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