Friday, November 20, 2015

Gough Whitlam's Birthplace, 'Ngara' 46 Rowland Street Kew.

I recently wrote to the Boroondara Council congratulating them on their decision to keep Gough Whitlam's Birthplace on the Heritage Overlay. While this went against the conclusions of a some experts in the Heritage Council and Planning Panel process, it does, I believe, represent the wishes of ratepayers and the general public (despite there being some vociferous detractors on both the question of preserving the house, and the Whitlam Government's legacy generally). I think it is the right decision and one that will be rewarded in the future by generations that look back and will have a place to focus their considerations of the better efforts of our politicians in improving the lives of their constituents.

Last weekend, anticipating it might be the last opportunity to do so, I drove over to Kew to take a couple of photographs and draw a sketch of the house (I am no artist, this was merely an aide-memoire). In the 20 minutes this took, I saw about a dozen people drive past, and either stop to have a quick look at the house, take a photo, or ask me what I was doing. All were aware that it was Gough's birthplace, and several made a special visit to have a look. This may have only been because of media coverage, but given the last item in the papers was from mid October, they must have had in their minds the need to pay homage of sorts for some time prior. This demonstration of interest in the house confirms to me an underlying need to commemorate and preserve places as symbols of what we hold important in our history and society.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Restoration Australia quick review, Episode 7 Holowiliena

Numerous restored "miner's" and "settler's" cottages have been made available for tourist accommodation in the Flinders Ranges. Frances and Luke Warwick are therefore working in an established context. I went past the station turn-off a few months ago, on a trip to the Flinders Ranges. It is a region dotted with the ruins of heartbreak homesteads, farmers who didn't head Goyder's Line.

The landscape appears to be reclaiming the pitiful efforts of Europeans, with piles of stones left from cottages just looking like natural outcrops, and  rammed earth turning back to just earth. Pug and Pine is a local specialty, with Blinim in the northern Flinders Ranges having a regional concentration.

There is a substantial family story behind the Holowilena property – both through the continuing family connection, and the difficult inheritance process. But the main story is really about how preserving old buildings at a local and personal level. It is as much a mainstream activity, and a part of Australia's history and environment as the big museums and tour destinations like the reef, the rock and the rainforest.

Holowiliena itself has been pretty well heritaged, with articles under the auspices of the old Australian Heritage Commission going back 15 years. It was previously subject to an ABC Doco, so it was perhaps an easy choice for the show – maybe the ABC Adelaide production house as already being wound up as it was finishing. An Article in the ASHA Journal.Toured by the Blacksmith's association. Represented on tourist associations and with its own website. Its own facebook page.

Looks like for the last episode, the ABC abandoned its 'Aussie battlers saving old houses' idea, and recognised the benefits of team effort, linkages to support organisations and specialist skills.
That said, I thought Sibella's comment that the Warwicks had "not many heritage skills to speak of" a bit patronising and disingenuous, given the obvious skills that like most outback farmers they do have. Where else could a couple just go out the back and fire up a lime kiln? In fact, for a change the program actually showed some of the restoration and traditional building skills that go into making and maintaining houses. We saw lime burning and slaking, blacksmithing, hot riveting, plastering, bush carpentry, the very rare pug & pine building technique, bag sewing and limed hessian lining, as well as the interminable pointing. In the absence of a dramatic narrative (no evidence or a strained relationship and no clipboard wielding heritage bureaucrats in site), everyone could just get on with the hard work.

The real dilemmas of heritage restoration are also given more space, such as the question of whether replacing all the wall timbers removes so much fabric that the restoration loses authenticity, and they are left with the replica rather than a restored original. We can see the Burra Charter and the Conservation Plan in action. I wonder what documentation was done before the work was carried out and the original fabric lost for ever.

The thousand hours of labour over a few days, that went into the work, equates reasonably well with a couple of years of weekends by the lone amateur restorer, reinforcing the point that all any building needs to bring it back and keep it going into the future is the right amount of effort.
The ‘Construction Industry Training Scheme’, run by English stone mason Keith McAllister is replicated in many states. The range of skills available through the program should make any restoration project a cinch, if you can access it. The ICOMOS Traditional Trades Working Group is doing its part.

While the evidence for lost archaeology was only circumstantial in this episode and it was hard to fault the methods employed, I did noticed that the original timbers in the scalp hut appeared to have been debarked, but the bark was left on the new timbers – I hope this doesn't cause problems for them when the bark breaks away.

