Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Restoration Australia Series 3 Episode 8 - Mittagong

Heritage devotees Val and John Jessop decide to buy and reassemble two old buildings - an old ghost town cottage and an old sawmill. What could be more difficult than that? (Season Final)

So we get to the final episode of series 3. John is from England via Africa and Val a Mittagong local with connections to the shale oil mining town of Joadja. They have already done a big renovation / extension, of an old school and church elsewhere. Now they plan another passion project to recreate a cute cottage with a fancy modern bit out the back.

Their business, Cotswold Furniture Collection, isn't mentioned in the show  but the end result of their involvement with the show looks like the sort of interior decorating magazine shoot that would be perfect advertising.

Their plan is to reassemble a house and sawmill shed from "flat pack" components. The house was moved from Joadja to Mittagong and at some stage was dismantled and the parts stacked in Willie Hall's salvage yard.

Willie is the secret weapon in their quest for a unique house - a particularly attuned builder, preserver of old stuff, and son of Peter Hall, the architect who rescued the Opera House. Hall is calm, quietly spoken and competent in all sorts of skills. He is the perfect foil to the fake drama of reality TV. He is actually real.

The sawmill was that of Alex S Blatch & Sons. It was still operating until 1998 when it had to close, supposedly because of the NSW ban on old growth logging according to one of the sons Graeme (SMH June 17, 1998). The Blatch family had offers for their "home-cut, wooden office, and corrugated iron shed from a local artist and a potter who liked the old, lived-in look," 

The sawmill was a landmark in Mittagong, and one of the last connections to the timber industry, that had for a century been the mainstay of the Southern Highlands.

But in the end it was cleared away for some drab townhouses.

Hall has a thorough grasp of good heritage conservation practice. He bought the house and dismantled it, presumably as a last option to prevent its loss. He took photos of the dismantling process and tagged the parts. He uses traditional construction methods and where parts needed to be replaced because of rot or termites, he used matching materials. He even has an old morticing machine to do the new mortice and tenon joints. This seems like a rare lost trade, but in fact is a simple piece of equipment to acquire and use today - its just that modern nail guns serve the same purpose with minimum effort.

So if a building has been moved from its original historic town and had a second life in another historic town, then dismantled and stored in for years before being moved again to a third site and reconstructed with building where it is married to modern materials, is it still heritage?

I suspect not, but Harrison goes on again about heritage practice needing to identify new building by cladding it in new material. But in this case it doesn't seem such an issue since so little of the build is actually original fabric or in its original configuration, while significant visual elements such as the cladding of both the sawmill shed and the house roof are done in new Zincalume removing any sense of heritage character. If there was no option but use new material, they still could have obtained proper galvanised corrugated iron for much the same price. At least then they could have some reference to Australian building heritage.

They have left some of the original internal wall finishes as a palimpsest of the layers of use and reconstruction, although the appearance is more of a contrived shabby chic, with mismatched boards, gaps and missing trim all over the place. It seems much was left behind when the house was dismantled.

With such a calm and competent builder, clients with patience and evidently adequate financial means and no council regulator or heritage advisor hovering over the building site threatening to close it all down if they don't use the right shade of Porters lime wash, there is little opportunity in the show for the usual fabricated drama. So instead it comes from the bushfires and the epidemic. 

As with the previous episode the virus keeps Harrison away but it is no loss as Willie makes a more authentic and personable narrator. What you aren't told however, is how this project is really just a bit of ordinary property development. The house/shed combo is squashed into a subdivided block next door to the Jessop's real house - a large and more prosaic late 20th century ranch style home on half a hectare. The original house on the block on the other side is now tight up against the fence, and the garden trees are all gone, making Mittagong a little less leafy.

The result is far more a pastiche of what passes for heritage on television, than actual restoration, but after the abominations on most of the renovation shows we don't really expect much more than this.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Restoration Australia Season 3 Episode 7 - Cooroy, Qld

When Mel and Jack buy a derelict old Queenslander for $21,000 and move it to their land in Noosa it seems they've scored the bargain of the century, or at least a century old bargain

There I was thinking this frustrating and infuriation program had finished and then I see there was another episode. And then another one I haven't seen as well. So as a completeist, I guess I should consider these too. Perhaps the show might still redeem itself.

