Exhibition echoes today’s loss of heritage
extract: The Australian Friday 26 November 2016
Michaela Boland National arts writer, Sydney
Demolished Sydney curator Nicola Teffer says the timing of the exhibition is coincidental. Picture: John Feder.
SYDNEY is a city divided along heritage battle lines. On one side the NSW government and its development partners are pushing through a swath of “state significant” projects, among them a new eastern suburbs light rail and a western suburbs freeway link. Lining up on the other side is a chorus of heritage advocates determined to speak for the trees, for the history-rich homes and for the city’s iconic buildings and institutions.
Even the management of the much-celebrated Sydney Opera House has come into the firing line recently on account of a suite of new activities that heritage sympathisers contend are at odds with the site’s historic status.
In the middle of this, the Museum of Sydney has opened an exhibition, Demolished Sydney, that reveals how the Emerald City has a rich tradition of trampling on its history.
Exhibition curator Nicola Teffer says the timing is coincidental and that the exhibition has been in the pipeline for four years. “The brief was to look at the way the city has shape-shifted over its history,” she says.
That shape-shifting is particularly pronounced because the city sprang up higgledy-piggledy from convict settlement, and the land on which it is built is undulating, as well as hemmed in by water and mountains.
The demolition of Hoffnung’s building in Pitt Street in 1939. Picture: Ernie Bowen.
“Sydney’s built heritage was always vulnerable,” Teffer says. “Part of the problem is the city was never planned.”
Clive Lucas, heritage architect and chairman of the National Trust, says the thirst for renewal is a quintessential Sydney trait.
“Some say we’ve never got over being a convict settlement,” he says, “and there’s plenty of wheelers and dealers and pickpockets. I don’t know whether this is true.”
Teffer’s exhibition examines 11 significant buildings that have been lost to Sydney, including the Commissariat buildings at Circular Quay, which were the two oldest government buildings in NSW, demolished to make way in 1939 for the Maritime Services Board building, now the Museum of Contemporary Art.
“In the 1920s and 30s there was such an embrace of Sydney as a young, dynamic, fun-loving, progressive city that it didn’t really feel it had a past that was particularly valuable,” she says. “At the end of the 30s, when the Commissariat buildings were pulled down, it was a relatively new thing to agitate for preservation.”
The Garden Palace, a grand exhibition pavilion in the Botanic Gardens of equivalent significance to Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, was lost to fire in 1882, just three years after it was built. It wasn’t replaced.
The Fort Macquarie Tram Depot at Bennelong Point was demolished in 1958 to make way for the Sydney Opera House.
It is likely impossible to find any living person who opposes the world heritage Opera House, but Teffer’s exhibition reveals that before the tram sheds, Bennelong Point was home to Fort Macquarie. It was also a site for limestone production, and before white settlement it was a rocky outcrop with unfettered views from the heads of Sydney Harbour to Parramatta River.
“If the tram sheds hadn’t been demolished, the old fort, then the Opera House might never have been built,” she says.
“It’s taken a while for Sydneysiders to see the value of their own built environments.”
Cadman’s Cottage at The Rocks is the oldest surviving residential building in Sydney. A remaining fragment of Edwardian architecture, the sandstone cottage in the shadow of the Overseas Passenger Terminal was the original home for Sydney’s coxswains.
“The exhibition really is about the nature of change in the city,” Teffer says, “looking at what those cycles have been, what the drivers have been and what are the products of the protest.”
Sydney is in the grip of the biggest civic building boom since the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The Baird Liberal government is using funds raised by the sale of electricity assets to reimagine the city.
The NSW government has earmarked the heritage Powerhouse Museum site in inner-city Ultimo for sale, and the construction of a new museum in Parramatta. A campaign against that move has resulted in an upper house inquiry, which is still under way.
Hordern’s Palace Emporium is now the site of World Square. Picture: NSW State Library
National Trust NSW chief executive Brian Scarsbrick says there is long list of heritage battles during the past two years. A campaign to save the brutalist-style Sirius apartment building in The Rocks failed, and the public housing complex will be demolished. “There will be a high-rise there, you watch,” he says.
The National Trust failed to save the Sydney Harbour Control Tower and campaigned against demolition work beginning on the WestConnex freeway link in Sydney’s inner west before an environmental impact report was released. Dozens of heritage trees also were cut down along Anzac Parade and Alison Road near Centennial Park in Sydney’s east.
“It was done by stealth and an apparent mandate as a state significant project,” Scarsbrick says.
When the state government deems a project to be state significant, he says, it switches off heritage controls.
The government is preparing to sell 193 former maritime workers houses at Millers Point at The Rocks, despite the National Trust’s campaign for 99-year leases that would bind inhabitants to tighter development controls.
“If the government keeps selling (the houses) off freehold it’ll be another ‘demolition Sydney’,” Scarsbrick says.
“It’s the most outstanding piece of vandalism perpetrated on The Rocks in many years.”
He adds: “The first thing a conquering army does when they go into territories is destroy the iconography of an area to demoralise the public.
“I’m not saying the government is trying to do that but the effect is the same and the population is getting demoralised.
Rowe Street in 1929; it’s loss ‘was a tragedy for the city’, says the National Trust’s Clive Lucas. “They don’t realise people come to the city to look at the heritage, not the skyscrapers.”
For all of demolished Sydney, there have been wins, the romanesque revival Queen Victoria Building being among the most significant.
Built in the late 19th century and spanning an entire city block, the Queen Victoria Building fell into disrepair, to the point where it was under threat of demolition in the 1960s.
After a concerted campaign, it was saved in 1971 and eventually restored and reopened as an upmarket shopping centre in 1986.
Two of the city’s most significant public buildings are Hyde Park Barracks and The Mint, which were threatened in the 40s.
Teffer says those buildings had been earmarked for destruction by the government because a Macquarie Street beautification scheme called for modern law courts and houses of parliament, which eventually were built across the road.
The organisation now known as the National Trust emerged in 1945 out of this campaign.
The National Trust’s Lucas says: “One doesn’t regret losing the tram shed for the Opera House, but often that’s not the case.
“To lose Rowe Street was a tragedy for the city.”
Rowe Street was a busy little district that, if it still existed, would boast the ambience of Melbourne’s much-praised laneways. Instead it was razed to make way for the MLC Centre.
“The present government is very keen on developing,” Lucas says.
“To put in WestConnex freeway, it’s cutting a slice off Haberfield, which was a model Edwardian suburb. We don’t regret new roads or trams, but can’t you do it more neatly rather than this cavalier attitude of crash or crash through?”
Demolished Sydney is at the Museum of Sydney until April 17
Fort Macquarie Tram Depot on Bennelong Point in 1952, six years before it was demolished to make way for the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Fairfax Media