One may walk down St. George’s Terrace and struggle to understand how the humdrum mass of modern buildings honour the lion-hearted saint the street was named after. Perhaps some may even call the Terrace a cemetery where the bones of Perth’s most splendid heritage buildings have been laid to rest. But the defiant roars of the revived 140-year old State Buildings, that come from their now bustling restaurants, bars and retail spaces, divulges a story of hope for our magnificent historic monuments. A story of restoration, repurposing and renewal.
The title of this comeback yarn is adaptive re-use.
According to the Heritage Council, adaptive reuse provides an opportunity to tap into the treasury of underused heritage buildings around Western Australia and honour them with a transformation into 21st century uses that add value to our state.
Whether it be the State Buildings on St George’s Tce, the New Museum project in Northbridge or the Heirloom apartments and The Old Synagogue in Fremantle, adaptive reuse is the process through which beautiful buildings destined for ruin are finding new life. And it’s happening more than ever.
The port city of Fremantle is home to the greatest number of heritage-listed properties in Western Australia, and the West End has a particularly historic streetscape. When it comes to preserving this sizeable collection of heritage gems, Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt hails adaptive reuse as “the very best strategy”.
“I often say the best way to preserve a heritage building is to use it and the best way to lose a heritage building is to leave it empty,” he says.
In the spirit of adaptive reuse, preservation need not be confined to lobbying against forces that wish to see historic buildings totalled by a wrecking ball. Preservation is revering heritage enough to turn it into an asset that may be cherished well into the future.
The sunlit Postal Hall of the revived State Buildings is a glorious setting for historian Richard Offen to reminisce on the treasures that Perth has lost. In between sips of English Breakfast tea, Mr Offen relays countless examples of destruction of heritage buildings around Perth including the Art Deco Colonial Mutual Life building in 1980 which “made way for a very indifferent replacement”, the magnificent AMP building in 1972 whose only relic was a statue fatefully called ‘Protection’ and the Pensioner Barracks in 1961.
Prior to the mass loss of heritage buildings from the 1960s onwards, Mr Offen fondly recalls St. George’s Terrace as a “pastiche of Victorian and Georgian architecture”.
Despite acknowledging there is much to rue, Mr Offen says the demolishing of Perth’s heritage and character must be viewed in context.
“The buildings we’ve lost were considered at the time inconsequential. They weren’t important and over the world 19th century architecture was considered to be a sham and a copy of earlier styles of architecture,” he says.
“Slowly, with distance lens enchantment, as they became older people began to realise that actually they were very significant and the achievements of the 19th century were truly amazing and so the attitude of this architecture changed.
“But in the days when for instance St. George’s Terrace was demolished the buildings weren’t considered to be old, just old fashioned and not fit for purpose, so there was no idea of adapting them as we do today.”
Abandoned for almost two decades, the repurposing of the State Buildings is indeed a sight to behold. Saved from inevitable destruction, these historic buildings now serve a contemporary purpose. They warmly host (to name but a few) the renowned Long Chim and Petition restaurants and the lavish COMO The Treasury hotel. Abuzz with a medley of sounds- clinking wine glasses, merry chittering and the clip clopping of patrons’ shoes, these buildings will be used by generations to come.
Mr Offen says while it was always thought that heritage listing devalued a building and one would either try to get the listing taken away or “you’d just ‘accidentally’ bowl it over”, adaptive re-use has illuminated the commercial value of heritage architecture.
Mr Pettitt agrees, saying he is witnessing a renewed interest in heritage buildings as developers view them as an asset that will give their project an edge.
“Adaptive re-use allows you to take this heritage fabric, bring it to life in a new way and in doing so create something that has a story to it, an authenticity to it,” he says.
“You’re creating really unique spaces that people warm to much more than new places that don’t have those stories and layers.”
Mr Pettitt is excited for the re-purposing of the Warders’ Cottages (Henderson St) into a boutique hotel, the police station and courthouse (Henderson St) into a restaurant and bar the Fremantle Technical College (corner of South Tce and Essex St) into a hospitality and tourism hub.
One does not have to look very far in Fremantle to find completed and successful examples of adaptive reuse. From the old Dalgety Wool Stores sprung the award-winning Heirloom apartments.
Managing director of M/Group Lloyd Clark says as a boutique apartment developer, Match looks at “uniqueness and limited supply” as the key factors determining the long-term investment value of a property. Mr Clark affirms that heritage buildings, such as the Wool Stores, most definitely fit this bill.
“There will always be a market that values heritage product over anything else and this was evidenced in the ‘off-the-plan’ release of Heirloom apartments which exceeded sales targets with over 70 per cent of apartments selling prior to the commencement of construction,” he says.
“The simple fact is that you cannot manufacture heritage fabric and people will pay a premium for being able to acquire something distinctive and irreplaceable.
“Many discoveries can be made throughout the construction process that can add to the building’s story such as an original wool-bale hoist and a railway track uncovered in the basement of Heirloom.”
Indeed it is also the historic quirks of The Old Synagogue, now alive with four hospitality venues, that adds to its charm. One would be hard pressed to replicate the experience of dining in a hall brightened by light filtered through stained glass windows featuring the Star of David and Menorah candelabrum.
Owner Ross Drennan says the newly constructed mezzanine, while providing additional dining space, would have been the place women and children sat originally in the synagogue.
And when given the option of replacing the original windows of Mr Chapple, the bar at the front of The Old Synagogue, which were “in a terrible shape”, Mr Drennan says they instead spent months sanding, patching up and glazing to restore them to glory.
“We spent a lot of money on lighting up the heritage features and have used the heritage value of the property in marketing the venue,” he says.
“To us they provide a point of difference to any other hospitality venue in WA and this is one of the reasons why we are one of the most visited hospitality venues in the state.”
While the pandemic has cast an obscuring smog over the future of West Australian commerce post COVID-19, there is no speculating that visitors (local, interstate or international) will be at the crux of any conversation on the road forward.
Economic development principal for the City of Perth John Fish believes that despite the rough trot the retail sector has gone through, the former ‘Golden Mile’ (Hay Street) presents an exciting opportunity. Mr Fish says this opportunity comes in the form of Hay Street Mall’s sizeable collection of heritage properties that “just blow your socks off”.
“I’d dare anybody to not be moved by the feeling that you get when you go into these older properties… you can’t help but feel excited,” he says in a thick Scottish accent.
“There’s actually an opportunity coming that the upper floors of these properties will be seen as valuable assets again and people will have a serious attempt at bringing them back to life.
“I think Piccadilly Theatre could be a game changer for Hay Street Mall and the CBD as a whole because it ties in really nicely with the money that’s going to be spent on His Majesty’s Theatre. The Concert Hall is going to get money spent on it. The New Museum is coming alive, so that cultural element which you absolutely expect to find in a CBD or capital city is very much bubbling to the surface.”