Lawson visitors often ask, “What’s that old ruined tower over there near the station? Where did it come from?”.
It started with Joseph Hay, an emigrant from Chile.
In 1878, after briefly undertaking surveying in the Blue Mountains for the Lands Department, he was granted 300 acres at Lawson, stretching from now San Jose Avenue to Bullaburra.
Questions were raised in Parliament, in February 1879, about a Lands Department employee holding land without living on it.
Hay circumvented this complaint by commuting from Lawson to Sydney until his family arrived at the end of 1879, joining him in a substantial new cottage on the site of the present tower.
Because health and recreation retreats were flourishing in the Mountains, Hay enlarged his cottage on the San Jose property in 1882 to become The Blue Mountain Sanatorium, a private hotel noted in a local guidebook as “best for private families… with grounds laid out with romantic paths”.
This venture proved unprofitable. Hay, in 1889, called his property Hay’s Family Hotel and applied for a publican’s licence. Although his application was refused, the Nepean Times on February 9, 1889 noted that he was “adding about fifteen rooms to his already commodious sanatorium, San Jose”.
In January 1894, the house passed from Hay hands after Joseph left for Western Australia. Re-named The Coffee Palace, its proprietor, Mr Charles White, was described as one “whose name is a guarantee that everything was first-class” (The Mountaineer, October 5, 1894).
The 1890s saw the Coffee Palace flourish as the social heart of Lawson. Balls, often lasting until 5am, parties, fetes and fund-raising activities were held there, until the Mechanics Institute was finally opened in 1903. Photos of the day clearly show the castellated tower.
Business slowly declined in the early 1900s. Fires in September 1907 saw the Coffee Palace catch alight three times.
In 1912, Lawson Masonic Lodge was launched in “the stoutly-built hall adjoining the Coffee Palace” (Blue Mountain Echo December 6, 1912) before later moving to its own premises.
1919 saw a total change for the Coffee Palace as the Misses Wiles transferred their existing Stratford School for Girls there. It remained the school premises until the school closed in 1961.
In 1966 the building was refurbished for private celebrations but in 1977 it reverted to a school, the Blue Mountains Community School, with 18 students.
On June 4, 1980, an electrical fault caused a fire which gutted the building. The Land and Environment Court finally approved the demolition of the structure in 1992 but not the three-storey historic tower.
The tower remains today, a living reminder of Lawson’s colourful past.
Robyne Ridge is publicity officer for Blue Mountains Historical Society.