THE main building of the Old Bega Hospital was gutted by fire early yesterday (Monday) morning.
The alarm was raised by the town's security patrolman who was travelling along Kerrisons Lane about 4.15am.
The Bega Fire Brigade arrived soon after and the captain, Mr Ernie Vinecombe, said that by then the flames had taken hold and despite the brigade's best efforts it was unable to save the main building.
There were eventually 30 firefighters on the scene - the Merimbula Fire Brigade and Rural Fire Brigades from Bega, Jellat Jellat, Tathra and Brogo.
The Old Bega Hospital caretaker, Ms Shirley Taylor, was unaware of the fire until she heard the sirens.
The worst damage is at the entrance to the building; the cafe behind it; the room most people use for exhibitions, book launches, film showings, music and dance performances; the former matron's room; and the room to the right of the entrance where art classes and gatherings are held.
Not so badly damaged are the rooms on either end of the main building, one used by a weavers' group and the others by Family Day Care.
The exterior buildings housing EDGE FM, Valley Originals, and the woodworkers' and potters' studios appeared to be undamaged.
Detective Mark Winterflood of the Bega Police said it appeared fire started in small room at the front north east corner as result of an electrical problem.
Investigators fire investigation unit at Batemans Bay and the and forensic unit at Queanbeyan were at the site yesterday and will prepare a report for the Coroner.
The Old Bega Hospital is on Crown land and is managed by a trust under Conservation and Land Management (CALM), Department of Lands.
Both the director and Minister for Lands have been notified of the fire as the Department was to have hosted a function at the Old Bega Hospital on Wednesday.
Anyone who needs to collect material from the Old Bega Hospital should phone Mr Danny Hamer at the Department of Lands on 6491 6200.
The Old Bega Hospital Trust is headed by Mr Jay Ellard, who was in Sydney when the fire broke out.
The secretary, Mrs Barbara Waddell, said the building and its contents were not insured as the cost was prohibitive.
Ms Melanie Kean, whose Artisan Garden Cafe had been running for four months and was proving very popular, lost everything she had for her business in the fire.
She said she was devastated at the destruction of the building.
The hospital was built on the Bega Common and was officially opened on April 18, 1889.
The main section was of brick with two wooden wings and two outbuildings, the infection ward and the mortuary.
Between 1905 and 1908 the wooden structures were replaced with brick.
A new fever ward was built in 1912 and new nurses' quarters in 1928.
In 1937 the main front verandahs of the hospital were glassed in to provide extra accommodation.
Yet another nurses' home was completed and occupied in 1946.
When the new Bega District Hospital was opened in July, 1957, authorities disagreed on what should happen to the Old Bega Hospital.
It was suggested that it could be a home for aged people, not sick enough for hospital but having no one home to care for them.
Eventually the Health Commission recommended that it become boys' hostel for Bega High School.
It remained a boys' hostel until 1976, then it was taken over by the Department of Agriculture and for many years was virtually used as a hay store.
In 1984 the Bega Community Contact and Resource Centre co-ordinator, Mr Richard Jermyn, instigated moves to return the Old Bega Hospital to the community.
In November, 1985, he had attracted a number of community groups who had agreed to use the building if it was restored.
These included the Bega College of TAFE, Bega Parenting Group, Men of the Trees, National Trust, Numismatic and Philatelic Society, the Photographers' Club, Jazz Club, Aerobics, Bega Music Society, Mary Deane Dance School, Physical Culture Club, Bournda Field Studies Centre, Rural Youth, Steiner School group, Harness Club, Garden Club, Chess Club and the RSPCA.
Funds were received from the Bega Valley Shire Bicentennial Committee and other sources and eventually the main room was restored, as well as structural repairs to the exterior.
Originally the Old Bega Hospital was used for meetings and Mr Jermyn, by then the Arts Council officer for local shires, had his office there.
As the years passed the Old Bega Hospital Trust ensured its continued success by renting out a suite of rooms to Family Day Care and the nurses' quarters to Valley Originals and Edge FM.
Various art and craft groups had their own space on the site, weavers and art groups in the main building and woodcrafters and potters in adjoining buildings.
Not only is the fire a blow to all the organisations and groups that have used it since its restoration, but a lot of the history of Bega Valley residents is tied to the building.
Some were born there, others were there for surgery and there are still nurses living in the area who worked in the old hospital.