A journey to a new Ithaca: the Ithacan Philanthropic Society

Sitting one story above Elizabeth Street’s bustling commercial strip, Ithaca House has since 1958 been the club rooms of the Ithacan Philanthropic Society. Established in 1916 as a community organisation dedicated to providing aid to those Ithacans who on their island home, suffered the deprivation brought on by World War I.

Among the earliest Greeks to make the journey to Australia, Ithacans as a people were no strangers to the call of the sea.

By the time of the Venetian Republic Ithacans’ seafaring skills made them a savvy and mercantile culture. Earlier expeditions by young eager men saw them crewing barges trading goods along the Danube River, others later sought their fortunes in the Union of South Africa, while others still would cross the Atlantic to settle in the United States.

The story of the Ithacan-Australian begins in the 1850s, and is similar to that of most early migrant communities who sought the promise of a better life in lands far away. When rumours of gold fields newly discovered in the Colony of Victoria reached the island, in no time men and boys descended from hilltop villages which were havens from the pirates who roamed the adjacent seas. Some of those men left families behind, while others were bachelors seduced by wanderlust.

One of those men was Andreas Lekatsas from the village of Exogi. He arrived in Melbourne in 1851, and soon moved to the Ballarat goldfields. His first venture was successful. In fact its thought, though not verified, that Lekatsas was present at the digger’s stand, the defining moment of Australian history, the Eureka Stockade, in Ballarat in 1854.

Twenty years later, Lekatsas returned to Ithaca, and the stories he spun of his frontier adventures in that far off land inspired his nephews Antony JJ & Marino Lucas to make the journey themselves.

Those nephews were soon to become cornerstones of Melbourne’s Ithacan community. The Lucas brothers, having anglicised their names from the familial Lekatsas, quickly began to position themselves as prominent figures in the burgeoning entertainment and restaurant industries of Melbourne.

In 1894, the older nephew Antony Lucas established the Town Hall Café, a colossal double story venue in Swanston Street which could service more than 500 diners at once. His dedication to philanthropy is seen here in his practice of employing Greek staff, who in those years, without doubt would have faced adversity in finding work in the fine dining sector.

Owing to his prosperity earned over years of operation at the Town Hall Café in the following decades Lucas opened the Paris Café on Collins Street. His entrepreneurial aptitude soon granting him the opportunity to establish a third business the Café Vienna. Remembered fondly in oral histories amongst Greek Australians as centrepiece venues with welcoming atmospheres and continental cuisines, it would seem their road from there would only lead up.

And that was the case, but no story of success comes without its hurdles. In the early years of World War I, with anti-German sentiment at its height across the Anglosphere, Lucas’ Café Vienna saw protests outside its doors. The premises were stoned, its patrons and staff threatened, one waitress even having a glass of the “enemy’s” wine poured in her face.

These events were triggered largely by the appearance of Austria’s Imperial Coat of Arms on one of the café’s wine lists.

The Vienna Café. Sourced from the Victorian State Library Archives with permission

The Graphic, a Melbourne publication closely reported the event in 1915:

“Mr. Lucas said that undoubtedly the appearance of the Austrian national eagles on his wine list had given offence but he was quite innocent of any desire to offend the… public. He was a Britisher at heart, and so were all the Greeks in Australia. He is now restricting his menu to (allied) lagers, ales and stouts, while among wines he vends French, unless the brands of enemy countries are specifically asked for”

And so for a time the Café Vienna closed its doors, but from adversity came opportunity, in the period following that ugly occurrence, Lucas expanded his business to incorporate the adjacent building and undertook an extensive and avant-garde redesign in response to that past year’s events.

The newly named Café Australia re-opened with a gala event in 1916 attended by Melburnian socialites including soprano Nellie Melba. Its architecture drawing the eyes of all who attended.

As for the younger nephew of Andreas Lekatsas, Marino Lucas worked closely with his brother in Melbourne since their arrival in 1886, but by 1907 he had struck out on his own across the bass strait in Tasmania.

Already involved in the entertainment industry in Melbourne, Marino Lucas began construction on a series of theatres in Launceston. In 1911 he found success in building the Princess Theatre, his own design, and at the cost of approximately £18,000 and seating some 1,700 patrons.  The Princess Theatre stands to this day.

A 1914 article in The Examiner described it as:

“The only theatre in Tasmania with such up-to-date appliances, and which are equal to any in other states.”

This photo of the Majestic Theatre owned by Marino Lucas with permission from TAHO (Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office).

Following his return after a four year hiatus to Melbourne, Marino Lucas began work on yet another venue, opening in 1917, the Majestic Theatre was again lauded by patrons and writers for its charming ‘Grecian’ exterior, state of the art technologies and imposing design. Sadly, with a rise in the adoption of home televisions, it closed its doors for the final time in 1970.

There is a quality of these men aside from their business aptitude which may be even more admirable, their maintained commitment to the betterment of their community, and in providing a port of call and home away from home for the influx of Ithacans who would call Australia home in the following decades.

In 1852, 293 ships made port in Victoria. The following year that number rose to 900. On board those ships were the first Ithacans. 64 years later, “The Ulysses” was founded, what is today the Ithacan Philanthropic Society.

Its first President, that restauranteur and owner of the café’s Town Hall, Paris and Australia, was Antony JJ Lucas; later becoming the Greek Consul General to Australia in 1921.

From that first meeting of the executive committee of the Ithacan Philanthropic Society of Melbourne, The Ulysses, signed on  October 20, 1916 at 409 Lonsdale Street to Ithaca House at 329 Elizabeth Street.

The Ulysses, as it is fondly known by its members, will continue to serve as a pillar of not only the Ithacan, but the Greek community at large in Australia.

Its story is one of hope and hardship, uncertainty and assuredness, perseverance and prosperity.

It is an Ithacan story.