Tasmanian Times


Gilding the lily

A heritage issue is back in the news focus (although, in fact, it hasn’t been away too long).

It’s the planned building of an office tower block on Hobart’s 3 Victoria Street, and with it there’s renewed concern about the impact this will have on one of Australia’s most historic buildings – the adjacent Macquarie House, behind 151 Macquarie Street.

This house, built in 1815 for prominent pioneer businessman Thomas William Birch, is regarded as the oldest three-storey home in Australia and thus of major national heritage importance.

The saga has run for some five years and Hobart City Council has maintained its stand of refusing a development that doesn’t provide protection for Macquarie House.

But the property’s owner, Fahed Aziz-Elali, following council rejection of a new development proposal, took it to the Resource Management and Appeal Tribunal last year and won.

RMPAT ruled it was okay for him to put up an eight-storey block on the 3 Victoria Street site – with it encasing, on the ground floor, a heritage “cottage”. This is a dining room addition to Macquarie House (in the original plan the cottage was intended for demolition).

But the preservation now of the cottage is where the story takes an interesting twist.

The Sunday Tasmanian (suddenly discovering the RMPAT decision three months later) reported the new tower plan on January 10.

The developer’s architect, John Padas, was quoted by reporter Philippa Duncan as saying it was a “win, win” with the new design because it “conserved a cottage that predates the 1817 Macquarie House”.

Apart from the fact that Macquarie House was built in 1815, not 1817, there’s a much more significant point – the cottage did not predate Macquarie House.

And we need look no further than the RMPAT decision for confirmation: “According to the evidence at the hearing the oldest structure upon 3 Victoria Street – ‘the cottage’ – appears to have been constructed some time in the latter part of the 1820s. There is cogent evidence to suggest it was constructed as part of the outbuildings for what had been Birch’s house at 151 Macquarie Street. But by the time the cottage was constructed 151 Macquarie Street was no longer Birch’s house, Birch having died in 1820. The house had become Stodarts Hotel and the consensus of expert historical opinion seems to be that the cottage was constructed as the dining room of the hotel.”

Birch didn’t die in 1820 – it was 1821. I recounted (in The Shadow Over Old Macquarie House for this website in early 2008: HERE ) the bizarre happening after he was buried in what was then St David’s Cemetery (now the park), how robbers broke into his vault and stole the possessions he was buried with – and his coffin with his body inside as well. But I digress.

So no cottage that “predates” Macquarie House, although that’s not to say it isn’t worthy of restoration and the new design means the cottage will be readily on display in the tower lobby.

But the predating comment seems to be giving an added undeserved historic cachet to the cottage, a gilding of the lily, as it were, and with it disregarding the real heritage worth of Macquarie House in its entirety.

As Hobart’s Deputy Lord Mayor Helen Burnet said on this website, on her council voting against offices towering over this significant piece of Hobart’s history:

“Macquarie House is one of Hoabrt’s perennial heritage battles. Always in the firing line, the proposed building if ever built will completely change Mac House from both Victoria St and its frontage onto Macquarie St.”

Image, from Heritage at Risk : HERE

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  1. David

    January 19, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Thanks Bob, I needed a good laugh and I reckon a good reminder to perhaps not take things to seriously. Cheers mate !! 🙂

  2. Red Bob

    January 18, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    Old buildings must be preserved at all costs. Universities should be banned from teaching architecture degrees. And it should be an offence to even suggest tearing down an old building simply because it is old.

    When will property owners realise they do not have any rights? If there is an old building already on that property then it must stay. Don’t people realise that anything old is for that very reason of great value and must be retained, regardless of anything else?

  3. David

    January 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    In respect of John Hawkins comments let me say this much while I agree with much of the intent of what he is saying I disagree with his notions of political corruption, financial advantages and the deliberate inability of the Heritage Council to adequately protect the built heritage, let alone other heritage aspects of the State.

    That is not to say that heritage is adequately protected, but I think that is a failure of the legislative powers under which that Agency has to work. This is a political process and from my observations, governements try to find a balance between competing interests and don’t always get this right.

    To politicise this debate to this level brings you on par with those you seek to criticise. To me this doesn’t help.

    I think it is far better and more effective to actually do something about the poor quality of heritage protection within the State.

    I think this can be done at a personal level, like I am doing with my two historic properties, as I know John has done with his, through education, through promotion of such ideals through various mediums but not in a negative but rather positive process.

    To me, it is about becomming involved, say with the National Trust and making things actually happen, through working with Adult Education running courses, through researching and producing written/photographic records,ie. publishing books on Tasmania etc etc. Through seeking to have articles published in newspapers, magazines. By the promotion of things such as the various Antique fairs around the State. And perhaps through better interaction with the Heritage Council through the offering of services.

    For instance, one thing I do know is that so few of the State’s builders are interested in heritage restoration and yet there is a demand out there, and need for new apprentices to be appropriately trained. Similarly, there are commercial opportunities out there for the supply of heritage materials (salvage), historical advisory services etc.