Given the heritage and restoration industry is worth billions, this modest program (and particularly  as represented by the final episode of the series) should really be among a whole genre of television. Instead we get fake psychodrama, melodrama and soap opera wrapped in infomercials and 'reality' shows. The value of heritage is more than monetary, place defines us, and caring for it properly can cement our relationship with the world around us. Much better to fix up granddad's cottage the way he had it, than fuss over glass splashbacks or concealed lighting.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Birthplace museums and heritage sites

Why is it that American, European and Asian heritage so fully embraces the concept of the birthplace?

Here are just a sample of birthplaces commemorated by heritage preservation listing, museums and other memorials:

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Restoration Australia quick review, Episode 6 Keera Vale

Dramatic music keeps the artificial tension heightened, perhaps because not a lot happens otherwise. A worthy house and worthy restorers fulfilling the 'Aussie battler' roles nicely. But one wonders how this story differs from any of the thousands of amateur fixer projects that abounded in Melbourne and Sydney from the late 1960s. The sandblasted brick feature walls and stripped back floor boards of my high school teachers' Carlton terraces were the progenitors of this episode. Clumsy propping and smashing was the order of the day then too. A couple of times I thought of Basil Fawlty's shonky builder with his inadequate lintels holding up the load bearing wall.

And why do we keep hearing about the convict bricks; how can you tell? - is this just a short-hand derogatory term for any sub-standard hand-made bricks. The Order-in-Council ending transportation to New South Wales, is dated 22 May 1840 and only a handful arrived in 1842 and 42. Convict gangs may have been still making bricks in the 1840s, but private companies and freeman brickmakers were commonplace in the 1840s. Brickfield hill near Castlereagh St. was the centre of Sydney brickmaking until about 1840, when many brickmakers were forced out to places such as Glebe, Newtown, Redfern, Camperdown and Waterloo, and further afield. For example Captain Westmacott Aid-de-camp to Governor Richard Bourke, settled near Bulli in 1837 and was a brickmaker among his many endeavours.

While some convicts or ex-cons may have provided labour, these were run as private businesses, so non-convict bricks were widely available.. Some more sophisticated analysis of the bricks might have made better television (like the Timeteam experts in everything) and also offer some hope to all those other renovators struggling with rising damp and crumbling convict bricks.

But getting back to the drama; Harold and Jenny have taken on a dream to fix up Judge Roger Therry's 1843 home, referred to as Wollongong's oldest house, Although others claim this title too, such as Little Milton from the 1830s.

The render clearly was a not terribly successful attempt to do something about the poor quality bricks, and given the extent of decay, the possibility of returning it to its nineteenth century appearance seems very remote. A refiring program like that used at Port Arthur would be impressive to see however.

There is some interesting actual restoration taking place too. The poured on ceiling repair looked like a sloppy mess, so what did they actually use, and how does it actually work? Lots of patching brickwork and replacing render going on but the details of the mix were covered in Episode 2 so maybe they don't need to go over them again.

And what about the staircase. there is an 1852 staircase going in Geelong that they miss-out on. Anyone know what 1852 house in Geelong is being wrecked?

The owners were indicated they were trying to negotiate the tensions between restoring a heritage building and complying with building standards. But that had been covered in Episodes 2 and 3.

I read elsewhere, that an underground cellar which was used for root vegetables, was un-earthed, and 1920's car parts were dug up in the garden. Sibella's blog has some arty pictures of old bottles and cutlery - is this more archaeology going un-permitted and unrecorded?

But the main thing, is the lack of time, despite the couple of years in the making, that means we don't really see much happening here. After smashing concrete and cracking off render, there seems only enough energy to produce a distempered wall finish which is clearly on-trend, even if entirely accidental. It might be part of the leftovers of shabby chic style, or even the fad for ruin aesthetics.

We get a teary glimpse at the architect's rendering of the restored house, with its verandahs back in place. There is also a very modern rear addition not shown in the program, which might just be a fancy of he architect, or could be intended to replace the missing service quarters. the underlying value is one of status and snobbery. People who always wanted to live in the big house on the hill. something that will one day be impressive and give one a sense of self worth. A couple of comments go to the idea that you need to be rich and it will cost a fortune to fix up a house such as this, ignoring the sociology of so many people over-investing in their houses for personal and aesthetic reasons.

Some references to check up on those 'Convict Brick'.

