This weeks story is somewhat predictable.
“Festival Hall in Dudley St West is to be demolished. Chris Wren, the current Director of the company that owns and operates the venue is a direct descendant of John Wren who established the venue over a 50 year period from 1915 onwards. John Wren is a famous (or infamous) Melbourne figure from early last century who was the subject of the Book and Television series authored by Frank Hardy – Power Without Glory. The plan is to knock down the building whilst retaining elements of its facade. Twin Towers will be constructed – one 16 stories high (apartments) and one 10 stories high – retail and office.”
The building currently has a Heritage overlay – based not on its architecture – but on its historical and social importance to Melbourne. This interim heritage protection granted by Planning Minister Richard Wynne last year expires on March 1st, 2018.
Festival Hall is a good example of the confusion that ‘Heritage Listing’ can imply.
The original building was constructed in 1913. It was originally known as the ‘West Melbourne Stadium’, shortened to ‘The Stadium’. It was built by a Sydney Boxing Promoter Mr R.L. Baker. It was purchased in 1915 by John Wren and his General Manager Dick Lean. The Wren company Stadiums Limited staged Boxing matches and Pro Wrestling there for over 70 years. It also featured Roller Derby, Ballroom Dancing, Religious gatherings and even an indoor Tennis exhibition match with John McEnroe when he was in his prime. World Champion Boxers such as Lionel Rose, Johnny Famechon and others such as Anthony Mundine, Lester Ellis and Barry Michael have also featured there. The Melbourne Painters and Dockers Union used it as a meeting place as did many other unions and during the Great Depression, unemployed men would gather at Festival Hall to be picked for Dockwork.
In 1955 the original Stadium was destroyed by fire but rebuilt in time to feature Boxing, Basketball and Gymnastics events during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Dick Lean’s son Dick Lean Jnr set about establishing Festival Hall as a Music Venue from the 1960s onwards. (Either he was very focused on profit or was terminally deaf – the acoustics are simply frightening) Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Doobie Brothers, Little Feet, The Eagles all performed major concerts there from the mid 1960s through until the late 1980s. It was the only venue capable of holding the numbers to ensure these tours were viable in Melbourne. When the Docklands Stadium venue was built many of the touring bands opted to appear there from early 2000 onwards. As well they now have the options of Hisense Arena and Margaret Court Arena and a refurbished Myer Music Bowl.
Melbourne’s development juggernaut can bulldoze Festival Hall, but not our memories
The proposed demolition of another historic venue reminds us even Australia’s live music capital can’t escape the cold, hard realities of commercial real estate.
Like millions of others, I have fond memories of live entertainment at Festival Hall. Sure, the room was lacking in atmosphere, bonhomie, charm and sound quality – almost anything, actually, that makes a great music venue – but that doesn’t stop me treasuring the experiences of seeing the Ramones in their late-career dotage and Nirvana at their absolute apex, despite Kurt Cobain being obviously ill.
So it was a sad day in Brisbane when, in 2003, the building was demolished to make way for the construction of an apartment block. We’d been through it all before too many times, most notoriously when the beloved Cloudland Ballroom was knocked down in the dead of night in 1982 by the Deen Brothers, the premier/hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s demolition firm of choice. Their slogan was “All we leave behind are the memories”.
Demolition plan to bring curtain down on Melbourne’s Festival Hall
For Melbourne, the potential loss of its Festival Hall for another proposed block of flats has nothing to do with acoustic or architectural aesthetics – unlike, for example, the historic Palace Theatre. Like Brisbane’s version, Festival Hall was designed for sporting spectacles, mainly boxing. It was the simultaneous arrival of television and rock’n’roll that resulted in the room throwing open its doors to live music, most famously the Beatles in 1964, as also happened in Brisbane.