    I also think that in context of landscape context, that some of the environment NGOs need to get on board and become advocates for this, to act as lobby groups to protect such natural heritage values, not just become bogged down with forests and pulp mills.

    In the end there is only so much that government departments or Agencies can promote from within. It also needs public recognition of the importance of this and the values they place on it. I think this is equally true for the non-indigenous heritage story.

    So John my word of advice is perhaps give the above some thought as I think all you are currently doing is preaching to the converted, while alienating those who don’t understand or accept the importance of heritage.

  4. David

    January 18, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    As someone also keenly interested and practising what I preach re the proper and historically correct protection/restoration of our built heritage, I agree with both Salamander’s and John’s concerns regarding the proposed tower and encapsulation of the ‘dining room’ of Macquarie House. The scale, the intent and the actual delivery appears to be both inappropriate and culturally insensitive.

    To continue to change the scale of the built fabric of the street scape by yet another dull, lifeless and facile tower block is beyond comprehension.

    Personally, I wish the decision makers better understood and appreciated the history of Hobart, as say they do in the UK. Bath is a perfect example of a regional sandstone Georgan city which has preserved its history and the proportions to ensure that this sort of “cheapo” development is prevented.

    The problem here though lays with a combination of the existing planning legislation and the legal framework under which the RMPAT has to work with, irrespective of Council’s decisions.

    The other aspect is that neither Heritage Tasmania nor the National Trust have the ability to ensure such developments are blocked permanently,probably as a result of not having adequate powers under Heritage legislation.

    I think you have to remember that any government is trying to balance the need to protect the historic buildings and spaces of a city while at the same time encouraging development on the belief that this generates wealth, whether or not such assumptions are valid or appropriate.

    To answer your question John, no I don’t believe the RMPAT is a bastard child of any new planning committee since it well predates this, nor relates to the demise ?? of the RPDC.

    Similarly, from my understandings of the machinations of the RMPAT, it is a panel made up of a range of different practising professionals including lawyers, planners, architects and engineers. My best understanding hence is that they are not directly or supposed to be subject to political interference or pressures from government ministers, however, indirectly might be another matter, given that Governments have their own development agendas,which probably don’t generally match with the communities.

    I think we are all aware of this.

    From my point of view, I simply hope that the developer cannot find the finance or clients seeking such a monstrosity and hopefully one day someone with a little more appreciation, plus $$$ would restore Macquarie House and the associated cottage back to its former glory.

    While I am at it I think people need to not forget that another another piece of Hobart’s built heritage is similarly at risk of demolition, namely the former Men’s Gallery pub on the corner of Argyle and Bathurst street.

    It too is a building worthy of restoration not demolition !!

  5. John Hawkins

    January 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    What part has the Heritage Council and its independent councillors played in this debacle? The Government appoints these so called independent assessors of our history and heritage for what good or purpose.

    Under Scott Gadd, the Council, acting as required by their political masters, proved useless.

    Now the Department has been scrapped/merged, they are, as required by Bartlett’s drongos, to be if possible even more useless.

    The Macquarie House submission being a classic example. Hobart and its built environment stands about as much chance as the Tasmanian landscape; all is available at a price, the price of integrity, honesty and fair dealing.

    Lib / Lab politicians are always seeking some political or financial advantage in this our corrupt Tasmania, all to the general detriment of those they are supposed to represent.

  6. John Biggs

    January 18, 2010 at 11:32 am

    I protested to HCC as follows:

    “Aesthetically, it is an appalling notion that a unique heritage building would be ‘featured’ by the proposed development, as if it were a cute gimmick to be shown off by a design that is a fraction of the aesthetic and cultural value of the ‘feature’ itself.

    “The proposed height of the building would turn Macquarie Street, which contains many lovely Georgian and Victorian buildings, into a stretch of ordinariness.

    “I earnestly hope this tasteless proposal is rejected on heritage grounds. It makes a mockery of a heritage building to ‘frame’ it with a totally different and anachronistic building and call that a ‘feature’.

    “If passed, it would create a precedent for ‘preserving’ heritage buildings that should never have been allowed.”

    And HCC did the right thing, now overturned by RMPAT. Is RMPAT a bastard child of the new planning committee under Llewellyn, that in turn absorbed RPDC? If so it means as I feared that bloody Llewellyn has virtually sole say over what goes forward and what does not — and as the developers’ friend, Llewellyn now holds heritage in his fumbling incompetent hands.

    Please correct me if I am wrong about this.

  7. salamander

    January 17, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    No doubt this decision by the RMAT is a sign of the times, with the demise of the RPDC. The RPDC had its final fling with nailing the lid on the coffin of Walker’s designs on Ralphs Bay, now all we will see are developer-oriented decisions.

    Labor has no concern for our heritage, they see new developments as the sign of success – though it is hard to see why, as I doubt that any city development of the last 50 years could be said to be a tourist drawcard for its appearance.

    Unfortunately misinformation from the Mercury is hardly newsworthy, one wonders if there is even an editor at all now – as in someone who actually edits.

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