IRON IN THE SOUL
The extraordinary but neglected architecture of the Cape York town of Coen is testament to a time when life was harder and gentler, writes
THEY rise up, gleaming in their rough, wild symmetry, the corrugated iron facades of Coen, each one worn and weathered, well-matched to its ambience of heat and dust and light: the homestead guesthouse with its wide, fineworked portico, the Inland Mission, the Exchange Hotel, the old low-slung Armbrust store. There are palazzos in curving metal, jewels built from hand-cut sheets of iron — monuments, all lost in the forgotten capital of Australian vernacular architecture, a little settlement at the midpoint of Cape York.
Who designed them? Who conceived them here, 500 hard kilometres up the Peninsula Development Road? And what strange stroke of fate consigned these bush treasures to their present near-oblivion: unnoticed, unappreciated, almost unknown?
The tale of tiny Coen, population 260 (fluctuating), and of its self-taught master builder Alf Colman seems to stem from another Australia, far off in a sepia time of folklore, though the township’s great reconstruction occurred within living memory and its hero architect died a mere 34 years ago.
On the surface, it is a dreamy-seeming, exotic place. It even has an exotic ring to it. The name Coen appears for the first time on Dutch charts of the new-found southern land in the mid 1620s, bestowed, in honour of the fearsome governor of the East Indies, on a sluggish river estuary up the coastline of the Gulf. Not, though, the same river that runs through modern Coen — the maps and their readers in those first days of settlement were imprecise.
Today’s Coen has its origins in the gold rush 1870s. It was a ramshackle destination in its first decades, home to Chinese diggers from Maytown and Palmerville, to drifters and swagmen, to sandalwood growers and struggling cattle kings. There was a scatter of houses and a telegraph post, a colony of flying foxes and an ancient bougainvillea tree. There was a road out, or at least a pair of wheel-track lines carved in the dust. There were kites soaring in the sky and majestic ranges all around. Hard scrub country, surrounded by four Aboriginal clan estates: the northmost settlement in all Cape York.
To this remote outpost, in 1942, came a tall, rail-thin jack of all trades, Alf Colman, born in Cooktown but raised in the bush at Mount Finnigan, where his parents worked a tin mine on and off. He was a painter, a plumber, a builder, a carpenter. He was good with his hands — you had to be in the north back then — but more than this he had a fine eye and an inventive mind. He loved making things: models, gadgets, devices of all kinds.
He had married a young woman from one of the great pioneer families of the Cape, Ann Gostelow, and they had a son. Alf needed work and there were prospects up the track: repairs to be done at the old Coen post office. Midyear he pushed his bicycle from Laura up to Violet Vale, across 160km of heavy sand. Then the pastoralist Fred Keppell asked him if he could build a new bush house on Meripah station, amid the messmate trees. The little family came up: the diary-memoir Ann Colman wrote by hand in a neat school exercise book records her first impressions of this new world. It seemed distinctly unpromising: rusted fence wire coiled here and there, a wilderness of eucalypts.
“I’ll be glad when I walk out of this place,” she wrote. That country would be her home environment for decades to come. Alf cut the bush timber for the new house on the spot, and handadzed it all: tall cypress pine logs for the posts, the rafters and the battens. There was a trolley to drag them and a horse to pull the load.
He was well under way when malaria struck. The ringers at Meripah had to craft a homemade stretcher to get him out. Maurice Shephard drove up from Coen in a weapons-carrier and rushed Alf back into town. A Chinese doctor travelling north with the army was on hand with a bottle of quinine mixture: it saved Alf’s life. After weeks in the balance, he came good, he was on the mend. Soon there was a new task for him: to build a coffin “for a chap who died after falling from a truck”.
Was there anything in Coen apart from disease and death? On the night of December 16, 1943, a tropical cyclone passed just south of the township and smashed its shacks and buildings to shreds. There was rain, thunder and lightning all night long: the roof blew clean off the hotel; the telegraph poles were all bent over and their arms buried in the ground. When morning came the Colmans crawled out from their shelter under the long, heavy table in the Exchange’s dining room. They saw devastation: the trees had been stripped of their leaves and branches, the hills were bare.
The cyclone carved its way on across the Cape into the Gulf. Reconstruction began at once. For Alf, this was the great opportunity to shine. He was the lone builder in town. He set to work and rebuilt the iron roof of the hotel, then restored the rest with timber from the wreckage of the school. He built the store back from its ruins, and the butcher’s shop, the post office and several homes — and all these structures had a distinctive idiom from the start. Over time he returned to them repeatedly and embellished them until they became finished, finely detailed compositions in wood and iron. The work redoubled.
In the postwar years Alf became the unofficial architect for all the stations of the central Cape. Once he finished his work at Meripah, he began on Strathburn station house: its cement floor was hand-mixed by shovel on a
A house built by Alf Colman in Coen, left (the older child outside is his son Colin); the Armbrust store in Coen; Alf Colman, bottom left