Dawes, A. 1935. Early brickmaking in Australia, The Clay Products Journal of Australia 1/11/1935.
Pavlou, 0.1976. The history of bricks and brickmaking in N.S.W. 1788-1914. Unpublished B.Architecture thesis, University of N.S.W.

Gemmell, Warwick.  1986.  And so we graft from six to six : the brickmakers of New South Wales.  North Ryde, N.S.W :  Angus & Robertson

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Gough Whitlam's birthplace

Harry Frederick (Fred) Whitlam and Martha (“Mattie”) Whitlam nee Maddocks, were married on 10 September 1914 and on 18 December 1914, bought a block of land in Rowland Street Kew with a mortgage from the State Savings Bank of Victoria (under the Credit Foncier programme) signed off on 30 January 1915. Mattie's father, Edward, who was a Master Builder by profession, built, and probably designed the house for the. Plans were prepared by February 1915, and construction completed by May 1915.  On 11 July 1916 their son Edward Gough Whitlam was born in the house built by Mattie's father, on the kitchen table according to family legend. Presumably Gough was conceived in the front bedroom of the house sometime around early October 1915. Fred and Mattie therefore were in the house no more than 5 months before their attempts to produce offspring were successful.

Fred Whitlam was working at this time in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor’s Office, in the Attorney General’s Department, headed by Robert Garran. In 1917, Fred Whitlam was promoted to senior Clerk in Sydney, and so on 25 October 1917, Ngara was sold. The new owners were Samuel James Woods, a tailor and mercer, and Mabel Lucy Woods who obtained co-operative finance through the Starr-Bowkett Building Society. they only paid off their mortgage in 1932  (City of Boroondara citation 'Ngara')

So as far as birthplaces go - Ngara could not be more connected to the birthee. It was built by Gough's grandfather, for his parents to live in as their first proper home, in order that they could start a family and where Gough was conceived, born and raised for his first year and a half. It is a house which tells the origin story of Australia's most transformative leader.

Boroondara  General  Cemetery contains the graves of several Whitlam family members including  his  grandparents,  Edward  and  Elizabeth  Maddocks and their  daughter  Janet, (Gough's maternal aunt) and  Edward’s  brother  John  Henry  Maddocks, (Gough's maternal uncle who died at Fromelles on 19 July 1916). Edward's sister Elizabeth is also buried at the family plot although not listed on the grave stone (Lea Ram, Birth and death in Kew)

The Heritage Council tribunal (comprising Jim Norris (Chair), Oona Nicolson, and Emma Russell), decided that: " ... the association between the birth and, approximately, the first eighteen months of Gough Whitlam's life does not constitute evidence of a special association between Whitlam and the Place."

The Planning Panel (comprising Ray Tonkin (chair) and Peter McEwan) for Amendment c208, (which included the heritage overlay for Gough Whitlam's Birthplace) determined that: "... submissions and evidence do not demonstrate that the association between Gough Whitlam and Ngara is a special one sufficient to warrant recognition in an individual HO."
Although in a contradictory conclusion it states that: "no evidence demonstrated the likelihood of an enduring association of the site with the life and legacy of Mr Whitlam." and then: "The Panel suggested that the place could be recognised by a plaque or sign, presuming that it will soon be demolished." It doesn't make sense to put a plaque on a place that doesn't have "an enduring association with his life and legacy".

But this could also be taken as a challenge to create such an enduring association. It is also likely that the historical narrative will be read in the context of the temporal coincidence of Gough's death and the failure to preserve his birthplace; some are already:
see also  Lea Ram, 'Birth and death in Kew [Gough Whitlam, ‘Ngara’, 46 Rowland Street]' Kew Historical Society: newsletter  No. 109, December 2014, p6.

The decisions are not consistent with considerable numbers of birthplaces in Australia and the World. In Victoria, the birthplaces of HV McKay, John Curtain and Percy Grainger are considered of heritage significance primarily for the fact of these important historical figures having been born there. The US has innumerable birthplaces of its leaders and heroes, commemorated and memorialised, some such as Lincoln's log cabin of doubtful provenance and authenticity. but the point is that we need somewhere to project our feelings about people from the past, or else they may disappear from our consciences and public memory. 

