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Heritage

Feb 6, 2017

Does this building tell us much about social history?

Preserving the built fabric of old buildings conveys little about their social and cultural history; it should be mandatory that protection comes with interpretation

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Great Western Hotel King St Melbourne as it is today. Although built circa 1864, the facade suffered “total abuse” from extensive changes in the 1940s

Another old Melbourne hotel is under threat of demolition to make way for apartments. This time it’s the Great Western Hotel in Melbourne’s CBD, originally built in 1864 as the Star of the West. Lobby group Melbourne Heritage Action says the building isn’t protected and is at risk of demolition:

We are calling on the City of Melbourne to urgently list this early reminder of Melbourne’s history before it’s too late, in anticipation of the upcoming Hoddle Grid Heritage review which will surely find it of much greater significance that its current status would suggest.

The absence of any form of heritage protection might seem surprising. The Great Western must’ve witnessed considerable social, cultural and economic change over 150 odd years. Life in and around the hotel was no doubt shaped by the broader historical currents in the neighbourhood, the city, and beyond e.g. depressions, wars, new technologies, changes in social values and gender roles, gentrification, the decline of manufacturing, and much more.

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But how much of this rich social history would really be captured if the Great Western were given heritage protection as a “reminder” of days gone by?

The realistic answer is hardly any. A physical structure is a very poor way of bringing social history to life. Walls might say something about architecture, but they don’t talk, not really; they don’t convey the vibrancy of human activity that went on within them over successive generations. And even if they did get out the odd mutter, they’d mostly be talking about the time since the last renovation.

This study of how properties on both sides of a short section of Greene street in lower Manhattan evolved over time shows how dynamic land uses are; and how hopelessly inadequate simply maintaining the surviving structure – even in the rare case where it’s considered largely “original” – is at conveying the richness and complexity of wider economic and social changes. NYU’s William Easterly and colleagues found a pattern of “recurrent surprises”, most of them over the last 150 years:

The Dutch did not expect New York to thrive when they gave the Greene Street block to slaves and then gave up New York altogether in favor of Suriname (Surprise 1). The affluent residents of the block in 1830-1850 did not expect brothels (Surprise 2). The brothel owners, workers, and customers in 1880 were likely surprised to see a thriving garment industry take over the block (Surprise 3). The garment industry did not expect the severe downturn after 1910 (Surprise 4). The urban planners in the 1940s and 1950s did not anticipate the block would explode in value again, first with art galleries (Surprise 5), and then with today’s luxury retail stores and residences (Surprise 6). The block’s story ends in the present at a high point in real estate value, but the history reminds us that the next surprise could be negative.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more inefficient way of appreciating the social, cultural and economic history of a property than simply preserving the surviving shell. The word “palimpsest” gets thrown around a lot in heritage advocacy, but in almost all cases a building’s fabric does a poor job of “embodying” the richness of what happened within and around it.

Anyway, it’s almost certain the preserved shell would be adapted to a new use entirely unrelated to any phase of its past. There’s a desire to keep it functioning as a pub but protecting a building rarely sustains it’s current use (see Can the spirit of this lost pub be recaptured?). The shell might be adapted for use as a McDonald’s like this one, a 7-11 like this one, apartments like this one, or office and hotel space like these ones. Even in the unlikely event it were maintained as a hospitality venue, it’d only reflect current and future commercial demands e.g. pokies, TAB, an up-market restaurant, business drinkers, maybe a night club.

Protection of buildings isn’t like appreciating other important aspects of history e.g. the eight-hour day, or the contraceptive pill. It’s a costlier way of recording the past. While it tends to reward owners of heritage houses by endowing them with higher property values (see Is Paris the right housing model for Australian cities?), it also reduces housing affordability in prime locations like the inner city. In the case of non-residential buildings, owners often involuntarily carry the cost of sub-optimal uses and higher maintenance outlays, while the community carries the opportunity cost of foregoing more intensive development e.g. by reduced housing supply and poorer affordability.

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Now imagine a book or documentary tracing the lives of a representative sample of customers, residents and owners associated with the Great Western from 1864 until today. It could capture the spirit of each era and show how it affected those whose lives were entwined with the hotel. It could also show how the hotel reacted to these wider changes in terms of successive changes in its business practices and physical form.

There’s ample inspiration for a novelist here too; the walls of the Great Western must’ve seen some extraordinary goings-on in its long life e.g. local gossip, neighbourhood politics, love affairs, banter, catch-ups, emotional support, debates, arguments, fights, political chicanery, double crosses, public meetings, business deals, betting, alcoholism, robberies, and perhaps even a murder or two.

Compared to the power of a book or a film to explain activities and capture a sense of life, walls are effectively mute. By itself a mere “reminder” has little value; it’s a lost opportunity.

If the history of the activities associated with a particular building really matters, then a far more effective way to preserve it would be via a real or virtual museum using photographs, film, oral history, biography, significant artefacts, and immersive  3-D recreations or walk-throughs of important periods and events from the property’s life. If there’s a willing novelist or film maker, then a creative interpretation can add immense richness to our appreciation.

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So if a building or precinct is worth preserving because of its cultural and social history, it should be mandatory that it comes with a significant commitment to interpret and communicate those values. Architectural significance can more easily speak for itself, but would also be enhanced if it were supported by interpretation. It wouldn’t require hundreds of mini museums; much of this work could be centralised in a few institutions, or put on-line (see Should this movie set get heritage protection?).

In instances where there isn’t a compelling argument for preserving a building on heritage grounds, access to vivid interpretations of its social and cultural significance might be a superior outcome. This could well be the case with the Great Western Hotel. This Heritage Victoria document says the building was extensively altered in the 1940s and is now “of little architectural or for that matter historical importance”. The author is frank in discussing the hotel’s architectural significance:

The superposition of the corner motif, on the parapet, is a ludicrous gesture and, though it is easily removed, its existence accentuates the total abuse already suffered by the rest of the facade.

Protecting buildings with demonstrable heritage significance is important, but the campaign to save the Great Western Hotel isn’t about heritage in any meaningful sense; at best it’s an argument about contemporary urban design. Both are important, but they’re not the same beast. If groups like Melbourne Heritage Action believe the Great Western is an important part of Melbourne’s history, they should look beyond a mere “reminder”. They should research its social, cultural and architectural history and make the effort to communicate the results to a wider audience.

We should be wary of the impulse to appropriate heritage willy nilly as a stand-in for inadequate documentation of social history; for the failings of contemporary urban design; and to counter the land use changes wrought by gentrification. Preserving the built fabric of old buildings usually conveys little about their social and cultural history; it should be mandatory that protection comes with interpretation.

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3 comments

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3 thoughts on “Does this building tell us much about social history?

  1. Roger Clifton

    Such explanations, or history-tellings, would do well in a GIS system. (A GIS system is a collection of stories or data, each with its location searchable.) The original story might have been put into the local history society’s GIS, but would accessible on-line in the State Tourism’s GIS.

  2. lethell

    However, its appearance, original or not, is an expressive of the character and history of Melbourne and its destruction is another step in transforming the city into a featureless waste of apartment towers with no trace of its history allowed to remain.

    1. Alan Davies

      Hence my point that demands for protection of this building are really about urban design, not heritage. That’s a legitimate concern but it has to be justified on urban design criteria, not heritage grounds. A consequential issue is whether architecture that uses “historical mimicry” should be mandatory in some cases (or even permitted) as part of the approach to urban design – this happens in some US cities.

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