In the town of Yass, littered as it is with heritage buildings, few structures are considered more iconic than Oddfellows Hall.
On the front of the building its ID reads “Oddfellows’ Hall, MU 1887”.
1887 is unsurprisingly the year it was built, making it 135 years old.
The MU is for Manchester Unity – the insurance and investment company that built and held the building and took rent for the downstairs shops.
They also sponsored the Yass branch or “Lodge” of the Order of the Odd Fellows, and Lodge members held their meetings upstairs.
When the Oddfellows was established in England in the 1700s there were no government pensions for widows or wounded breadwinners. So the Lodge’s primary purpose was as a benevolent society.
Members put aside a few pence from their wages into a pool to assist people in distress – a forerunner of state-run pensions.
Non-political, non-sectarian and not for profit, the name Oddfellows is often mistaken for denoting a strangeness, but the word “odd” actually applies in the other sense – a nod to the group’s diversity.
That said, the Oddfellows Hall owner Rosemary Hodgkinson says Lodge members were not without some “curious ways”.
“For example the ‘hand of friendship’ came out often,” she says.
“This hand is wooden with a long ‘arm’ and a carved hand to be taken by visitors as a gesture of welcome.”
Rosemary, who comes from a long line of building and shop owners, bought Oddfellows Hall about two decades ago at “a very poorly attended auction” and restored the building to its former glory.
“I had to sell the old Commonwealth building to get the financial clout to restore the hall, which was a huge undertaking,” she says.
“It had been misused, neglected and it was pretty much an eyesore.
“People would stop me in the street, as they do in country towns, and say things like ‘you’re mad, pull it down, get rid of it’.
“But I had a team in mind to help me bring it back to life.”
Among her recruits were “local farmer who had turned to painting” John Buckmaster, locally-trained Ronnie Puckett who was “skilled in all the old types of buildings” and architect John Armes.
Though widely written off, Rosemary was keen to honour the building’s heritage.
They re-painted the building and repaired a gaping hole in the upper-level floor with beautiful ash wood. When they sanded it back, they discovered the floors and stairs were in fact fashioned from New Zealand Kauri Pine.
“What a treasure,” Rosemary says.
“We kept the patch, though.”
But the most prominent change came last.
“Its verandah had been removed in the 1960s because the council of the day wanted people in the main street to modernise the buildings and thought that was a good way to do it,” Rosemary says.
“We had the iron lace especially made in Wagga. Everything was authentic – John Armes knew what I should and shouldn’t do.”
French doors open onto the verandah making Oddfellows Hall the only commercial building on the main street currently that allows visitors access to the balcony, providing a bird’s eye view of the leafy main street and a delightful retreat.
Oddfellows Hall now houses four businesses – Bello Beauty Medispa, the popular Clementine Bakery, Yass Curtains and Blinds and occupying the entire upper floor, Creators Nest showcases and sells wares by Australian designers and artisans from Yass and beyond.
Though Rosemary now lives in Double Bay, Oddfellows Hall stands as a monument to her passion for preserving the heritage buildings of Yass.
“I lived there for 40 years, I was a member of the chamber of commerce, owned more than one building there, ran a business there, formed friendships there…” she says.
“I always want to keep that connection to Yass. And so do my daughters.”
Sixty years ago, Rosemary married a farmer from the country town, but it seems more than one love story came from that union.
“I fell in love with all the old buildings around Yass and in the main street,” she says.
“I felt some duty to maintain that charm when restoring Oddfellows Hall. I think everybody in their lifetime wants to create a legacy that will benefit the generations after them.”