BRISBANE Arcade faces an uncertain future going into its 85th year but its past, and place in Queensland's history, won't be easily forgotten.
It was an averagely uneventful autumn day just before closing time at Kellie's Antiques in Brisbane Arcade 10 years ago.
Shop manager Susan Gaylard was busy polishing a 19th-century silver English teapot when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a woman whisk past her front window.
Looking up, Ms Gaylard realised this was no last-minute shopper trying to beat the clock: "She had her hair up in a bun and a beautiful black old-fashioned dress with a big bustle. I knew she wasn't a real person. She was too quick."
It was Ms Gaylard's first experience of the Ghost of Brisbane Arcade.
Since then she, like other shopkeepers there, has had other peculiar moments: glass doors on cabinets in her second-storey boutique swinging open for no apparent reason, always in that quiet lull of late afternoon; and an all-pervading sense of serene energy, not of this time.
When, on TV some years ago, she mentioned her initial ghostly encounter, a woman came rushing into her shop the next day eager to report that she'd had a near-identical sighting, as a girl aged about four or five.
"She couldn't wait to tell me that she'd seen the same woman in the black dress walking straight through the front glass window of one of the shops when she was a little girl. Of course her mother had told her, 'Don't be silly'," Ms Gaylard says.
Ask the arcade's recently retired grand dame, Room with Roses teashop founder Judy Bushell, about such supernatural happenings, and she's a bit more coy.
It's only a few weeks ago that, after more than 30 years, Ms Bushell let go of her beloved tea salon, a favourite haunt (pardon the pun) of Kevin Rudd and his wife Therese.
"I've never seen anyone, but I've certainly been alone in the building late at night on my own and heard doors opening when no one was there," she says reluctantly. "I got into a spot of bother talking about it publicly once, though, and a lot of jewellers (in the arcade) won't come forward because they're men."
Over the years, however, security guards have lent their weight to the seductive myth with reported sightings of a female figure walking along the gallery level, and footsteps heard after dark in the staff-only quarters.
Some say the mysterious woman in black is a former shopkeeper who continues to keep a watchful eye on the arcade after her death.
Others believe she is more likely to be Mary McIntosh, wife of the notorious Patrick Mayne, eternally walking the building as punishment for her family's sins.
What would be more surprising, for a structure of the Brisbane Arcade's lineage, is if there were no ghost stories at all.
Thanks to the city's sad legacy of pulling down irreplaceable monuments to the past, there are few surviving sites like the arcade to prompt our imaginations. It wasn't until 1992 that the building received heritage listing, years after we'd destroyed places such as the Cloudland ballroom and the Bellevue Hotel (under cover of darkness).
Paranormal theories flourish about the arcade, because the ground beneath it has a blood-soaked tale to tell.
Irish immigrant and slaughterman Patrick Mayne arrived in the fledgling colony's Kangaroo Point in 1844 and married Mary McIntosh. Five years later, to the great surprise of friends, he invested sudden and unexplained wealth in a butcher's shop, adjoining coach-house and upstairs residence in a prime block on Brisbane's smart Queen St. The amount was paid in cash, and was the equivalent of about five years' slaughterman wages.
From there, Mayne set about acquiring a further 400ha of prime inner-city real estate. Despite the Maynes' affluence however, they were increasingly shunned by Brisbane's "more polite" society as Patrick's fits of insanity and alcohol-fuelled violence (he had a fondness for attacking perceived enemies with his stockwhip) grew more frequent.
Shockingly, in 1865, on his deathbed, more or less where the Colorado store sits on an arcade corner today, Mayne confessed that 17 years earlier he murdered a man and that someone else had been hanged for it.
The dead man was a drunken timber-gatherer named Robert Cox who'd foolishly boasted of his earnings from a big cedar find. Police maintained it was one of the most savage slayings they'd seen.
The man's legs and torso were found in the Brisbane River; his entrails were dumped in a well; and his severed head was propped up quite deliberately in a shed to gaze at whoever found it.
After Mayne's and Mary's deaths, their children became generous benefactors to churches and charities.
None of them married – some say fearing to pass on their father's madness – and they promptly tore down their parents' butcher shop and their childhood home.
In 1923, they built the Brisbane Arcade on the scandal-ridden site.
Three years later, in another apparently redemptive quest, Patrick's offspring bought land at St Lucia and donated it to the University of Queensland, with all profits from the Brisbane Arcade Trust going to support the university.
Today, Brisbane's most historic shopping precinct continues to be operated by the trustees of the estate of Dr James Mayne and Mary Emelia Mayne (Patrick's youngest two children), with proceeds to UQ's medical school.
Beyond the gracious leadlighting (sadly, much of it replicas now), it's a vastly different enterprise these days. Long gone are the starched white hats of the staff of the George E. Adams cake shop, along with the ladies from the doily shop on the ground floor who used to feed seed to the arcade's pigeons.
Also long gone is the chicken wire that bound the balustrades; and the calamitous tinderbox times when the whole of Queen St was built of timber and regularly caught fire.
But not all change is welcome, according to one of the longest tenants, jeweller Robert White, who bought the business from S. Knowles and Sons in 1974.
Inflated rents, the cost of City parking and never-ending building work have presented "huge challenges" to contemporary retailers.
Throw in the financial crisis and for perhaps the first time, certainly within Mr White's 35-year tenancy, there are vacant shops.
There used to be a waiting list to get into the arcade, he recalls, and cheaper rents allowed smaller, more unusual, businesses to survive. The average lease now is from $3000 to $8000 a square metre.
"Not all of us are happy in here. The work that's gone on around us for the last few years has knocked the business around a huge amount," says Mr White, who in happier days enjoyed the patronage of celebrities such as Elton John (he bought diamond earrings for his bride-to-be Renata), TV's Judge Judy, and Lionel Ritchie (shopping for thank-you tokens for his tour entourage).
"The T&G Building, the bus tunnel, the so-called landscaping of King George Square, truly, it's an absolute joke. You could build the pyramids quicker," Mr White grumbles.
"And parking will kill this City – and this arcade – if they're not careful."
Another long-term arcade tenant, Peter Craig, father of designer Keri Craig, takes a more philosophical, nostalgic view: "The first thing I used to see when I came to work of a morning was the City Hall tower, but now you can't see it because of all the high-rises."
The 71-year-old still can't quite bring himself to retire from the family business, now concentrated around the sprawling basement-level Keri Craig Emporium. Like most of the arcade's shops, it is almost empty on this mid-week afternoon. "We've got another two or three years on our current lease. After that, who knows? At our age, we're happy just to poke along and enjoy ourselves."
For Vicki Pitts, new owner of Room with Roses, it's all about providing a sanctuary in which to linger and soak up some "old world" gentility. She applauds the fact that this very morning, a couple of ladies who arrived for morning tea at 10am "didn't leave until half-past two".
"In these hard times, we're a 'little event'. People can't afford the $100 lunch any more. But we offer that little bit of luxury, like the new lipstick or pair of hosiery," Ms Pitts says.
"Not everyone wants to go for a coffee where you're surrounded by people yelling, 'Flat white for two'."
Her customers, by contrast, are so lovely and relaxed it's they who bring her chocolates, she boasts.
So. Haunted premises built on blood money or shrewd marketing ploy? Whichever one it is, there is undoubtedly a rare "something" in the air of Brisbane Arcade.
Once you are cocooned inside its stately contours, it's hard to believe the thunderdome of the nearby food courts and the fractious Queen St Mall stampede are mere metres away.
Vicki Pitts puts it best: "It's an alternate reality in here. A parallel universe. That's why people love it."