24 May 2023

Photographer captures memories of last drinks at Yass's old Commercial pub

| Sally Hopman
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Empty old bar

All that was left of the Commercial Hotel’s main bar in 2017, rubbish, graffiti and all. Photos: Ray McJannett.

Had it not been for a chance encounter, one of many open doors and a passion for history, we may never have known what the final days of one of NSW’s most historic hotels looked like.

It was back in 2017 and photographer Ray McJannett was wandering around the old Commercial Hotel in the main street of Yass. He remembers it clearly as a sorry, yet intoxicating, sight.

“It was a very solemn place,” he said. “Like a labyrinth. It was incredibly quiet even though it was on the main street.

READ ALSO Man charged with arson over Yass hotel fire

“I walked around it for ages, I just found it so fascinating. I had thought about going in there for a long time but I knew I probably wouldn’t be allowed, so one day I just did.”

Years of neglect, vandals and just old age had violated the outside of the building, scaffolding only just holding together its remaining decent bits.

Most of the doors had been kicked in, the remaining windows smashed.

The old pub had always been seen in Yass as someone else’s problem: the owners, the developers, the council – the too-hard basket was destined to always be its home.

Old hotel verandah

The view from the back veranda of the Commercial Hotel. Even back in 2017, the place was starting to fall apart.

But all that ended this week when, in the early hours of Monday morning, fire destroyed what was left of the old watering hole.

For Ray, who lives in the nearby village of Jerrawa, it brought back his memories of that day in 2017 when he found himself inside.

About three hours later, he was outside again – armed with a collection of images that looked more like artistic moments in time rather than simply photographs.

“As a photographer, I really like to explore and document different aspects of old, deserted buildings that have long served their purpose and learn something about their history along the way,” he wrote at the time of his visit.

Old stairs

The main staircase leading up to the Commercial’s accommodation. See how worn that top step is from all the commercial traders treading those boards.

But, he said, in all old pubs, regardless of their age, history or however many famous people drank there, one thing never changed: the smell.

The old Commercial, he said, was rank.

“Pubs never seem to lose their smell. The Commercial was like all of them – it stank of stale beer, cigarettes and urine.”

Ray said he walked through the ground floor across to the musty bar, complete with miserable remains of old carpet and garish paintwork.

“The big bar was still there, but dubious modernisation had destroyed any charm this historic bar once had.” Walking on, he found the ladies’ lounge and a powder room.

Blue room with fireplace

This small room, which the photographer called the Blue Room, only slightly bigger than the tiny bedrooms, was the common room for guests – it had the only fireplace.

“I wouldn’t say it was eerie but there was certainly an unusual feeling about being there.”

Ray said one thing that struck him was the quiet. Considering how noisy it must have been in its prime, it was a shadow of its former self in both appearance and sound.

“It’s like it was insulated from the outside world in there and every creak and groan the building emits is amplified within its walls.”

It was only when he went upstairs that he reckoned things had changed a little less. One room, which he called the Blue Room, still had its fireplace and looked to be the common or meeting room for hotel guests. It was the place for commercial travellers to meet. You could just imagine them all crammed in there on a cold Yass night, he said.

Old hallway

The hallways seemed to go for miles, says photographer Ray McJannett, with all these tiny rooms off them.

“The bedrooms were so tiny you could only have got two men in there at a pinch so they couldn’t have congregated in there, so they must have met in the common room of a night.”

But he said some of its original beauty remained upstairs. He saw the remains of French doors made of cedar – “they had that circa-1800s wobbly sort of glass in the windows that gave everything this surreal effect when you looked through them across the road”.

READ ALSO End of an era as Commercial Hotel in Yass gutted by fire

But the rest of upstairs, he said, felt like being in a doll’s house.

“There were long, long hallways with lots of these tiny rooms going off them. There were a couple of bathrooms up there too. I don’t think they had unisex ones back in those days.”

Ray went back to the pub about three years ago – and probably wished he hadn’t.

“It was so different that last time. Graffiti everywhere. I was shocked to see it stripped so bare. There were stories about people living in there but I never saw anyone there.

“It’s all just very sad. I loved that building. It’s hard to explain the beauty of the place if you haven’t seen it for yourself.”

Sadly, if not prophetically, considering the week’s events, Ray said, in 2017, that the historic building had reached the point of no return.

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Jenn Stewart6:55 pm 24 May 23

How wonderful these images have been captured for posterity. Such a sad state of affairs that such an historic building has been allowed to come to such an unfortunate end.

Ray’s description of the old pub is the typical result of the Australian Heritage model of old building. Let them fall into disrepair and then knock them down because it has reached the point of no return. The next stage is to demolish and then put up a characteristic featureless building made not to last and become tatty with 10 years.

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