Before he became one of Australia's most famous poets and storytellers, Henry Lawson would sit in the Wickham School of Arts, trying to shore up his future with words.
Lawson was living and working in Newcastle in 1884, and, as he later wrote, "I haunted the School of Arts, still with the idea of learning before it was too late".
Nearly 140 years later, words are being used to try and protect the historic building's future, as the Victorian era landmark continues to hold its ground by the harbour amid a city's dramatically changing face.
"With all the development happening in this region, including around Honeysuckle, obviously any city needs a patina of age, different building types," said Amanda Hinds, an architect and member of the Hunter Regional Committee of the National Trust.
"This is like the last little gem sitting in here. This building is steeped in history."
Amanda Hinds said meetings and fundraisers for the labour movement and the Wickham branch of the Labor Party were held here in the late 19th century, adult education classes were conducted, and it was the venue for the first meeting of what would become Newcastle Permanent Building Society.
"It's had many lives," said National Trust member Ross Edmonds. And those members want the building to continue to have a life.
The building has been owned by the state's Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation since 2008. While the corporation stated in July it had "no current plans" to demolish the building, the National Trust members believe the long-vacant landmark is languishing.
"Our great concern is for its condition and possible dilapidation," said the National Trust's Mark Metrikas, adding the HCCDC "has an obligation to the people of Newcastle to keep this is in good condition".
A HCCDC spokesperson said the corporation "has worked to ensure the [building's] security and maintenance during its ownership".
"This assessment has confirmed that the building is of local significance," the spokesperson said.
However, the National Trust committee members don't believe that is sufficient recognition. They are preparing a nomination for the building to be registered as being of state significance.
They also want better assurances from the HCCDC for the building.
"They will not commit to definitely preserving the building," said Mr Edmonds.
In response to a question about those assurances, the HCCDC spokesperson said the building was part of the Honeysuckle urban renewal project, "sitting within a larger site intended to contribute to the emerging West End CBD, providing mixed use outcomes including office employment."
The City of Newcastle is also appealing to the NSW government to better protect the building.
"It's vulnerable, it's right smack bang in the middle of a valuable parcel of land," said Cr Carol Duncan, who was leading the city's push for the government to list the building on the state heritage register.
"I think the heritage listing of that building gives us the best possible opportunity for it to have the next phase of its life."
Lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes wrote to Premier Gladys Berejiklian in July, "requesting consideration of the implementation of an urgent protection plan for the former Wickham School of Arts building". Councillor Nelmes said she was yet to receive a reply.
Just as Henry Lawson's writing has inspired readers for more than a century, his connection to the former Wickham School of Arts building is arousing words of support for the landmark from far and wide.
Renowned actor Max Cullen and cultural historian Warren Fahey have been playing the roles of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson in a touring play about the writers, Dead Men Talking.
"Henry, a complicated character in so many ways, was a dreamer who knew the worth of stories," said Mr Fahey. "It is his stories which demand historic places of learning, like the Wickham School of Arts, be saved as monuments to our national story."
"It could be a place where people could appreciate literature for one thing," said Mr Cullen. "You could have readings."
Novelist John Hughes, who grew up at Cessnock and was shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Literary Award, said Lawson was "one of the great early Australian writers".
"To go to a place and think, 'Lawson was here', for a writer - for anyone - there's a thrill attached to that," Mr Hughes said.
Writer and folk musician Ted Egan said it was "imperative" the building was not just saved but given a new role in the city's life.
"Please, citizens of Newcastle, save this wonderful building," said Mr Egan. "Not only save it, accept the challenge to revitalise it as a place of wisdom and knowledge."
Gordon McDonnell, from the Henry Lawson Society of NSW, said the building could be a museum, looking at the life and times of Henry Lawson, and this part of Newcastle.
"Very few places have that sort of memory of that great poet," Mr McDonnell said. "So if we can keep and restore this building, that enhances the story of Henry Lawson, and our history."
As she looked around at the residential developments sprouting in the Wickham neighbourhood, Amanda Hinds said, "They could be anywhere", before gazing at the facade of the historic school of arts building and commenting, This is Newcastle."
"We lost a large amount [of historic buildings] in the earthquake, and then with just the general approach with developers coming in latter years," she said. "So these become even more precious, to hold onto them when we can."
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
IN THE NEWS:
- NSW Liberal Catherine Cusack blasts state Nationals leader John Barilaro over koala protection policy
- Man arrested in the Hunter with 1kg of cocaine allegedly in his shorts
- AMWU report identifies the Hunter as an ideal renewable energy manufacturing hub
- Three Anglican Diocese of Newcastle boards dissolved into one under radical restructure to ease financial strain
- Newcastle Knights prop David Klemmer writes: 'We're in the finals - now we must make it count'