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History of Mercantile Rowing Club

18. Fire and the Second Rebuilding Project (1973)

Chapter Eighteen page 1 2

Demolition commenced on August 11 under the supervision of Andrew Evans, using mostly club labour. By the end of September this was complete and the site practically ready for building. The architects had originally estimated a four month building period including demolition and there were high hopes that the job might be nearing completion by Christmas.

Cost problems arose almost immediately. Eventually it was agreed to accept an offer from Ron Negri to fabricate the concrete slab with club labour and to let a contract to build the main structure from the slab up with Ken Hume's company Hu-Metal Limited, as nominated sub-contractors for the steel frame at an agreed figure. A tender of $52,000.00 from Ian Staehr was accepted and the contract duly signed in December to commence in the New Year. The contract allowed for variation in cost of labour and materials, and also for reduction if club labour was provided for various sections of work.

The costs had now gone up alarmingly. The total had reached $69,000.00 compared with the earlier projection of $52,500.00. It was clear that the additional $5,000.00 from the bank would be required and Bob Aitken negotiated a new arrangement for a total of $25,000.00 supported ultimately by individual guarantees of 24 members. The earlier guarantee was cancelled. The amount to be raised by and from members was increased from $7,000.00 to more than $15,000.00 and a brochure and appeal was sent out to encourage support.

While all these preparations were going on the club members had not been idle. Under the guidance of Ted Sorani the club room was remodelled and renovated by the members. Working bees were attended by members of all ages for it was difficult to resist the enthusiasm and encouragement of Ted Sorani. Other members unable to spare the time to work on the job helped as they could. Noel Searle Pty. Ltd. supplied the glass.

By the end of the year the front clubroom had been restored and improved and members could enjoy customary beverages in familiar if rather austere surroundings.

Unfortunately the early start in rebuilding promised by the building committee was not possible. Once again the Melbourne City Council refused to grant the building permit because the plan did not in various respects conform with the Uniform Building Regulations. As with the earlier building the matter was referred to the Board of Referees with the Council's support and in due course (in March, 1974) the Referees indicated approval subject to certain conditions. These conditions necessitated some revision of the plans and the delay and plan changes caused an adjustment to the building contract.

When the permit eventually was issued in May the cost of the project was estimated to be more than $70,000.00. Further urgent appeals were made to members and it was perhaps fortunate that the Commonwealth Government had announced that donations to War Memorial Building
Appeals would cease to be tax deductable on June 30, 1974. This prompted results from those donors whose intentions often took time to convert into action with pen and cheque book. Much had been raised by raffles and special efforts by members and the Ladies Committee but there was still a large gap between funds available and the amount which would have to be paid when the job was done. An appeal to the Melbourne City Council for assistance by granting a long term loan was not fruitful nor were approaches for similar Government assistance. However, the die was cast and job had to proceed. With the co-operation of the builder, plans were made to save as much as possible by using club labour and employing sub-contractors recommended by club members.

Work finally started at the end of June. Despite the delay Ted Sorani was able again to inspire the efforts and enthusiasm of many unskilled hands among the members and it is fair to say that without his practical leadership and personal efforts the building would not have been finished within the budget of funds available to the club. During June, under Ted's guidance, the site was prepared for the pouring of the slab. Under the direction of Ron Negri, Warwick Hutchins and Michael Hume, the reinforcing was cut and laid out, and the framework made in readiness for the first load of concrete. This was planned with tactical forethought for the Sunday morning after the annual meeting and not a few members concluded the usual post-meeting celebrations by meeting the first "Ready-Mix" truck at break of day. There was a job for everyone throughout the pour and some who had refused to wheel a barrow of leaves in the garden for years rashly boasted to their wives of the number of barrows of concrete they had been able to handle. There was no money for the hire of sophisticated equipment; hand tools were the order of the day and concrete for the columns was lifted and poured by bucket.

1974 Rebuilding

1974 Rebuilding - Pouring the Concrete Slab

Once the slab was poured there was not so much scope for unskilled labour until the painting and finishing at the conclusion of the building, but help was always needed and never found wanting. Hu-Metal handled handled the steel fabrication and erection. Ken Hume and one of his senior men organised and supervised the operation. Senior legal members of the club, seeing members hanging precariously at the top of the frame with a spanner and bolts in one hand hastened to the club's insurer to arrange adequate Public Liability insurance. The members, not being employed, were not covered by the Builder's policy. Other major sub-contracts caused problems. When the bricklayers let the contractor down, Ted Sorani found someone else to do the job at a lesser price. When the roofing contract proved outrageously high Ted again organized his helpers and did the job himself. Throughout the whole of the work Ian Staehr, the contractor, had builder's labourers of varying skills ready to hand. At one stage a union representative visited the site and made tentative enquiries. He did not get much change.

Eventually the main structure was completed and once more there were jobs for all. The brickwork had to be cleaned (this item had been deleted from the contract to save money), the woodwork painted and the floor sanded and stained. The tedium of cleaning bricks, however, dampened the enthusiasm of even the keenest member and regrettably there are still some areas which do not present the professional appearance members may have wished.

The building was finished early in 1975 almost a year later than had originally been hoped. Many members, from the President to the smallest coxswain, had had a hand in it. The effort was a great tribute to the spirit which for many years had been part of the Mercantile tradition, both on the river and off it and the members were pleased with and proud of the result.

The efforts of Ted Sorani already have been mentioned. In addition to his work in the actual building he organised the construction of the sauna bath, the fabrication of the boat racks, the production of much of the new gymnasium equipment and attended to a host of minor matters. For his part in the work he was honoured with a life membership at the annual meeting in 1975 and seldom has any member deserved that honour more.

When the last instalment on the building contract was paid in October, 1975, the total cost to the club of the renovation of the front part of the building and the construction of the new section at the rear including architects' and engineers' fees was $85,614.18. This was far and away above the most pessimistic estimates two years earlier. The additional amount was raised partly by transfers from club funds. In the two year period the club managed to find from normal revenue and from the proceeds of social functions and special efforts a total of $8,623.00. The balance came from the members whose donations totalled $21,877.00 bringing the amount subscribed to rebuilding the clubhouse in the period from 1969 to 1975 to $38,255.00. There were large contributions from a number of present members and from the families of past members; there were smaller contributions from a great many. It was resolved in the early stages of the War Memorial Fund that details of donation should not be published so that members could do what they were able without embarrassment. Altogether 226 members and ex-members subscribed and many contributed in physical effort what they could not make up in cash. It is perhaps worthy of mention that two of the club's members contributed between them more than one third of the funds raised and without their assistance the building simply could not have been paid for.

Even those members who two years earlier had reservations about the size of the project and the club's ability to finance it were happy with the result and in the light of the inflationary pressures which have since occurred the decision to build over the whole site was unquestionably a wise one. Nevertheless their fears as to the funding of the project were amply justified. Club funds which would otherwise have been used for new equipment were diverted to the building and very little was spent on upgrading or even maintaining the fleet during the years 1973 to 1976. Donations which might have financed boats finished up in bricks and mortar. Higher interest rates involved the club in a larger annual outgoing than had been anticipated. Indeed the original half yearly payment required by the bank was, by 1976, insufficient to cover the interest and it had to be increased.

The club's bankers whether advisedly or not, have not insisted on a repayment programme but prudence and the interests of the guarantors required that some attempt be made to pay off the debt.

Apart from the financial considerations the cost to the club in disruption of its normal activities and diversion of effort to the building which would otherwise have been channelled into rowing, coaching and fleet maintenance was considerable and was reflected in results achieved on the water in the immediately succeeding years.

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