The coincidence of the commencement of demolition and Gough's death, may have sparked public concern for the house, but there is also a causal relationship. We have a natural instinct to connect people to places. the roadside memorials to crash victims remind us of this every day. There will be a hole in our group memory caused by the loss of Gough's house, that a plaque will not fill.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

now you see it now you don't

Facadism seems to be more prevalent today than in the '80s when the Smith St supermarket skeleton was created. I see that most of City Road Southbank now has two storey interwar brick factory facades (which were originally bland and now without the factory and warehousing spaces behind them to give them meaning are quite pointless, juxtaposed against the 50 storey glass apartment towers; 

it suggests at the architects have no better ideas for their street frontages

Another form of facadism is either the retention of just the front rooms of a house - or after recladding, replacing windows, new raingoods, etc. Or in the case of The Block's winning couple, knock it all down and rebuild a replica facade. Comments from the crowd are predictably mixed.

What is facilitating this? Has heritage regulation, or even the perception of what constitutes heritage transformed to the extent that original fabric and three dimensional spaces are entirely subservient to a shallow appearance. If this is true, then any approximation of the appearance of the historic streetscape should be sufficient. Even the printed vinyl wraparounds on construction hoardings could be adapted to provide the permanent facades of new buildings, replaced periodically to reflect the latest aesthetic styles or fashions in heritage.

The No 1 Coles store in Smith Street was demolished, but apparently the very plain Deco facade will be reconstructed.

With the new works in prefab concrete tilt slab.

At the other end at 130 Smith St, the 1886 William Pitt designed building appeared briefly beneath later cladding, then was also demolished only to be reconstructed in tilt-slab and with a gaping hole at ground level.

Maybe the same approach could be used for putting back the lost facades of Melbourne - Surely Grollo could put up Robbs building for the front few floors of the revamped Rialto forecourt - I recall the arguments at the time about the imperative for space around the tower that the existing building could not be retained. Others have pointed out the cruel irony of building over an area that was the open space trade off for a large skyscraper.

Which brings me back to the Smith St Safeway

I like the way Streetview makes it look like the Colosseum, but surely keeping old buildings is not meant to be like this.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Restoration Australia quick review Episode 5 Emmaville

The Abu Simbel complex continues to pervade Australian heritage conservation –i.e. if it is in the way of development, just move it to higher ground.

Episode 5 spends an inordinate amount of time on the false hope that Emmaville could be the lost Banjo Paterson birthplace (but I thought we didn't celebrate our hero's birthplaces). A cursory examination of easily accessible records supports the majority view that Banjo was born at the main Narrambla homestead "8 chains north east of the memorial" erected for the purpose in 1947. At least one account confirms its location on land donated by a Lane decedent (the same owners when Paterson was born) and that the house was already demolished by 1946. The unveiling was done by Banjo's widow. Elsewhere the story of Emmaville can be traced through later owners including James Farrell, after whom the road it is on is named. Having had first hand experience of a number of internecine historical society squabbles, I know to leave them alone, and that it is rare for there to be a logical assessment of historical and archaeological evidence in such cases. The producers of the series evidently researched Paterson’s origins "but were happy to keep his exact birthplace a mystery".

The artificial conflict between the birthplace rivals is matched by the fight between memorial rivals, with the big statue people and the big hat shaped pergola people arguing it out in council. There might also be some subtle conspiracy theorist here to, with the main instigator being the mysterious Rotary Club. The artificial urgency created by the need to 'rescue' the building provides the drama but left me wondering what was the story about the development causing the problem in the first place.

Some background on where the Emmaville/Patterson connection came from would have been good (sounded like just wishful thinking), and also why, what is clearly an important prefabricated timber building, went un-noticed in either the Orange Heritage Study, the council's LEP, or the previous historical accounts of the district. Even if it is not Banjo's birthplace, an important early house still has integrity despite being a sorry ruin. But what happened to the little outbuilding?, why is the chimney truncated?, and have they reversed the front? Similarly there are some fascinating elements to the building itself – the combination of imported Oregon? prefab – similar to the Fryerstown Weslyan Hall, nominally dated to the early 1870s. The pile of bricks left from Templer's Mill near the real Narrabla homestead, was described as "a classified historic building which should be preserved" in 1968, so one wonders who blew it up in 1971 and why. 