Harrison begins by pointing out the obvious. The Queenslander is the quintessential, characteristic authentic true blue bonza beauty Australian historic architectural icon. Fair enough. 

To recap, the form comprises mostly timber  residential buildings with the decorative timber fretwork, wrap-around verandahs, set high on tall stumps to provide underfloor ventilation and protect the main structure from white ants (using tin ant caps). Another element adapted to a hot climate is the exposed frame and absence of lining. The single skin allowed the building to cool down at night and the gappy floorboards and high stance allowed air circulation, but it makes air conditioning practically useless.

$21,000 to purchase it and another $100,000 to have it cut in half, transported a couple of hours away to the farm and stuck back together on new stumps was the initial cost and the couple gave themselves a budget of another $100000 to do everything else including basic septic, power and all the repairs. Its a bargain for what has become a rare collectible. 

Inner Brisbane houses in derelict condition have been selling for million dollar prices for years and the fashion for Federation and Edwardian weatherboard houses has become a regional status symbol.  

It would seem that chopping them up and shifting them to another site is a standard way of 'conserving' historic Queenslanders.

Years ago we dropped into the collection of relocated historic buildings at Caboolture Historic Village  where we asked the information person where we could visit well preserved historic towns nearby, only to be told "we dont do heritage in Queensland". 

Smaller timber houses in country towns and farms have always been a bit mobile. Demographic changes, shifting industries like mining and saw milling, and redevelopment of old residential areas, have seen houses follow employment around the country.

Harison is concerned that the restoration doesn't "make a mockery of the old building". He thinks replacing termite-eaten wall boards and the decayed fretwork brackets (even with like for like) "chips away from its old soul, not just the way it looks but the way it feels". Well he didn't have such qualms when the millionaires gutted their Miller's Point palaces.

The show tries to create drama and urgency by inventing deadlines. But this is Queensland. Things take a while and there is no rush.

Makes me wonder what the owners get out of the show. Is it just ego or narcissism. Melissa did credit the show with spurring them on to complete the building. She is given credit for historical sleuthing that led to finding the family of the original owner and builder Henry (Heinrich) Frederick Lindenmayer known as "H F".

As well as a 1941 penny found under the boards that survived the trip down from  Binjour,  under the lino they found old letters from  Lindenmayer.

Except it was the "ABC" who did the tracking down according to the local paper. Presumably they meant Fremantle Media. A quick search on Trove shows there have been a number of recent corrections to newspaper articles referring to the Lindenmayers of Binjour, an obscure enough topic that they must have only beed done in connection with the show - so it seems some detailed research has been done.

Somewhere along the way they also found Stanley and Hilda Opperman at their Binjour corner store, a museum piece in itself, complete with its collection of old tins. Stanley's grandfather and great grandfather helped build it and his dad was born in the house with the help of midwife Mrs Bertie Lindenmayer.

The Binjour Plateau was settled by German immigrants in 1909 who were encouraged to emigrate to Australia by the Apostolic Pastor H F Niemeyer, as part of his efforts to establish the Apostolic Church community in Queensland. Much of the population derived from closer settlement schemes that began in 1918, and despite the preference for soldier settlement and suggestions that German settlers were interred as enemy aliens during the war, Lindenmayer obtained one of the settler blocks.

Lindenmayer's property was called Euroa, a cattle stud of some note producing prize bulls such as " Euroa Zane Grey 2". H F was the big man of the town, sitting on the various council, cotton and dairy boards and prize winner with his AIS (Australian Illawarra Shorthorn) cattle. So the claim that this was a simple unpretentious house might be a little unfounded.

It was later "Norris's place" Frederick Norris passed away in 2014, leaving scattered family in the Binjour-Munduberra area and a Norris Corner Road to remember hi by, and a fleeting reference to a house now hours away that was once his home.

Some other myths are related by the Oppermans; that it reflects German traditional building style, such as the cross bracing and steep roof (for the snow?), and that they built the single skin to save money but would line it when they could afford to.

