The Cloudland Ballroom
This blog will document our most ambitious modelling project yet - the recreation of the interior of the famous Cloudland Ballroom of Brisbane's Luna Park, once located on top of Montpelier Hill. A treasure of Art Deco architecture and civic memory, the building was illegally demolished in 1982 but has remained in the imagination and histories of thousands of Brisbanites and their descendants.
The project aims to produce an accurate CAD model and renderings of the ballroom and ancillary spaces, based on material available in the public domain and private collections. We are asking for public support to identify as much photographic material as possible - for details please see the first blog post (bottom of this page). All contributions will be duly attributed in the published article, with our sincere thanks.
Lights and Lighting 12/12/2016
The Cloudland recreation is taking shape and the project is now entering the rendering phase, where the CAD model is converted to high-quality images through the magic of ray-tracing. Essentially, ray-tracing involves exporting the model to a software which bombards it with hundreds of millions of simulated photons. Each "ray" bounces around the surfaces and textures until it finds the simulated camera lens, creating something akin to a digital photograph. But the process complex and slow – every surface of the model must be configured with an array of properties, and intricate scenes with many artificial lights can easily take 24 hrs or more to render on a high-spec PC running at full pelt.
Just as for real-life photography, the key to success is in correct lighting of the scene. For this project we want to produce pleasant-looking images but we also want the lighting to be historically accurate for the hundreds of fixtures that were used in Cloudland in the period that we are recreating – the 1950s. Reproducing the fixtures from photographs, configuring the emitters and balancing the intensity of each light with the background Queensland sun is a substantial research, modelling and rendering challenge.
As we already know, Cloudland was developed by Tollemache Eslick who arrived in Brisbane in the late 1930s carrying a bagful of contemporary design concepts from the US and other parts of the word. Considering the era it is no surprise that neon lighting came to play a role in the fitout, particularly around the prominent central stage and tiered ceiling. By this time neon tubing was manufactured locally and the basic colour range consisted of white, yellow, blue, green and red. My recreation relies heavily on pictures from 1950s Post Office balls and these photos are all monochrome, but there are a handful of other photos that give a hint to the colour of the Cloudland neon. In the below examples, we see that the lights around the stage were white, yellow and blue. Around the lower ceiling tier, the colours were a repetitive sequence of green, red and blue.
Photographs showing the neon tubing around the stage and along the first ceiling tier.
Sources from left: 1) 1970s photograph, Ege Snook private collection, supplied by Kyle Fysh. 2) Still frame from "Life in Australia: Brisbane", NFSA Films, 1964.
Draft model of the top right corner of the stage, showing neon lights (yellow, blue, white) and one of the three stage lights inside the dome. Also visible to the right is a column with a capital and gilded "angels". The capitals had lights around the recessed base, and the angels gazed at incandescent bulbs installed in the sea shells. In the early 50s the stage still had the original painted cloud motifs inside and around the dome.
In photos of Cloudland you've probably noticed the over-sized and curiously organic ventilators that encircled the lower ceiling tier. Each of the 20 ventilators had a large, oriental light which provided some of the scant lighting on the dancefloor. By the 1970s the shades had lost their lower two tiers, and it is possible that they were intentionally cut back to brighten the space.
Ventilators and lights around the perimeter of the ceiling. Source: Post Office Ball 1953.
NAA, series J2364.
Draft model of the tiered ceiling, with ventilators and lights. Neon tubes in green, red and blue were installed above the ledge. Also note the hidden lights behind grilles which encircled the first ceiling tier. White neon tubes lit up the mezzanine seating areas against the external wall.
On the ground level, under the mezzanine floor, there were wall bracket lights on the columns against the façade and ceiling lights under the coffered ceiling. The wall lights are visible on several photographs and are recreated below. The ceiling lights had deco-inspired 30s frosted glass shades - you'll see them in the final model.
Wall bracket lights on the facade columns. Over time some of the glass shades in high-traffic areas were replaced with a round model - possibly due to breakages. A modern building certifier would have been horrified by this installation. Sources (from left): Post Office Ball 1949, 1950 and 1954. NAA, Series J2364.
Draft model of the brass wall bracket lights.
Some signage appears to have been back-lit, notably the sign in the corner of the floor by the bar that led the way to the “Supper Sitting 2” room, located where the Panorama room would later be built. My reproduction uses two white fluorescent tubes behind frosted glass.
Draft model of door and backlit sign to the 'Supper Sitting 2" dining room. We also see the Queensland sun, which will be configured to the precise location and orientation of the building.
