Feeling a building in your bones

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Warrnambool building designer Donna Monaghan at her old school – the former St Joseph’s Primary in Lava St – which she transformed into a childcare centre as part of an award-winning makeover.

By Carol Altmann

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] I [/dropcap]n this world there are two sorts of people: those who look at buildings and those who who really see them.

Donna Monaghan is definitely the latter.

“I am the sort of person who will look at a worn down bluestone step and wonder how many people it took to wear that step down,” the Warrnambool building designer says with a laugh.

“I have always been this way – I have always looked at buildings – and I didn’t realise until I was older that other people didn’t look at them in the same way.”

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So when you talk with this award-winning designer about a building, it is not only a conversation about the light, finishes, materials and flooring, but also about the bones, the story, and the emotions.

“Buildings should make you feel something when you step into them. It should not be just about building four concrete walls, but connecting that building to the people who use it,” Donna explains.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about a heritage building, or a brand new, ultra-modern building – and I like both – but they need to have some character and make us feel good.”

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The original St Joseph’s primary school building in Lava St, Warrnambool, which was built in 1935. Image supplied.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] D [/dropcap]onna’s business, Form & Function, has recently been recognised – again – by the Building Design Association of Victoria (BDAV) for her talent and skill by winning a major award for the transformation of the former St Joseph’s Primary School in Warrnambool into a childcare centre.

As we walk through the old school in Lava St, originally built in 1935, Donna reveals that it was in fact her old primary school in the days when she was known as Donna Carney.

“When I first stepped back into the school, it was highly emotional,” she says.

Anybody who has ever returned to their school for a reunion will know that feeling: the years contract and you feel huge standing beside the tiny chairs, tables and toilets, as your head fills with a million memories.

“It tapped into something I hadn’t thought about for a long time and reconnected me with a space that I hadn’t been in for, well, 30 years,” Donna says.

The designer in Donna rubs her palm across a solid brick wall inside the old school and explains that it is not single, not double, but triple brick. These walls were built to last.

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Donna on the school’s central stairwell, which has been retained and now leads to staff offices.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] T [/dropcap]he $1.7 million re-design has also retained many other distinctive features of the original school, which closed in 1985, such as the stairwell that once echoed the sounds of boisterous children, and the beautiful banks of windows that overlook Lava St.

Until the redesign, however, the window panes were all filled with opaque glass – perhaps to discourage daydreaming during prayers.

“Even when renovating, it is important to retain original architecture to tell the story of the building,” Donna explains.

“We took the context of this place, its view, its light and its spaces. We borrowed it and condensed it into a new box of tricks.”

No dark and dingy rooms here. Adding clear glass to the multitude of windows was just one part of what is a light and bright transformation. Image: Tracey Togni. Phinc Photography.
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Sliding poles add a touch of the old school yard to the new reception area. Image: Tracey Togni, Phinc Photography.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] D [/dropcap]onna used a similar approach when redesigning the farmhouse of author Paul Jennings and partner Mary-Anne Fahey, for which she won three BDAV awards in 2010, despite having started her business only four years earlier and, at the time of the awards, being heavily pregnant with twins.

“When Paul described what he and Mary-Anne wanted to do with the house, he said they wanted it to feel as comfortable as an old slipper and I thought, ‘I have got to get this job! They so understand!,” Donna says, laughing at the memory.

(You can see a short video of the renovated farmhouse here.)

Over-sized lights and banks of windows have turned once gloomy hallways into tunnels of light. Image: Tracey Togni, Phinc Photography.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A5CECD;”] L [/dropcap]ike us here at Bluestone, Donna loves old buildings, including mid-century gems which may not be that old, but full of – here’s that word again – character.

“I was really sad, for example, to see the old brick buildings next to the Salvation Army go because they really added something to the streetscape…and often what we see replacing these older buildings is something that is poorly designed,” she says.

Donna says the Fletcher Jones site is another example of the rejuvenation of a space that still has a huge community connection, despite being almost written off.

“I don’t think we need to keep every old building, but the way we evaluate the worth of our buildings needs some serious consideration.”

[box]You can visit Donna’s Form & Function website here.[/box]

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5 thoughts on “Feeling a building in your bones”

  1. I was lucky to have have Donna as a near neighbour in a previous life.
    Donna also has a strong committment to the local community.
    She has contributed many volunteer hours to developing an unused block of land into a wonderful parkland by completing plans & liasing with local council to ensure the park was completed and now able to be enjoyed by all.
    A delight to know.
    Well done Donna on your success. Well deserved.

  2. lovely to see and hear of Donna’s ongoing success we had Donna design around our 1854 old school at Rosebrook and it’s a wonderful marriage between old and new looking very comfortable together. Plus Donna is a delight to work with!

  3. Fascinating. I too wonder over the worn down bluestone steps. Jamieson Primary also has many.
    Its extraordinary to contemplate but when old buildings are torn down, its sometimes hard to remember what was there and I for one cannot remember what formerly occupied the Aldi site.
    Probably the buildings that we were most associated with are remembered best. For me the Liberty Picture Cinema remains firmly embedded in my memory. The lighting, Art Deco design and the crying room are all indelible. It’s loss is now seen as a tragedy.
    This building was a part of the once rather large suite of properties owned by Harry and Andy McGennan. For newcomers, Coles supermarket in Lava Street has occupied that site since the demise of the Liberty. With the sale of the ‘Dimmeys’ site and 202 Liebig Street, all have now been sold and thus history marches on. Hopefully however there will be a sensitive restoration of Oamaru at 202 Liebig Street. It was the former home of Peter John McGennan, one of Warrnambool’s earliest Mayors.
    Clearly we need more Donna Monaghans to ensure that what remains of Warrnambool’s historic buildings is preserved and where practicable, repurposed for many more years of future use.

    1. What a wonderful comment, Marilyn – thankyou for taking the time to share your memories and thoughts…and yes, we certainly need more designers like Donna Monaghan!

  4. Donna Monaghan is a very talented designer. This is a truly beautiful article about an amazing lady. I too felt sad about the brick double story building that disappeared beside Aldi. Donna’s amazing work transforming the old school into a child care centre was a masterpiece and sympathetic to the buildings past and heritage. I can visualise the school children still running thru the building. We are lucky to have Donna in our beautiful Warrnambool designing fine building.

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