The Corkman Hotel, pretty much as she was this time last week
The Corkman Irish Pub before it stopped operating as a pub and before it was demolished without permission last weekend

Yesterday’s news that the 159 year old Corkman Irish Pub (formerly the Carlton Inn) in inner city Melbourne was demolished on the weekend – despite being subject to a heritage overlay and without either a permit to demolish or a permit to build – was met with understandable horror by many Melburnians.

The public reaction focused on the penalties that should be imposed on those responsible and on the need for disincentives to stop this sort of thing happening again. Suggested penalties include higher fines, mandatory gaol terms, compulsory resumption of the property, and requiring those responsible to reconstruct the building using the original bricks.

While I suspect lawyers would have serious problems with some of those suggestions, Felicity Watson, Senior Community Advocate at the National Trust, reckons there’s another story here with broader ramifications (see The life and death of the Corkman Hotel):

What no one is talking about is that demolition wasn’t – isn’t – the only threat to the Corkman. A pub is not just bricks and mortar. It’s a gathering place for a community…But, even if the owner is required to rebuild the pub brick by brick, as many in the community are calling for, there is no guarantee that it will continue to be the public meeting place it has been for the last 159 years.

Ms Watson cites testimony from law student Henry Hamilton Lindsay on the social value of the Corkman:

It was something both more, and less, than a standard Irish uni pub…We all made great friendships while getting sloshed in the afternoon in that courtyard. We all drank there to forget the essay due at 9AM the next morning… I once spent four consecutive evenings there, and regretted not a single second.

Evidently without self-conscious irony, Mr Lindsay goes on to say:

But it’s gone now. Soon to be replaced with an apartment building, I believe. Another thriving community replaced with an artificial one, another dilapidated bar replaced by a sterile monument to gentrification. Will we be the same law school without it?

Ms Watson says the same story is playing out all over Melbourne and abroad:

Locally, communities have been outraged by the closure of much-loved pubs such as the London Hotel“The Edgy” in Mentone, and the North Fitzroy Star, while in the UK, The Guardian has reported in depth on the growing trend of pubs falling victim to developers, and the community campaign to save The Golden Lion in Camden.

It’s not just pubs. Neither the Heritage Act nor planning controls were sufficient to preserve the sorts of activities that historically were associated with the Palace Theatre in Bourke Street. Ms Watson again:

This issue was at the heart of the Trust’s battle…to achieve recognition that the Palace’s value is not just as a facade in the streetscape, but as a place of performance, entertainment and enjoyment, characterised by its historic amphitheatre and layered interiors, and documented in its rich social history.

I’ve discussed the issues around both the North Fitzroy Star hotel (see Should the walls come down at the Star Hotel?) and the Palace Theatre before (see Should we have an Australian Museum of Popular Music?). The bottom line is the sorts of activities that supporters want to maintain in these buildings are no longer commercially viable. That’s usually because of wider structural social and economic changes; sometimes brought on in part by the supporters themselves e.g. gentrification.

In its judgement earlier this year on the Palace Theatre appeal, the court noted that preservation would not assure its use as a live music venue would resume (performances ceased two years prior to the decision):

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.

If the Corkman hadn’t been demolished, it’s likely the best possible outcome would’ve been something similar to the North Fitzroy Star i.e. converted to apartments with the exterior preserved to meet the requirements of the heritage overlay. While that would’ve meant the loss of a “public meeting place”, it’s relevant to note there’s no shortage of places to meet, drink and eat in this neighbourhood. After all, this is Carlton, not Balwyn.

If the Corkman were rebuilt (or hadn’t been demolished) and continued to operate as a pub, there’d be no guarantee, or even likelihood, it would continue in the form beloved of current law students. The character of pubs changes as surely as their customers and economic and social circumstances change. The Corkman was undoubtedly a blood-house for most of its history. In recent times many hotels have brought in poker machines, some have become up-market restaurants, and some have specialised in catering and functions. There’s no guarantee the clientele would remain faithful either; a new generation of law students might move to a more fashionable venue.

The appalling demolition of the Corkman Hotel shows that even bricks and mortar can’t always be protected, but trying to preserve the activities that go on within buildings is extraordinarily difficult. As I noted when discussing the North Fitzroy Star, those activities are inherently unstable; they don’t work commercially for the operator; and those intent on retaining them aren’t prepared to pay the real cost of keeping the amenity. I also worry that any practical implementation of this aspiration would enable the sort of sentiment that opposes planning permission for the construction of mosques (see Tea Party planning: do the ends justify the means?) and McDonald’s (see Would a McDonald’s in this town be all downside?).