May 02, 2020

History on the Harbour: Parramatta's endangered heritage



The relocation of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum has split the community especially since it involves the demolition of two of Parramatta’s oldest buildings. Sensing the urgency, I popped out to remind myself of these two heritage-listed buildings and have a closer look.

140-year-old St Geroge's Terrace now obscured by enormous weeds awaits demolition (Roderick Eime)

St George’s Terrace, stamped 1881 for all the world to see, has been subject to numerous modifications over the decades, but still retains an authentic frontage, albeit overgrown with some poorly chosen bushes obscuring the classic Victorian facade. The shops inside have been vacant for the last few years in a kind of ‘death row’ anticipation.

An archaeological survey conducted 20 years ago postulated that further evidence of earlier dwellings and structures likely exist below the surface and can be expected to be in good condition.

History buffs like myself will know that Parramatta was settled and developed almost in parallel with Sydney itself and is home to Australia's oldest European building at Elizabeth Farm in the nearby suburb of Rosehill. Built in 1793 by John Macarthur, the controversial ex-army officer and colonial entrepreneur who pioneered our wool industry.

Light rail construction in Parramatta (Ward Group)

Parramatta CBD is undergoing some radical redevelopment right now with many new buildings reaching way beyond the once low-rise skyline. The new Metro light rail is currently under construction along Church Street and will ultimately join where the former Carlingford railway line once ran through Camelia near the racecourse at Rosehill.

Supporters of the old St. George’s Terrace argue that despite major work over the years. Its historic integrity can still be retained. The row of terraces was built by a prominent Parramatta citizen, master builder and developer, George Coates in partnership with his son Herbert. In fact, the terraces appear to have been a kind of ‘entree’ to the building business for young Herbert upon his father’s retirement. Upon completion, they were heralded as “a newly-erected terrace, built of brick on a stone foundation, at the corner of SMITH and PHILLIP STREETS, within ten minutes’ walk of the STATION,” and offered for rent at two pounds per week each.

The terraces were last substantially upgraded in the late 1970s as commercial premises and appear largely as they were since then. (Parramatta Heritage Centre)

Willow Grove, the superb Victorian-era manor set back on Philip Street, just a stone’s throw from the terraces, is another heritage-listed building slated for destruction under the grandiose Powerhouse Museum plan. Despite being listed as “of significance for the local area for historical, aesthetic and representativeness reasons. Built c.1870s, it is a good example of a Victorian Italianate two-storey villa, readily identifiable as part of historic building stock and strongly contributing to the streetscape in spite of its large setback, partly through its notable fence.”


Photo courtesy of Sam Agostino

The house was initially constructed as a grand private residence and was occupied soon after completion by a Mrs Gallagher. Most of its existence, however, has been in some form of commercial premise and even operated for a time as a private maternity hospital under the names “Estella” or “Nurse Davidson’s Private Hospital” after matron and midwife E. E. Davidson. Its most recent use appears to have been for ‘Forever Living Products’, distributors of personal care and nutritional products.

The winning design for the new Parramatta Powerhouse Museum will see the complete destruction of buildings on the corner of Philip and Smith Streets. 

"It's a monstrosity on stilts. It's a monstrosity on two levels — costly and ugly."
ALP arts spokesman Walt Secord


It distresses me that such valuable heritage can be dismissed as disposable under a plan that is full of questionable objectives. Personally, I don’t understand why the Powerhouse Museum can’t stay where it is and a more modest museum - if it is required at all - be built elsewhere with much less destructive impact. To me, it reeks of a time when wholesale destruction of heritage took place in the mid- to late-20th century so we could enjoy shiny, soulless extrusions that made greedy developers rich.

Sources:

The Old Parramattan

NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment


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