A trapdoor in the newly polished floorboards and a ceiling hatch to the rooftop tower above are pointers to the colourful history of the new-look Old Perth Technical School on St Georges Terrace.
The set-up ingeniously replicated a vertical mine shaft so mining students could learn how to abseil in the three-level 1910 building, which has been dormant since the teachers and students moved out in the 1980s.
Now the heritage-listed gothic Federation building finally has some new tenants, who hope to mine a rich seam of art lovers in the ritzy Brookfield Place precinct at the foot of BHP Billiton's high-rise HQ.
Gallery directors Linton Partington and Gary Kay have defied the wider art market slump by leasing the majestic old building from owners Brookfield for 10 years and fitting it out as one of the biggest commercial galleries in the country.
"A lot of our clients are Terrace-based anyway, big corporate clients whose time is valuable, so we would prefer to be on their doorstep where they can visit us at lunchtime," Mr Partington said.
Linton Kay Galleries will be launched with a splash tonight with a major exhibition of contemporary art from China.
Two Generations, from the influential Red Gate Gallery in Beijing, has been touring the country to mark the 40th anniversary of Australian-Chinese diplomatic ties. It will be opened Premier Colin Barnett and Chinese Consul-General Wang Yiner.
Heritage Perth executive director Richard Offen said the transformation of the Old Perth Technical School into an art gallery was an ideal use for a building where many significant Perth artists had once trained and worked.
"Something like an art gallery is very respectful because it doesn’t have to be that obtrusive and the building is an impressive picture in itself," Mr Offen said. “It is great that it will be open to the public."
He praised the facelifts to the adjoining WA Trustee, Royal Insurance and Newspaper House buildings which now house upscale nosh pits The Heritage, The Trustee and Print Hall.
"We are getting better at re-using these old buildings in Perth and getting good at it," he said.
Restored to its full glory, the building comprises 480sq.m of exhibition space across three galleries, a cafe and reception area for major events and functions. A stage backs onto the building for outdoor events in Brookfield Place.
Mr Partington said he and Mr Kay had been approached about making use of the building after the developer's initial plans to configure it into office space did not fit within heritage guidelines.