It’s about memories, the loss of a rare midsized venue that can hold between 4,500 and 5,500 punters, and the blow to the self-image of Australia’s self-proclaimed live music capital. The local industry first flexed its muscle in January 2010 after the (mercifully temporary) closure of the punk venue The Tote in Collingwood – an event that prompted a rally of more than 10,000 people to march through the city against punitive liquor-licensing regulations.
It made Melbourne quite literally evaluate what it was in danger of losing. A Deloitte study, commissioned by Arts Victoria the following year, found that live music was worth $500m to the state’s economy, with attendances of more than 5 million a year employing more than 17,000 people. According to the state’s peak advocacy body Music Victoria, the city has more live music venues per capita than anywhere in the world.
The slow death of music venues in cities
So the music sector’s muscle is built on solid economic foundations. That’s to say nothing of its priceless cultural contribution. Try, for a moment, to imagine the cities of Liverpool, Manchester, London, New York, Sydney (particularly during the 1980s) and smaller centres such as Brisbane and Dunedin in New Zealand without reference to the artists who helped to define their history and legacies.
The subsequent passing of the “agent of change principle” by the Victorian government in 2014 imposed obligations on developers to protect existing live music venues from noise complaints by residents. This means that the onus is on developers to provide noise attenuation measures should their plans fall within 50 metres of an existing venue, unless it is the venue which plans to expand, in which case the onus is reversed.
But that hasn’t insulated Melbourne’s music scene from the cold, hard commercial realities of real estate. Since the 2010 groundswell, Melbourne has lost not only the Palace Theatre but the Ding Dong Lounge in the city (which held its last drinks only 10 days ago), the Caravan in Bentleigh and a number of St Kilda venues, including the Palace, the Greyhound Hotel and the Esplanade, although the latter is scheduled to reopen in October.
In a statement, Music Victoria’s CEO Patrick Donovan urged the developer and local and state governments to retain and protect the “iconic” Festival Hall. “The developer’s proposal comes at a time when all eyes are on Melbourne and Victoria as a world leader in live music,” he said. “Melbourne has been recognised as a global music city, hosting the international Music Cities Convention in April.”
But Festival Hall’s owners have made a commercial calculation that there is more money to be made from selling the site than in continuing to compete with similar more modern venues, including Margaret Court Arena (which is slightly bigger, with a capacity of 7,500 people). And as much as the City of Melbourne and the state government have done to work with the music sector, there’s no agent of change principle or heritage listing at stake here.
And that’s why the pleas of Music Victoria will probably fall on deaf ears. At the end of the day, the city is not in the business of protecting memories. At the entrance to what is now Festival Towers in Brisbane, there’s a rather sad collection of photographs from gigs gone by that few other than the building’s residents will ever see. The application for the Melbourne development speaks blandly of “harness[ing] the emotional aspects of this venue”.
Which will mean absolutely nothing to anyone who ever passed through its doors to see the Beatles, Stones, Kanye West and homegrown acts including AC/DC and Courtney Barnett.
Back in Brisbane, Hutchinson Builders’ Scott Hutchinson – a music tragic who also built the Triffid in partnership with the former Powderfinger bassist John Collins and the band’s manager, Paul Piticco – is now starting work on a 3,500-capacity venue to “replace” Festival Hall in inner-city Fortitude Valley.
Perhaps Music Victoria might consider sounding out the state government or a similarly philanthropically minded developer, should any exist, about a long-term investment in a purpose-built midsized music venue – one with better acoustics and atmosphere than Festival Hall could ever offer.
Festival Hall was still holding major concerts up until as recently as 2008. And there are still many international and local acts using the venue. But quite simply the venue has seen no real technical investment for many years. As such it is an inferior choice for touring bands.
The Architecture is awful. From the outside it could be a warehouse. Located next to the West Melbourne Railway Goods Yards, frankly its appearance was never an issue.
But there is a really good lesson to be learned here. A Cultural Heritage listing is nowhere near as powerful as an Architectural Heritage listing. And it is really important that the two types of listing are not confused. By doing so the case for preservation using either Heritage listing is devalued.
