Heritage in action…

Recently I wrote about the listing of heritage buildings.  This follow-on explains about the Burra Charter, conservation plans and the quite different restoration of two heritage listed town halls, one in Paddington in Sydney and the other in St Kilda in Melbourne, both of them built in 1890-91.

Sir Henry Parkes laid the foundation stone for the Paddington Town Hall in 1890 when Paddington was a separate municipality.  Ironically the opening of the town hall a year later heralded its slow decline into a poor working class area, and the 1929 Depression sealed Paddington's fate.  The post-war County of Cumberland planning scheme for metropolitan Sydney slated Paddington as a slum ripe for total redevelopment. 

However its convenient inner city location and low costs made it attractive to many people (like me) who started to restore the houses, and in 1968 in a complete reversal of planning and housing orthodoxy at the time, four hundred acres of terrace housing was rezoned as the first conservation area in Australia.  Paddington has since become stockbroker territory and many of the houses have those phony carriage lamps by the front door; unfortunately heritage listing only saved the physical environment, and couldn't maintain the diverse social environment of the Sixties and Seven-ties as property prices soared.  

In the Sixties the NSW Heritage Council had placed a Permanent Conservation Order on the town hall so it was protected against demolition or radical change.  Originally the building had two halls and the smaller one had been converted in 1978 into the 300 seat Chauvel Cinema that, like the Astor in Chapel Street Windsor, largely shows re-runs of what might almost be called heritage movies!  The area once occupied by council offices on the ground floor had been taken over by a branch of the City Library and a community radio station also occupied a small area.  Only the larger main hall on the first floor, once used for grand balls, meetings and other community events was largely unused.

In 1990 the building was threatened with closure by the State government if an unsafe rear timber fire escape wasn't replaced. South Sydney Council asked my office 'to fix it up'; and as an afterthought, that 'a colour scheme wouldn't be a bad idea as the place needs painting'; nothing was said about heritage.

When I pointed out with a straight face that the building was a heritage item and that the NSW Heritage Act required that until a Conservation Plan for the building was prepared and it had been shown that any changes were in accordance with it, nothing should be touched.  They thought I was being a smartarse and impatiently told me, OK, do whatever is required, just fix it up so there are no problems!  I'd never done anything like this before, investigated the history of the building, informed myself about the Burra Charter and wrote the Conservation Plan and proposed many more changes than the fix-it-up brief, most of which were accepted by the council.

 The Burra Charter, or to give it it's full title, theAustralia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance, was first formulated in 1979 at a meeting held at the historic mining town of Burra in South Australia.  It defines the basic principles and procedures to be followed in the conservation of Australian heritage places.  ICOMOS stands forInternational Council on Monuments and Sites,and the philosophies and concepts of the original European charter were rewritten at Burra in a form that would be practical and useful in Australia.  NSW officially adopted an amended Burra Charter in 2004 and Victoria followed in 2010.

A Conservation Plan requires the recording of the available historical information about the building, writing a Statement of the Cultural Significance of the building along with a detailed Schedule of Items of Significance, which would be accepted and used as a basis for any proposed alterations.

Paddington Town Hall
Paddington Town Hall

Old photographs revealed that the glazed upper floor had originally been an open verandah matching the loggia on the ground floor, pretty obvious when you think about it, and that a triangular pediment marking the original entrance to the council offices had been removed. 

The fire stair was rebuilt in reinforced concrete, the upper verandah was restored and rest of the building including the main hall was refurbished.  But the interior of the hall posed one of the real dilemmas in this sort of work.  The main hall had been altered at some stage, and an upper bandstand on one side and some odd ventilators in a discordant style had been inserted that didn't visually fit in with the rest of the hall.  There were no photographs extant that showed exactly what the hall had looked like before these alterations had been made.  What to do?  Real conservation work is 'evidence based', you can't just decide to pretty it up and build it the way you think might have been, that way leads to Disneyland.  So the alterations that had been made were reluctantly accepted, like them or not, as part of the heritage of the building and therefore should be maintained.