The most spectacular fixture was the huge central chandelier. This component is still under development but I’ve included a teaser below. The model uses a battery of incandescent bulbs with the light refracting through the frosted lead light surface - the physics of this arrangement is stretching the rendering software to its limits. I haven’t been able to source any good colour images of the glass but from the bits that I have it appears that the colour of the chandelier gave a uniformly yellow-warm glow, tending to amber.
Rare colour photographs of the central chandelier. Sources from top: 1) 1970s, Ege Snook private collection provided by Kyle Fysh; 2) Still frame from "Life in Australia: Brisbane", NFSA Films, 1964; 3) Private photo shared on Lost Brisbane Facebook page.
Draft model of the massive central chandelier, which provided most of the direct light on the dance floor.
The final model will contain more than 300 artificial lights, and of course also the big yellow bulb in the sky which will be configured to the precise location of Montpelier Hill.
Thanks for checking in – I am continually on the hunt for more photos and descriptions so please let me know if you know of any potentially untapped sources.
Cloudland furniture drafts - click to enlarge
The Cloudland recreation is inching ahead – still a long way to go. To give myself a break from the vast ballroom interior I decided to turn my attention to the variety of loose furniture that was used in the fitout, mainly in the lounging areas under the mezzanine floor.
In the second blog post (further down this page) we looked at one of Eslick’s previous ballroom projects, in Santa Monica, California. This earlier design shared many features with Cloudland, with the notable exception of having some very plush integrated seating areas. Cloudland in contrast had an assortment of loose sofas, chairs and tables - less extravagant but much more flexible and reconfigurable for just about any purpose, from balls to (later) large-scale university examinations. Whatever the configuration there was no shortage of places to park your derrière in Cloudland, with 900 fixed arena-style seats always available on the mezzanine.
Some clues to the original furniture composition and arrangements are offered by the below image from 1940. This was a designer’s photo – commissioned by Eslick and taken when the fitout was brand-spanking new and not yet sullied by grubby patrons. The resolution is poor but we can see arrangements of furniture in each “bay” between the massive columns, consisting of groups of sofas surrounding what appears to be light-coloured pedestal tables.
Cloudland ballroom at fitout completion in 1940. Luna Park Brisbane. (1940-09-24). In Building: the magazine for the architect, builder, property owner and merchant. 67 (397), 40.
Photos from Post Office balls in the late 1940s and 50s provide closer detail. In the below two photos we see the models of sofas that predominated in the late 1950s – one with ornate arm rests and turned legs, and the other of a sleek 50’s design. The former appears to have fabric upholstering and the latter leather. The colours can’t be ascertained but my guess is shades of green, which would have worked well with the soft pink and beige interiors and was common in the 40s palette. It appears that other sofas introduced in subsequent years were also green.
Couch models in the 50s. Left photo from 1953, National Archives NAA: J2364, 201879/12. Right photo from 1959, Cloudland ballroom, July 1959. Queensland State Archives.
Some photos show the ornate sofas but without arm rests – perhaps unintentional modifications following by a few years of heavy use. By the second half of the 50s some of the sofas were sporting a new, patterned fabric.
Moving onto tables, we recall that the 1940 fitout photo shows light-coloured pedestal tables in the centre of each seating arrangement. Again photos from balls a decade or two later confirm this and provide more detail.
Post office ball 1954. A merry gang of postal workers and their dates gathered around one of the pedestal tables. National Archives. NAA: J2364, 2036/7
The pedestals mirror the columns that surrounded the dance floor, and they appear rather avant-guard for the purchase year of 1940, I haven’t seen anything like them elsewhere. One can imagine the small tables being rolled on their bases across the floor as they were moved from one spot to another. Some photos show damaged and buckled pedestal columns, indicating that they were made of rolled metal.
In later photos the alcove seating has rectangular side tables, and the pedestals have joined the rows of chairs along the façade.
Post office ball 1953 showing the ornate couch design and square timber tables. The pedestal tables have joined the chairs, lined up along the façade. National Archives. NAA: J2364, 1879/6
And finally there was, as can be expected, a range of loose chairs of which the model shown below and above was the most common.
Loose chair (to the right), pedestal table (left) and a lovely young lady beaming in her beautiful outfit. Post office ball 1949. National Archives. NAA: J2364, 1202/6.
It would be interesting to know whether the comfortable alcove sofas, with prime views of the dance floor, were available on first-come basis or reserved at a premium price. If anyone has information on this please let me know.
I’m hopeful that, considering he sheer quantity of furniture present in the building, some or perhaps all of it was sold prior to the demolition with surviving examples still dotted around the city. If you recognise any of the items please let me know - I’d be keen to take a few close-ups. In the meantime, the recreations shown in the title image are as close as I can get.