Compare this to last week’s discussion on the Heritage value of two buildings to be partially demolished by St Vincent’s Private Hospital – if it can have the Heritage listings removed. Both buildings were constructed in the 19th Century. The Brunswick St property Dodgshun House in 1865 and the Eastern Hill Hotel about 1854-56. Both also have Cultural Historical Significance. The area the buildings stand has a full suburb heritage overlay – on architecture.
From the Age Newspaper 24/01/18…
Heritage advocates not throwing in the towel in fight to save ‘House of Stoush’
Heritage Victoria is considering an application to save Festival Hall from the wrecker’s ball and list it on the state’s heritage register.
The official, but anonymous, request to save the venue was submitted this week after The Age revealed its owners have applied to knock down all but the hall’s facade and build an apartment complex in its place.
“Heritage Victoria has received a nomination to the Victorian Heritage Register for Festival Hall,” a spokesman for the Department of Land, Water and Planning said. “The nomination is under consideration.”
For reasons of privacy, it has not been revealed who nominated the hall for protection.
[IMG Festival Hall is in a part of West Melbourne that is under development pressure]
Its heritage listing, if accepted, would not upend the developer’s plans to build 179 apartments on the site.
But it would require the developer to gain a heritage permit, which could include conditions that require it to preserve more of the hall.
The building already has some heritage protection, however the developer argues its proposal does not breach those controls.
A planning application lodged with Melbourne City Council is for a 16-storey residential tower and a 10-level tower with a mixture of retail and office space.
The Dudley Street facade and main entrance would be retained and given a gold and grey finish, and an imprint of the boxing ring and stage would be built into the design of a ground-level public plaza.
But most of the hall, built in 1955-56 after the original 1915 building was destroyed by fire, would be demolished.
Festival Hall currently has interim heritage protection, granted by Planning Minister Richard Wynne in March last year, however this is due to expire on March 1.
Mr Wynne said in granting interim protection to the venue and several other unprotected West Melbourne buildings that the historically industrial suburb “is a rapidly changing part of the municipality and is under significant development pressure”.
Developer Urbis argued in its planning application that the design respects Festival Hall’s history and meets the conditions of the interim heritage control.
“(A) key consideration for Festival Hall being recommended for heritage controls is on the basis of its historical and social significance and not on its architectural merits,” Urbis said.
“As such, an interpretation of the past use (being the public plaza landscape response) is considered to be an appropriate mechanism for preserving the social and historical significance.”
The department’s spokesman said a final decision on whether Festival Hall warrants heritage protection will be made by the Heritage Council of Victoria, which is separate to Heritage Victoria.
Advocacy group Melbourne Heritage Action said the hall was important enough to preserve.
“It has such a high historic and social significance that it is a good candidate for the Heritage Register,” spokesman Rohan Storey said.
The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Bassey all performed at Festival Hall, which was for many years Melbourne’s only large concert hall.
It also hosted gymnastics and wrestling during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and many blockbuster boxing matches.
But its owners said this week the venue increasingly struggles to compete for bookings with Margaret Court and Hisense arenas and is on course to become unprofitable.
Its website shows it has just 10 performances scheduled in the next four months.
Chris Wren, descendant of Melbourne identity John Wren and director of the company that owns the century-old venue, said it could not survive “facing up to a younger, bigger, stronger opponent”.
Festival Hall is culturally important to Melbourne. As is suggested in The Age article reprinted here, the real issue is to ensure the developers provide and create a realistic and significant window into the way the venue has shaped life in Melbourne over the last 100 years.
A living museum, perhaps an entertainment venue, but it needs to be considered and included in any new architectural plans for the site. And the push for this requirement needs to be backed up by the State Government, the Melbourne City Council and Heritage Victoria.
As the Beatles song all those years ago cried out – ‘HELP’ (or was it ‘When I’m 64’?)
Either way with inaction we again have much to lose.