Harrison also drops comments a few times about the painted vj boards. It seems having exhausted his architectural terminology early on in the episode the 'V' jointed vertical lining boards are all he has left to show off his expertise. Despite a richness of endemic Australian vernacular building styles, we have only an impoverished vocabulary to describe and analyse them. Yet this house in particular has such unusual features compared to any modern building and most of the southern vernacular. A glimpse of the circular saw blade sign to the town entrance and a later visit to the timber mill provide some unstated explanation for the extensive and almost complete use of timber in the house, since this was a significant timber cutting and milling area - although the original location at Binjour was perhaps not so heavily timbered originally.

It is only in the last minutes of the show that we see much progress, and by this time Covid19 lockdown has prevented the host from making another visit. So when the film crew captures the finished restoration Mel and Jack are left to show us around on their own. Despite a little hammy reality show acting for the camera, their enthusiasm for the project comes through at last. 

They couldn't do a timber floor in the bathroom because of building codes as Harrison proclaimed a little earlier, so they end up with an open tiled area at the end of the closed in back verandahs. I actually don't think they were too bothered about building codes considering the other design quirks of the house.

A lot of the termite chewed boards were replaced and a picture window (as they were once called) is set in the kitchen wall to give them the same lovely view they had in their shed. Not a bad result. 

Two elements were missing from the episode. There was really no money/time blow-out drama and no feared heritage advisor or council officer. And it was better for it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Restoration Australia Season 3 Episode 6 - Grimes Cottage

When a Sydney couple buy a colonial cottage in one of Australia's most protected heritage areas, they get more than they bargained for. How will they transform a home from the 19th century into a family home for the 21st?

Hmm? Looks like season 3 started and ended on the same note - the multi-million dollar Sydney Rocks real estate bubble that defines the aspirations of the Emerald City as a place where rich people chuck out poor people and turn their ghastly working class tenements into fabulous trophy homes. here on iview

Fashion is fickle, including the fashion for what style of house or what neighbourhood is desirable. The Rocks has been through many phases of being in and out of fashion. From a desirable place for the Cadigal people rich in resources, to the realm of convicts, then the lofty parcels of merchants and mariners, slums and social housing, developers (thwarted) opportunities, to some of the most desirable and expensive domestic real estate in Australia.

While the Rocks archaeology projects, including the Big Dig, which was featured in the show, focussed on the working class and slum neighbourhoods, sections of Millers Point contained affluent enclaves, with Argyle and Lower Fort Streets known as 'Quality Row'.

And yet if not for the likes of Jack Mundey and his feared and hated Builders Labourers Federation, the lovely colonial domestic architecture that is so sought after in harbour-side inner Sydney, would have been razed for Seidleresqe concrete minimalism.

Grimes Cottage, was the sixteenth of 293 properties and the main prize of the state government sell-off of public housing at Millers Point, which netted the state government almost $38 million up to 2016. The sell-off was to some extent the result of a Parliamentary Inquiry, but one suspects it was as much a means of moving the housos away from the potentially salubrious Harbour views so more deserving types could move in, and in the end even the much fought Sirius building was sold off.

The sell-off faced significant opposition from the local community, but unlike previous Millers Point auctions there were no protesters. The sale was at the McGrath auction rooms on a Thursday night, so they may have been thwarted by this subterfuge. The proceeds from the auctions in Millers Point and The Rocks were supposed to be used to fund the new supply of public housing, and an argument was even made that private ownership would see better restoration of the historic houses. In the mean time, NSW public housing spend is a pittance compared to what is needed and shows no increase from the supposed earnings from the sell off. Compare the $900 million, most of which is for maintenance and already committed projects, with the Victorian $5.3 Billion recently announced. 

Grimes Cottage and its neighbours were first tenanted by the Department of Housing in 1982, and like many government owned residences, received only rudimentary maintenance and repair, and sometimes unsympathetic alteration. It came into Government ownership only because the Sydney Cove Authority had acquired most of the "charming heritage properties" or as it saw them, redundant old buildings ripe for redevelopment, and engaged various bright planners and architects to come up with ideas. Harry Seidler was one of these, and his proposal was a pile of white stripey multi-storey Brutalist tower blocks that covered everything down to the waters edge.

