Remaking of an icon

In honour of the 25th anniversary of Brisbane’s Customs House restoration, Contact spoke with Dr Nicholas Girdis CBE – the man who spearheaded the fundraising effort. 

“This is your country. You must contribute to this country.”

These words – spoken by his father, a Greek refugee – inspired a lifetime of service and contribution to Australia for 93-year-old Dr Nicholas Girdis CBE (Bachelor of Dental Science ’51, Doctor of Dental Science ’60). 

Service can take many forms, and for Girdis it certainly did: as a dentist, cafe owner, lieutenant and property developer. 

But it was his work in philanthropy, and his firm belief in the moral necessity of giving, that saw Girdis (pictured above with his wife Marina) return to his educational roots. 

“My father said to me, ‘It’s not a matter of taking, you’ve got to give back’,” Girdis said. 

“You give back to the University: where your education and your learning came from. You’ve got to give back to the country, to improve it as best you can.”

Many years later, armed with his father’s advice and a prosperous career in property development, Girdis led UQ’s first philanthropic campaign: the restoration of Customs House, an opulent architectural artefact from Brisbane’s colonial days, sitting empty and dilapidated on Brisbane’s riverbank. 

Before his path crossed with the fated building on Queen Street, Girdis had slowly found his way back to his alma mater with burgeoning involvement across various UQ facets. In 1984, he was appointed to the UQ Senate. He later chaired the Buildings and Grounds Committee and was also a member of the subcommittee that created UQ’s alumni magazine, Contact

However, it was then-Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Brian Wilson’s pioneering push for an inner-city UQ office that finally delivered Girdis the two-year project of restoring Customs House, following its lease to the University in 1992.

“Brian Wilson wanted a downtown office for the University to interface with the business community, and then Customs House came up,” Girdis said. 

“I thought he was pretty cheeky. He said, ‘Nick, we want you to be the chairman of the fundraising committee’. And I said, ‘I’m not a good fundraiser’.”

Despite his humility, Girdis and his committee went on to raise a staggering $5.4 million for the restoration project, attracting high-profile Brisbane residents like Clem Jones and John and Beverley Trivett to join the campaign. 

The building was reopened in 1994, and UQ subsequently became the owner in perpetuity after then-Chancellor Sir Llew Edwards obtained the freehold from the Australian Government.

An image of Customs House.

Former UQ Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Brian Wilson AO, Customs House restoration donor John Cowley, and restoration campaign council president Dr Nicholas Girdis in the Long Room at Customs House in 1994.

Former UQ Vice-Chancellor Emeritus Professor Brian Wilson AO, Customs House restoration donor John Cowley, and restoration campaign council president Dr Nicholas Girdis in the Long Room at Customs House in 1994.

The result was not just a building but a place of gathering for the thousands of UQ alumni, and it stands 25 years on as a legacy of the power of philanthropy. 

“It was an unparalleled opportunity to bring together the community, but most importantly, it was our chance to try to repay the invaluable gift that UQ gave us and those around us.”

Customs House officially celebrated the 25th anniversary of its restoration on 23 October 2019 – coincidentally also the day of UQ’s first ever Giving Day – with a special event for the community involved in the restoration.

Visit UQ Giving to find out how you can support a cause that motivates you.

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