More radical options are possible in cases when a building has been partly destroyed.  The St Kilda Town Hall was built in the same year as Paddington, but the funds were never found to complete the tower.  The grand classical portico was added in 1925, and after a fire in 1991, architects Ashton Raggatt MacDougall (ARM) restored most of the building to it's previous state, but chose to leave the main hall in what is sometimes called a 'distressed ' style, with patches of bare brick showing through where the plaster had fallen off, and installed a simple modern ceiling and new lighting.  These interventions proclaimed that this was once a heritage interior that had been so damaged that we have chosen to accept the fire as part of the continuing history of the building and treat the hall in a contemporary way, and this approach has worked well in this instance.

Heritage issues also came up in the battle over the development of the Triangle site in St Kilda.  The Palais Theatre on one side of this site is a much loved heritage building and most Melbourne people remember being taken there as kids when the Palais was one of the more important theatrical venues in Melbourne.  It's a great freestanding bare barn of a place with a facade stuck on the entrance side.  The developer's scheme for the Triangle site (also by ARM) proposed that two sides of the Palais would be joined to and covered over by the proposed new shopping centre; only the front façade was really 'heritage' they claimed. UnChain St Kilda argued that this was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Burra Charter, that the Palais was the only free standing  picture theatre of the 1920's in existence, and should be maintained free standing, warts and all, that whether you liked it or not (and I do) this was our heritage.

Clive Lucas, doyen of heritage consultants strongly agreed with this position and fortunately this view has prevailed so far. Heritage conservation is not always about buildings; they are sometimes listed because an important person lived there in ordinary circumstances, that this in itself is part of our heritage and the building should be maintained for the insights it provides into our history.

Alterations of listed buildings like both these town halls required a permit from the respective State Heritage Council, which is usually responsible and play a straight bat.  However the Heritage Act provides that the Minister has the ultimate power to take things out of the hands of the Heritage Council and make unilateral decisions.  Alas this happened recently in Melbourne with the Windsor Hotel when the Minister ignored the Heritage Council and approved a controversial proposal to add a tower on the back of this important building.  So heritage controls are not absolutely watertight against politicians unless, in addition to being listed, there is a Permanent Conservation Order on the building that even the cowboys can't get around!

It should also be appreciated that local Councils and private owners are sometimes simply indifferent to the fate of heritage buildings under their control.  The Paddington Town Hall and South Sydney Council illustrates this point.   In the search for a continuing use for the main hall, all the major music bodies had confirmed that there was a need in Sydney for smaller spaces like this hall for children's concerts and small music groups.  The ABC and the others said no promises, but they would use the hall if it were made acceptable acoustically.

Acoustics consultant Louis Challis did all the calculations and tests and the changes were included in the budget.  Estimates of income appeared to cover the running costs and maintenance of the building so this practical use would have been a good outcome, not only giving ongoing life to an empty town hall, but creating a few jobs into the bargain at no cost to the public purse!

Satisfactory tenders had been received and building work had just started when the council employed a project manager to run the project.  He decided that the best financial future for the building lay in it being used for wedding receptions, an option that we had already discounted on evidence from the reception industry.  This project manager refused to accept our research about concerts and cancelled the acoustic components out of the building contract to reduce the cost; it was simply muscle flexing to justify his employment as manager of the project, and even worse, it didn't save all that much money. 

The councillors didn't want to get involved, they had hired him to manage the project and reducing costs always sounds good (after all we all know what architects are like!) and they didn't want to interfere; a real working future for an old heritage building simply wasn't high on their agenda as long as it was painted and had a legal fire escape.  The project manager moved on after the building was completed, leaving the acoustics impossible to reverse at that time!  And it gives no satisfaction to record that the use of the building for wedding receptions failed miserably.

Detailed paint scrapings were taken to try and establish the original colours, and as you can see, the repainted building looks good. But we failed to get an appropriate use for the main hall implemented, and basically all that ever goes on there now are occasional sales of factory seconds clothing and ski gear; a sad end for a good building and a great waste of a community resource.  It's still not too late, the building should be acquired by the Historic Houses Trust and made a proper part of the cultural life of Sydney.


Don Gazzard
October 2012






Paddo Town Hall
Paddington Town Hall