This is another case where the archaeology is pretty obvious, as evident in the ABC's photos, and Reg's comment that they will carry out archaeological investigations to solve the issue. Too late probably for whatever was under or around Emmaville in its original location. I don't always think there needs to be a team of experts to run these things and annoy the locals, but a Conservation Management Plan and archaeological assessment could have made an important contribution. At least they might have gotten the iron brand right, while Miles Lewis has suggested some possible American manufacturers such as W H Wrigley and William Elford, and even if viewers are not concerned about the difference between tongue and groove, 'v joint' and the more correct horizontal quirked bead boards, it doesn't hurt to get it right. It was a shame Peter Kirschner couldn’t narrate the entire episode. He seemed far more knowledgeable.

Graeme Blundell pointed out the highly pleasurable camera movements, "placing each property exquisitely in the landscape, moving from ground level and soaring above the build, the lenses and focus changed remotely, …, creating a new highly cinematic aesthetic for property TV". – but we are probably coming to expect this since the ubiquity of the use of drones for everything from real estate adds to filming your snow trip. Blundell also catches the idea in "aspirational property evangelism". Whether we like it or not, the will probably end up steering the way restoration is done. Already it is being used by real estate journalists as a benchmark.

Banjo Paterson Parks can be found all over the place Lynbrook, Ipswich, Gladesville, Jindabyne and Yass. I liked the big hat idea, but an online pole seems to have brought them back to their senses so the hat is off now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Restoration Australia - quick review Episode 4, Gervasoni farm

Sibella was struggling this time to get Marnie and Dale to fight; for all the discomfort that taking on such a project and lifestyle involved, they seemed pretty level headed and calm. When the show was announced by Richard Finlayson back in November 2014, the line was: "stylist Sibella Court follows a group of Aussie battlers who are working to restore some amazing Australian heritage buildings in RESTORATION AUSTRALIA". So the participants were labelled and stereotyped from the start.

The antagonist this time was the poor council building permit officer. At least four times we are told how the work is being held up by slow council approval. The "Piss off heritage people" was given plenty of prominence. A shame really, since the show was a lost opportunity for bringing parties together. Preserving and re-using old buildings has to be a compromise between conservation and change, something evident in every choice that each of the restorers in this show make. Perpetuating the conflict myth only serves to further distort public views. A case in point is Reimund Zunde's photostory on Vince. On the surface it seems to be a proud old man surrounded by his family history, but look deeper and the photos speak of insularity, superstition and decay. He was greatly dishonoured in this show. Lisa G. has also filled us in on the dynamite myth. The only damage I could see looked pretty much like water had undermined the wall after the adjoining roof collapsed.

A look at the Heritage Study citation shows some discrepancies with the way the show describes the place. No mention of Granny's House or a Blacksmith, and the real estate listing suggests Granny's house is earlier than the big house. As Lisa suggested, it would be useful to update the citation and statement of significance. Site descriptions are sparse and I can't find the HV permit, but looking at some photos, it seems there were details of history, fabric and potential archaeology that might not have been given the study they deserved. The best-practice approach would be a Conservation Plan, but what happens when the battler can't afford best practice, and the heritage people would rather see anything done rather than inevitable decay. Some heritage might just be considered sacrificial, either because its state of decay and the economics mean that no one will ever front up the repair cost, or that if someone is crazy enough to do something with it, they should be given all possible leeway, because otherwise it would just crumble to dust.

One irony is that if it were to crumble, it would probably become more obviously an archaeological site, and so the level of scientific rigour and excavation would be more likely to be applied. For example the nearby "Former Gervasoni Farm Building Ruins" are on the inventory, but not the register H7723-1165. I saw archaeology everywhere in the show, but the "3-400mm of crap" in the basement floor seems to have just been dug out and dumped.  I guess it is in a secondary depositional context now.

Another irony of course is that as the place is more lived in, with the accoutrements of modern comfort, it will be less picturesque. The subtle patina of age and "ruin aesthetic" that attracts people to it now will be diminished. The old chestnut about distinguishing between what is old and the' definitely new' results in the PWD toolshed extension while the new layers over the existing iron roof have distorted the original proportions.

There is a well understood aesthetic appreciate often applied to such projects in Europe – in fact whole real estate companies devoted to selling ruins for reconstruction and restoration. I will give Marnie and Dale time and the benefit of the doubt, but the concrete slabs, tin sheds and penchant for pushing walls around with screw jacks doesn't fill me with confidence that my own heritage aesthetic will be satisfied.

Speaking of screw jacks or acrow props, I would say that one good reason for the "bossy bureaucrats" permits and heritage red tape is to protect the restorer's from themselves.


Gibbons & Masters Patent Brick