On Thursday this week Melbourne witnessed one of the worst acts of heritage vandalism and arrogant disregard for due process and community concern seen in many years, with the discovery of workers inside the Palace Theatre and a skip bin in the recently renamed Chrissy Amphlett Lane, full of 100 year old tiles, plasterwork, doors, fittings and the crushed remnants of what seems to be much of the Baroque Edwardian interior decoration, the oldest surviving theatre decoration in Melbourne. In a clearly deliberate and blatant attempt at disrupting due process and democratic decisions on our collective heritage, this comes barely weeks away from a vote by the City of Melbourne on whether to protect the interiors, much of which now lie in pieces in an undisclosed rubbish tip.
What has been vandalised?
City of Melbourne planning enforcement officers have been repeatedly barred from entering the building, but from what we can tell at this stage the theatre balconies and walls have been stripped of all ornate plasterwork. A stairwell on the east of the building has been stripped of much of its recently restored tiling. The bays of the 1923 foyer visible from Bourke Street have been stripped to bare concrete ceiling and columns.
The fate of the auditorium’s ceiling rose and frieze above the stage, and parts of the foyer remain unknown.
The developer responds
Insult was added to injury on Friday night with Jinshan Investments releasing a press release full of half-truths and pig-headed platitudes.
We understand that Jinshan may have been “operating within its rights” (the National Trust says that’s a maybe). However, it seems clear to MHA (and to many others) that to go ahead with destruction of the interiors while a heritage review of them was underway is acting in bad faith and shows a lack of respect not only for the planning processes of the City of Melbourne, but a lack of respect for Melbourne’s heritage and cultural life more broadly.
Jinshan’s statement has quoted selectively in an attempt to imply that the interiors have no heritage value. This is simply untrue. Heritage Victoria’s recent decision did not say the Palace Theatre had ‘no significance’, instead they only ruled that it didn’t warrant inclusion on the very selective Victorian Heritage Register. A large number of buildings of significant heritage value, which have protection from inappropriate development are not on the VHR. The decision in fact clearly stated that the interiors were ‘locally’ significant and should be protected by a city council overlay, as the vast majority of our CBD heritage is.
The statement that it is not in ‘pristine heritage condition’ and therefore worthless is blatantly wrong, indeed the changes to the venue over the past 100 years (which have still retained most of the pre-1920’s decorative detail and form) add to it’s significance rather than retract from it. The layering of history and memories of cultural experiences are what makes the Palace so important to Melburnians. This is clearly reflected in the strong outcry over this latest vandalism.
Clearly Jinshan couldn’t care less about heritage. They are thumbing their noses at the plans to protect the important Bourke Hill precinct. In addition to the Palace they wanted, until the most recent revised version of their plans, to demolish a Victorian era building next door, despite the heritage significance being noted by their own heritage consultants and the planning scheme.
Jinshan didn’t wait for expert independent advice before commencing their demolition. Indeed, they are ignoring recent expert advice including that from their own heritage consultants, who admitted at a heritage council meeting that the interiors may have local heritage significance.
They have also ignored the most recent study on Bourke Hill commissioned by the Planning Minister, which looks set to upgrade the Palace facade to a ‘B’, the second highest rating for a heritage building, a rating applied to many of our most valued heritage buildings.
They also claim that the destruction was for safety reasons but MHA is unsure how plaster decorations and tiles that had been in situ for 100 years (in a loud and busy music venue) suddenly constituted a serious ‘safety threat’. Perhaps what they meant to say was ‘a serious threat to the safety of our development plans for the site.’