Palace Theatre, Bourke St Melbourne. Originally constructed in 1912, current facade was built in 1952 during one of its cinema periods
Palace Theatre, Bourke St Melbourne. Originally constructed in 1912, current facade was built in 1952 during one of its cinema periods

The Victorian planning tribunal rejected an appeal earlier this year from “music and heritage lovers” to save the Palace Theatre from demolition. Only the façade built in 1952 when it was used as a cinema will be retained in the 12 storey hotel to be constructed on the site.

However, the tribunal makes an intriguing suggestion in its decision on Jinshan Investment Group Pty Ltd v Melbourne:

Given the variety of entertainment uses to which the building has been put over more than a century and the many physical changes to the building itself, we are strongly of the opinion that the cultural and social significance of the site is best explained and preserved by an historical montage based upon the extensive research that has already been done. This display should be located in a prominent publicly accessible positions such as the lobby of the hotel.

The suggested “historical montage” echoes the idea for an architectural museum I’ve written about before (see Can we have an Australian Museum of Architecture (AMOA) please?). A museum could “recreate” important buildings via 3-D virtual walk-throughs, photos, drawings, plans and artefacts. Perhaps more importantly, it could bring to life the cultural and social milieu – the activities – associated with a building like the Palace.

A museum could be particularly valuable in cases like this where most of the building will be demolished. The tribunal makes it clear in its judgement there are no grounds to refuse the application. The former theatre has low-level heritage value:

The fact that the Palace is not subject to its own heritage overlay is not due to any oversight or lack of attention. It has been proposed for inclusion in the Heritage Register under the Heritage Act 1995 and rejected by both of the Director and the Heritage Council.

The tribunal also notes preservation would not assure its use as a live music venue, which stopped two years ago, would resume:

While we acknowledge the substantial and heartfelt attachment to the Palace in its recent incarnations as a live music venue and nightclub, it must be understood that denying a permit for demolition does not ensure future use of the space for such purposes. Planning cannot compel a particular land use.

The Palace is located within the Bourke Hill area which is covered by a precinct heritage overlay. Retention of the façade from the period when the Palace was a cinema would, the tribunal determined, provide “an acceptable response to the heritage values” of the precinct.

The Palace as it now stands has little intrinsic merit in terms of its contribution to architecture, but it has a rich cultural and social history. It was built in 1912 and was used in a variety of ways over its lifetime. It was originally used as a theatre for vaudeville and variety but later uses included serial alterations to permit its use as a cinema; as a night club; and most recently as a live music venue. It’s had many names, including Brennan’s Amphitheatre, National Theatre, Variety Theatre, Apollo Theatre, St James Theatre, Metro Bourke St cinema, Melbourne Metro Nightclub, and (a number of times) Palace Theatre.

These changes however came at a price. The tribunal says:

We find the current built form of the Palace does not express the layered and interesting history of its use for a variety of entertainments. The building has been extensively altered externally with the current façade representing just one phase of its use, namely a cinema. Internally there may have been some legible reflection of the various stages of use but the recent removal of much internal fabric has diminished that legibility.

While only the façade will be preserved, the cultural and social life the Palace signifies could be brought to life using historical records – audio tapes, filmed performances, interviews, books – and virtual recreations of activities associated with its various incarnations.

Some of that might work as a simple montage located in the foyer of the new hotel as suggested by the tribunal, but it would work much better in a dedicated museum environment where it could be larger, noisier, brighter and would be easier to manage.

In fact, there’s a much bigger opportunity here than just one, or any, venue. Australia has a rich history of popular entertainment covering different eras, disciplines, and styles. There’s a good case for establishing a permanent and substantial museum showcasing a key aspect of that history – say popular music – brought to life by historical records and modern technology. The venues would be just one aspect – and not necessarily the main one – of such a fertile past. (1)

There’s already interest in this idea e.g. the on-line Australian Music Museum Project observes Australia has a Museum of Contemporary Art but not a Museum of Contemporary Music. Of course there’s a swag of basic matters that’d have to be addressed to carry such an idea forward, like funding, administration, mode of delivery (e.g. on-line vs bricks-and-mortar), relationship with existing institutions, host city, and so on.

Melbourne should have an interest in hosting such an institution because of its strong association with not only performance, but arguably more importantly, the creation, production and marketing of popular music. It’s the sort of cultural institution that should interest Premier Daniel Andrews because it would have wider appeal than most; over to you comrade.