Seidler's Rocks

Then of course, Mundy and the BLF instigated the Green Bans and the rocks was saved. (Well there is more to it than this) And if it were not for an incipient heritage movement we may not have even learnt that these old-fashioned run down places were something worth keeping. This very house was where the first murmurs of the Rocks conservation movement began.  In 1958 it was repainted in heritage colours by Taubmans who had been encouraged by architect John Fisher and actor/artist Cedric Flower (described as a "flamboyant dresser in corduroy trousers, suede shoes and tie-dyed hessian shirts"), in the first attempt to draw attention to the historic and aesthetic value of the Rocks.

Fisher was head of the Institute of Architects, on the Cumberland County Council Historic Buildings Committee and the Council of the National Trust of Australia (NSW)., and National Trust of NSW honorary architect for two decades. The Grimes Cottage exercise meant Fisher was able to negotiate leases for a number of historic buildings in the rocks so that  they would be refurbished and occupied. Various medical societies took them on as now desirable status symbols including Bligh House (later Clyde Bank) and houses in Windmill Street. He was also prominent in the push to establish good design in small houses through the Historic Buildings Committee, he "...enlivened the trust's interest in a small-houses scheme, modelled on the one in Scotland, where the trust bought small, derelict townhouses at risk of demolition and gave them a new lease of life. He also came to the aid of architects who were proposing developments involving heritage items. As the founding chair of the Architectural Advisory Committee, he provided architects with a forum, allowing them to consult with a group of knowledgable architects about their proposals before they had gone too far." 

The SMH called John Fisher the "champion of the state's structures"

And at the other end of the housing scale, as one part of the architect firm Fisher Lucas, he was commissioned by the State Planning Authority to restore Elizabeth Bay House, which led to the formation of the Historic Houses Trust of NSW in 1980. There could not be a more relevant connection to be made in a show called Restoration Australia, but clearly Fremantle Media do their research on the cheap. There is no mention of this connection, and barely a toot about the battles to save the rocks from avaricious developers. 

Originally known as “Grimes Cottage”, this single-storey dwelling was built for George Grimes, a seafaring captain between 1832-33. “Commander of the Barque “Woodlark” George Grimes was incidentally the son of Charles Grimes (1772-1858) who served as Surveyor General, and was the first white person to row up the Yarra River proclaiming a suitable spot for settlement 30 years before Batman.


When the 184-year-old house was sold for $4.23 Million (was this a record per square metre?), lawyer John Schembri and his wife Karen were "expected to undertake a sympathetic restoration and renovation of the rundown property." 

As one of the oldest surviving residential buildings in Sydney, Grimes Cottage came "with some of the strictest heritage guidelines of all the former public housing properties". Of course, this is where the dramatic narrative must be pinned when Stuart Harrison and whoever writes his script start to tell the story. In fact we are told many times about how onerous, difficult and problematic the heritage restrictions are, how it comes with the Conservation Management Plan from Hell, and how the creative freedom of the owners can be thwarted by the mere whim of a complaining neighbour, or they will be forced to live in miserable steaming Sydney summers because the council will refuse them an air conditioner.

How come this show has had to present heritage protection measures and conservation policy as such an evil? The show would not exist and the lawyers and developers would not have homes to restore, if it weren't for the past efforts to save these houses from both demolition, and unsympathetic alterations. The council is always presented as the invisible bureaucracy that blocks the honest restorers, but in this case Grimes Cottage is on the State Heritage Register, so one presumes it is a faceless state government bureaucrat causing problems.

This aspect of the show is infuriating. Why do they keep winging about having to preserve a historic house? If they wanted a free for all, they could have bought or built elsewhere free of these restrictions. As a result of this style of production and presentation, Restoration Australia has done little for the cause of historic preservation in Australia.

But what were the restoration issues?

A heritage architect Colin (Israel I think, but again no surnames allowed), and two colour consultants including Australian paint royalty Julie, and then Mary, cannot help Karen decide on a colour scheme for the front joinery and door. She likes a yellow door after rejecting some heritage greens and a puce. But this is where the neighbour complains (an ally of the former housos perhaps). In the end, it just all goes black - door, window frames, shutters, verandah. Colin makes some dig about the fashion for greys so I guess he is proved right.

We even get the archaeologists come to wield their incredible power. Builder Dean seems to have dug up the basement floor, destroying 180 years of archaeological deposit, and is now in fear of getting in trouble He reckoned he burst out laughing and thought someone was pulling his leg. Archaeologists Nadia and Frankie come along and scrapes away any worry, finding not very much it seems. So we head off to the Big dig to see some real archaeology - buttons and pins apparently.

