers have met their quota in hospitality or for personal reasons feel it’s time to move on.
“It’s a massive undertaking to buy a business like this,” she says. “You’re not just buying a business, you’re buying a lifestyle, and that doesn’t suit just anyone. It’s a real commitment.”
She says movement is traditionally slow in commercial property sales in Broken Hill. “There’s not a big turnover and it’s a very small part of the market.”