W’bool losing its character, brick by brick

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259 Lava St
The 1940s maisonettes at 259 Lava St, Warrnambool, were demolished last week, despite being the last example of such maisonettes in the city. Image: Supplied.

Analysis – Carol Altmann

Another irreplaceable piece of Warrnambool’s urban landscape has been reduced to rubble without, it seems, a word of warning.

The well-known, pre-war apartment block at 259 Lava St (next to Aldi supermarket) was bulldozed last Tuesday (14/7), to make way for something which has not yet even been decided but which the owners, the Salvation Army, believes will better suit it needs.

Such was the swiftness of this particular demolition that nothing was salvaged, or offered free to others, so passersby watched in horror as window frames, glass panels, doors and fittings were broken up by a bulldozer and stuffed into waiting trucks.

It is enough to make you weep, and that’s exactly how a Bluestone subscriber felt when she sent us a series of photos she had taken of the travesty.

We posted them on our Facebook page where, within a few hours, they were seen by more than 4000 people and sparked a robust discussion about how we should treat our old buildings, but the debate, of course, was all too late: this building is already gone.

And this was a special building.

We know this because the Warrnambool City Council’s own heritage reports tell us so.

259 Lava in tact
How the twin maisonettes at 259 Lava looked when in tact. They were part of a between-wars architectural movement called Inter-war Moderne. Image: Google Maps.

According to these reports, the apartments at 259 Lava St were one of only two examples of twin maisonettes in Warrnambool built in the “Interwar Moderne” design. This design was originally developed by one of Melbourne’s most notable architects, Robert Demaine, and, in this case, adapted by Marsh Michaelson.

The only other example of such twin moderne buildings in Warrnambool was the side-by-side buildings of “Sandilands” at 1A Liebig St (the former Madden’s building) and 1 Liebig St, known as Colern.

Sandilands, despite being recommended for heritage protection, was not protected but instead bulldozed earlier this year to make way for a nine-storey apartment block.

And Colern, despite being originally recommended for heritage protection, recently had that recommendation dropped. Why? Because without Sandilands, it has less architectural significance.

This logic means Colern could be bulldozed too.

Can you see what is happening here?

One domino falls and they all fall: from having three fine examples of moderne design, we could easily have none and those people, like Bluestone, who treasure the character of Warrnambool’s urban landscape, are at a loss as to what to do about it.

Because as it stands, the “community consultation”, if you can call it that, is simply not working.

sandilands down
One half of another example of such architecture, Sandilands, (the former Madden’s building) was demolished earlier this year. Image: Bluestone Magazine.

Nobody is arguing that every old building in Warrnambool needs to be saved, but at least some of the shock at seeing great chunks of our streetscape disappear might be lessened if we all had the chance to have a say.

Part of that process, of course, is also hearing in plain English why a building should go: is it beyond repair? Has it been condemned? Full of asbestos? Are there many other examples of that style around? Will something extraordinary or beautiful take its place?

At the moment we are left in the dark and, once a building is gone, it is left to rumour and speculation as to why.

The council can rightly argue that more information is out there, but it is up to you to find it, buried somewhere in council agendas, reports, minutes, special briefings and papers.

We here at Bluestone keep a relatively close eye on council happenings, and we did not see or hear a word about 259 Lava St being earmarked for demolition.

Cr Peter Hulin, who is currently overseas, made a Facebook comment that he, too, knew nothing – and he is on council!

If he doesn’t know and we don’t know, what hope does the everyday Warrnambool resident have?

Surely we can do better than this and surely we deserve better than this.

Even a simple listing on the council’s website – “Demolition Applications” – would help.

(As it happens, Heritage Victoria held a forum in Warrnambool last Friday (17/7) to see how it could improve the 20-year-old Heritage Act.)

222 shop finished
The once-derelict, and heritage listed, building at 222 Timor St has since been transformed into retail and upstairs apartments. Image: Bluestone Magazine.

Built heritage is critical to a city’s character – Port Fairy knows this well – and while Warrnambool is tearing its down, other cities are finding new ways to revitalise old factories, warehouses, shops and houses: especially those in a CBD, where they become highly sought after, and very cool, housing.

Warrnambool lawyer Luke Taylor is doing just this above 222 Timor St (Biba Hairdressing), which was a virtually derelict dump when be bought it, but the 1850s building will soon house two, gorgeous apartments and its renewal is helping to transform that section of Timor St.

My thinking is that we don’t ever really “own” a building – we are merely custodians for a time – and if we are lucky enough to own a special piece of architecture, then it belongs both to us and the community.

Historian Jennifer Bantow also believed this. She was part of a passionate group of people who saved Murweh, the Fitzgerald’s historic home at the north end of Liebig, from being bulldozed in the 80s.

When I last spoke to Jennifer, who now lives in Geelong, she asked me: “So, is Warrnambool still pulling down its old buildings, or has it finally ‘got’ it?”

Judging by the events of last week, the answer is clear.


3 thoughts on “W’bool losing its character, brick by brick”

  1. I have difficulty in finding the words to write. Did anyone see the original detailing in Lava Street recently? I don’t know what it had become but 50 (oh my goodness) years ago it was perfection. I contributed information on all those properties to the Council’s Gap Study. What was the point in bothering?
    There is often a point but it becomes pointless in Warrnambool. If I had been home when Clovelly (Warrnambool’s first hotel) was demolished all those years ago I would have stood with Jennifer in front of the bulldozer. No one did. It was for her Heritage work in Geelong and with the National Trust that she received an Order of Australia 3 years ago.

    Here in Launceston building applications are all listed on the council website. Heritage Tasmania is reviewing its Heritage List. Not great – Buildings are being removed as they do not conform to the state legislation. Local Councils could take up their cause but in the meantime they will fall between the gaps.
    Litigation is the key word or is it several key words – those who can afford to take legal action have all the power. As a private individual I have made submissions to VCAT – been successful – then had the decision reversed by the Minister for Planning when in Warrnambool on a private visit.
    Yes it is who you know in Warrnambool. It would be great to know a team of Jennifers who would stand in front of the bulldozer.
    [Oh and the proof that there is no money (= interest) in recycling is printed on the bulldozer.]

  2. Good story, Bluestone. Speaking of which, when I moved to Portland in the early 1980s, the bluestone buildings were still tumbling to the ground. It was only through the persistent efforts of concerned community members that the Council slowly took an interest and developed programs and policies to protect heritage buildings.

  3. This is another example of those in the “Town hall” (council staff) who appear to have a desperate need to hear only their own voices and perhaps those who happen to know exactly how some type of secret system operates within the walls of said town hall. It beggars belief that at least one councillor had zero knowledge of this particular demolition.

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