The floors are striped out, the slate roof is stripped off, the render, plaster and paint are stripped away, the timbers are replaced or strengthened, and then all the status finishes come in - the marble tiles, the gaudy wallpapers, the black concrete bath, the modernist light fittings and the Italian bespoke kitchen. 

And what's left? The shell is still there, it looks much the same from the outside, it is mostly still standing. But the scraping, replacing, refitting and all that restoration, takes away the layers and patina that let it feel old. At the end of this show we are left feeling it is just a prettier version of the houses on The Block, or any other renovation show. Where historic building fabric manages to come through, it is grudgingly, rather than embrace and celebrate the opportunity to preserve, conserve and restore what is already there.

spot the difference

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Restoration Australia Series 3 Episode 5 - Ballarat

When a former Baptist Church cum nightclub hits the market in Ballarat, local anaesthetist Michael Whitehead buys it and plans to turn it into a home, but he soon finds the task could drag on for eternity!

Link to iview

The Dawson Street Baptist Church had been one of the places that defined the character of Ballarat - or the character of refined establishment that its citizens preferred to project. It featured prominently in the early 1970s guide by K.J. Turnbull "Townscape : an impression of urban Ballarat for those who hate guide books", and of course it was on Rose postcards. But this was in the 1970s, when heritage was only coming to be appreciated and god was loosing command. So the Baptists sold it in 1972.

The Baptists abandoned their Dawson Street church in 1972 and it became the White House restaurant and then the Power House night club, described as notorious by the local media but fondly remembered by former patrons.

But after having been left derelict for more than a decade and a home to vermin, the "CBD icon" was purchased by Ballarat anaesthetist Michael Whitehead who apparently "relished the chance to show some love" to the faded structure ... and its column fa├žade." Whitehead is a Board Member of the Ballarat Arts Foundation, President of Ballarat Lyric Theatre, and a recipient of the Ballarat South Rotary-BAF Denis Bateman Award for contribution to the Ballarat Arts community. As close to a Medici as Ballarat is likely to get. We clearly need more of his sort of philanthropist if heritage buildings will survive in the future. 

The building was listed for sale at $800,000 + GST (tax) and had been on the market from about 2011, but a long campaign by various real estate agents seemed unfruitful, despite The Ballarat Courier making a clever music pun with its video of the band Damaged.

Damaged though it clearly was, there was not much in the episode to show its condition before the restoration works had already started. I presume there was an archival record made prior to the works commencing. Fortunately we have the prolific local heritage photographer Lisa Gervasoni to thank for some documentation.

The VHR says:

Designed by Ballarat architect J.A. Doane, begun in 1866-67 and completed externally in 1875-79.  renovated in 1891, 1910 and again in 1933. In 1958 further internal changes were made. A new pulpit and panelling in front of the choir stalls were dedicated in September 1959. The stuccoed main facade features a double storied, pedimented prostyle portico on fluted Corinthian columns. The main wall is faced with giant Corinthian pilasters supporting the parapet and continuous entablature and is infilled with ashlar masonry and blind pedimented openings. 

In its heyday, it was a grand and imposing edifice, probably modelled on the Collins Street Baptist Church in Melbourne where the resident historian Ros (Otzen - no surname provided) provided the back storey.

The Ballarat Baptists played a small role in scientific debates in the nineteenth century, pronouncing on matters such as Darwins new evolution theory:
“Cast away all doubt suggested by reason [and pursue] a thorough belief in the assurance contained in the text and a faith in the spirit by which all prayers will be heard and answered.”  Rev. C Clarke of London, Dawson Street Baptist Church, Ballarat, June 1869  

Dr Whitehead doesn't seem like the do it yourself sort of restorer, and the building he has taken on, like several other of the projects in this season, is on a scale that any individual is unlikely going to be able to tackle. So he gets the local company, Nat Twaits Building, to manage and complete the project. Like Episode 1 of this season, we wonder if this firm has the skills and experience to understand and properly carryout an authentic restoration of this sort. Nat's own website actually provides more substantial information on the progress of the works and the process of filming it, noting that Restoration Australia visited about five times: when the hydronically heated floor was installed; when it was all framed up;  when it was all plastered; when structural steel was going in; when the double-glazed windows were installed; and then the final. (I don't think Harrison mentions that the windows were double glazed). Whitehead does have a go at tidying up the render with a little grinding wheel on a drill, and knocking out a few bits of glass.

