MY EYES widened in hopeful appreciation when I saw a letter in the Mercury – “Tower frustration”. Good, I thought, another correspondent angry over the inappropriate office tower block development planned for Hobart’s 3 Victoria Street. Alas, the letter was about a power transmission tower.

But it did have me revisiting aspects of the Resource Management and Planning Appeals Tribunal (RMPAT) endorsing developer Fahed Aziz-Elali’s appeal against the Hobart City Council rejecting his project, which will impact on the significant adjacent historic Macquarie House, behind 151 Macquarie Street.

Judging from the Sunday Tasmanian’s depiction (January 10) of the proposed tower, this will be a decidedly ordinary looking high-rise building, even in terms of the modern excrescences now detracting from the built heritage of our city.

The development will enclose the old cottage built in the late 1820s as the dining rooms for Macquarie House when it became a hotel (just one of the many phases of its long life) – the cottage will be conserved in the lobby of the new eight-storey tower. And that was a focal point in RMPAT’s decision.

Macquarie House, on the other hand, is tucked away behind the facade of buildings erected in front of it in the 1930s – and seemingly will remain so.

So it’s worth reflecting on the view (as it were) of RMPAT in handing down its ruling for the tower to proceed: “The fact is that very little of the original fabric of 151 Macquarie Street is visible from the street. In fact, little of it is visible from anywhere much with the possible exception of office buildings (including as it happens the hearing rooms of the Tribunal) on the opposite side of Macquarie Street. Shortly put, the Tribunal is of the view that it is impossible to identify any adverse impact (or impact of any kind) which can arise from the construction of the building that is proposed for 3 Victoria Street.”

That’s surely a matter of opinion, for there are others who would disagree.

The point of “visibility” needs a further examination. In its report, the Suntas included a photo taken from Macquarie Street of Macquarie House “peeping out from behind the red-brick facade”. Thus for any interested pedestrian looking up the top part of Macquarie House is visible. And you don’t need total visibility to know this important old building is still there – surviving from when it was built in 1815, waiting for some eventual restoration. I wonder what the thinking would have been had the facade not been there?

A “peeping” visibility aside, consideration of the situation must essentially take into account the particularly significant heritage of Macquarie House in the social “fabric” of Hobart’s history.

Peter Freeman*, a leading conservation architect and planner (and author of many conservation management plans for Tasmanian built heritage), in expert opinion to the tribunal, rated Macquarie House as of high heritage value:

“It is rare as one of the oldest surviving buildings in Tasmania; it is also rare as either the oldest or second oldest surviving brick building in Tasmania; it is also rare as a three-storey building of substance constructed in only the second decade of Hobart’s development; it may be the oldest three-storey house in Australia . . .

“As a rare survivor from the second decade of Hobart’s development Macquarie House has considerable potential to reveal information that will contribute to an understanding of Tasmania’s early settlement history. That information is likely to be yielded in the building fabric, the fabric of the outbuilding, and the ground around and below the buildings . . .

“Macquarie House has strong meaning to the community because it contributed in a profound way to the historical and cultural evolution of Hobart.” In dealing with its various uses through the years he said some of the phases had exceptional heritage significance, and summarised: “However, Macquarie House is extraordinary because so many significant heritage values are inherent in the place. It is the sum of it all that makes Macquarie House so exceptional.”

Macquarie House is indeed a hidden treasure.

On Tasmanian Times: Peter Freeman*: Everybody loses (An opinion submitted to The Mercury, but unpublished)