While building shell has undergone a cosmetic restoration (there doesn't seem to have been any d=need of major structural repairs) , the big change has involved building a complete new house along with a separate flat inside the church. The once impressive classical space can no longer be appreciated in its awe inspiring whiteness. In any case after 150 years as a public venue for the sacred and profane, private ownership now excludes public access. Except for an Open House event that allowed some public inspection, so perhaps this might continue in the future.

The design philosophy was "...to bring the property into the modern era, while retaining the architectural style and unique elements ... Our focus was to honour the architecture of the building while also creating a liveable, modern residence...We not only retained and restored the building’s striking roman columns, but have also incorporated the original Baptism pit as a feature of the main living area.”

Of course there are the technical issues to overcome, and heritage regulation means there has to be a compromise. As usual, the heritage architect is all powerful and to be feared. In this case it is  Wendy (Jacobs - why can't they give people their full names?) who has the final say, and that Heritage Victoria is leaving it up to her. Either Wendy has considerable sway with the bureaucrats, or government cutbacks mean they can't spare the time to make decisions. Since new permits seem to be required for all the changes of mind, it is more likely that the whole business is worked out through the usual complexities of consultations, meetings, emails, updated plans, new permit applications, and amendments. 

Wendy is finally convinced that the window frames can't be saved so reproductions can be made. Ballarat local carpenter Andrew does a great job on these using his grandfather's book to design the nail-less key to tie in the parts (again Andrew isn't given a surname - do they have to pay them under equity rules if they get a proper credit?)

A concrete floor is desired, but another heritage permit is required and causing further delays, and then the bureaucrats won't give in, so a timber floor is reinstated, and Harrison concedes that this is probably good heritage practice, but their is no sign of it in the final restoration - just lots of tiles. One wonders what might have been under the floor. Usually these projects turn up various bits of archaeological evidence, a few coins, some religious ephemera perhaps.

Some more light is needed at the back and Heritage Victoria approve cutting some big holes through the back wall. They can't be that bad then.

Some of the changes include cutting holes in the roof for skylights since the "glass box inside a bluestone box" makes getting natural light into the rooms a problem - but it did become possible to expose some of the original trusses. 

Strict heritage regulation prohibited touching the walls, so the actual residence is a mostly freestanding structure set inside the church. But should it matter since next to no one will see the inside.

The don't touch the walls rule seems to have been broken in a couple of places, such as the cut into the balcony.

The baptismal bath is sacrosanct (from a heritage point of view) and options are to use it as a spa, or cover it up, but in the end it gets a glass floor over it in the middle of the new lounge room. glazed over. For a lounge room covering it with carpet might have been more comfortable. 

There is the usual issue about the cost blowing out. In fact where would the drama be in these projects if there wasn't the risk of either ruined relationships or bank balances. The test set down in the beginning is a a cost of $1.6 and time scale of 18 months, but then there are the $200,000- to $500,000 quotes to fix the facade.

But by some miracle the cost becomes only $80,000, even though this is just "for the public to see a beautiful building" and of no benefit to him. It is however, a good looking result.

In the end time and costs blow out to $3 million with the purchase. Still that seems reasonable for a passion project and the ultimate trophy home.

Reuse of former spiritual places is a peculiar phenomenon. It tells of the diminishing numbers of the faithful, but also society's inability or indifference to maintaining places of communal value.  The last few decades of commercial use and now the private capital input to restore it shows how heritage conservation outcomes are now dependent on market forces rather than public funding.

Will we eventually loose all the grand internal public heritage spaces.

Some Sources:

A History of Ballarat Baptist Church, leaflet housed in the Victorian Baptist Union 
archives. Dawson Street Baptist Church (Ballarat, Vic.).  1960,  The Building of a church : historical outline of the first 100 years of the Dawson Street Baptist Church : 1860 - 1960  The Church, 
 Ballarat Star, 13 September 1871, p2c4. 

Gibbons & Masters Patent Brick