Festival Hall in West Melbourne is a venue familiar to many readers. Music performers from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Eagles, Doobie Bros and many more such acts have performed there over the last 70 years. World Champion Boxer Lionel Rose fought there and had a funeral there in his honour. But – the building is unsightly externally. The owners wish to demolish it and develop the site. What is the real solution?
Heritage Victoria has announced the building’s inclusion on the Victorian Heritage Register. Based on this the current owners plans are unlikely to proceed.
It’s an interesting conundrum, one that architecturally may require some lateral thinking. The ‘House of Stoush’ was designed to stage Boxing and Wrestling matches. Without massive volume, the hall is acoustically a nightmare. Perhaps the old auditorium can be improved internally with better soundproofing and modern equipment and just perhaps it can become part of a bigger complex, dedicated to Melbourne’s popular music history and performing arts.
The other main objection is that another series of soulless apartment towers will be built, adding nothing to the city or its activities and likely to be something less than desirable in ten years time when what is now modern becomes passé.
If ever there was an opportunity for the State Government and City of Melbourne to create a unique precinct, then this may be it. West Melbourne has always been the rump of industrial Melbourne until now. Extractive industries, rail yards and the edge of Yarra Ports have meant that this side of Melbourne (originally an extensive saltwater swamp fed by the Moonee ponds Creek and the Yarra) has remained dreary and industrial.
This is no longer the case. The rail yards are gone, the extractive industries have moved way out west, and the city hub has moved closer.
With some imagination and foresight (not to mention a realistic budget) this iconic location could house a concert hall, recording studios, art gallery and much more. It could become a performance venue on many different levels, with outdoor plazas, clever bars dedicated to Melbourne’s famous Pub music scene of the 70s, 80s and 90s.
A competitive tender situation as was evolved with Federation Square could ensure a truly magnificent result.
For now here are the latest reports from the Age Newspaper. The first confirms the Heritage Victoria listing, the second presents the rather intransigent response from the Wren family (yes, that Wren family – John Wren – Power without Glory), the current owners.
Festival Hall gets heritage listing, could be spared wrecking ball
The springy timber floor at its centre; the old, tiered wooden bleachers to the east and west; the theatre-like balcony to the south; the low stage to the north.
Like points on a compass, many of us can pinpoint moments in our lives, and the music that accompanied them, by these various parts within the brutalist brick structure that is West Melbourne’s Festival Hall.
And, thanks to a decision by Heritage Victoria, we may be able to do so for many decades more.
The state government body will on Friday announce it has recommended Festival Hall be included on the Victorian Heritage Register, meaning its owners’ plan to demolish the much-loved music venue are unlikely to be approved.
Festival Hall’s significance is more cultural than architectural, as the statement attached to Heritage Victoria executive director Steven Avery’s recommendation attests.
Mr Avery determined that Festival Hall should be included on the heritage register for its historical and social significance as Victoria’s principal purpose-built boxing and wrestling venue and as one of Victoria’s primary live music venues.
The statement of significance cites the hall’s “importance to the course, or pattern, of Victoria’s cultural history” and “strong or special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons”.
And it lists the specific features – the floor, bleachers, stage and balcony – among its charms worth preserving. Even the “volume of the internal space” – it can hold up to 4500 people – was a factor in the decision.
The venue hosted boxing and gymnastics at the 1956 Olympic Games as well as bouts featuring revered Australian boxers including Johnny Famechon and Lionel Rose, whose funeral was held there in 2011.
For many years Melbourne’s only large concert hall, it bore witness to Judy Garland and the Beatles in the 1960s, Frank Sinatra and Joe Cocker in the 1970s, and Radiohead, Kanye West and Patti Smith more recently, the latter performing with hometown hero Courtney Barnett last year.
Music identity Molly Meldrum said Festival Hall held a unique place in Victoria’s live music history.
“There’s been so much of Melbourne’s music history in there, back to the days of Johnny O’Keeffe and then Skyhooks, Sherbet, Daddy Cool and of course the Beatles,” he said.
Meldrum – who said he was thrown out of the Beatles concert by bouncers who couldn’t handle the sight of a bloke screaming his love for John and Paul – called on the venue’s owners to turn its interior into a museum and live music venue.
“Let the people enjoy it,” he said.
Planning Minister Richard Wynne said he welcomed Heritage Victoria’s decision to accept a nomination to heritage-list Festival Hall.
“Inclusion on the Victorian Heritage Register will mean that any development of the site will have to protect and preserve [it’s] character and the history,” Mr Wynne said.
An anonymous application to heritage-list the venue was made in January, days after The Age revealed the owners had applied to knock down all but its facade.
The Heritage Council of Victoria will make the final decision.
The venue’s owner, Stadiums Limited, has indicated it plans to sell the site, and has lodged a planning application to demolish most of the hall and build two 16-storey buildings on the site.
Chris Wren, a director of the business, could not be contacted for comment before deadline.
Festival Hall has risen like a phoenix before. The original structure, built in 1912, was known as the West Melbourne Stadium. It was taken over by John Wren, a well-known bookmaker, in 1915.
The building burnt down in 1955 but by 1956 Wren had built a new Festival Hall on the site in time for the Olympics.
Courtney Barnett’s September 1 gig is the latest listed on the Festival Hall website.
Good thing her show – perhaps capped off with Depreston, her ode to Melbourne’s overheated property market – is unlikely to be its last.
Festival Hall owners not done with demolition despite heritage listing
The owners of Melbourne’s Festival Hall are pushing ahead with their plan to demolish the historic music venue and build apartment towers on the site, despite it being recommended for heritage protection.
Melbourne QC Chris Wren, representing venue owners Stadiums Limited, said the heritage referral came as no surprise, and the planning approvals process had a long way to go.
“We expected that this might happen and we will now follow due process while the matter is being considered by the Heritage Council,” Mr Wren said on Friday.
Stadiums Limited plans to sell the site and has lodged an application with the City of Melbourne to demolish all but the facade of the hall and build two 16-storey apartment towers.
The hall was built in 1955 by Mr Wren’s grandfather, well-known bookmaker John Wren, after a 1912-era stadium that he had owned since 1915 burnt down. It has hosted musical acts including the Beatles, Olympic boxing and gymnastics, televised wrestling bouts, trade union rallies and even a state funeral for world boxing champion Lionel Rose.
Heritage Victoria executive director Steven Avery has recommended Festival Hall be included on the Victorian Heritage Register, meaning that any development would need approval from the Heritage Council before it could be considered by the City of Melbourne.
Mr Avery noted the building’s significance was more cultural than architectural and highlighted interior features including its timber floor and tiered wooden bleachers among elements that warrant protection.
The application will be open for public consultation for 60 days before the Heritage Council makes its decision. The Heritage Council is independent of government. Heritage Victoria is a state government body that advises the Heritage Council.
Listing of the building on the heritage register would not necessarily stop the development from going ahead, Mr Wren told ABC Radio.
He said the development proposal already incorporated elements of the building’s heritage and the original plans would be revised on the advice of Victoria’s government architect.
“They’ve had a look at it and have made some suggestions, and we’re about to incorporate those suggestions into a revised plan. They otherwise thought it wasn’t such a bad proposal, subject to some things that needed to be touched up.
“We’ve gone and spoken to people we regard as having expertise in this area and got their recommendations and sought to incorporate that because we recognise that the building for some people has great memories.
“We can make submissions about whether it’s got heritage significance – the extent of [it], what should or shouldn’t be retained, and what may be capable of being removed – but still maintaining some of the significance so that people’s memories … can be retained, at the same time recognising that you’ve got to move on.”
Planning Minister Richard Wynne could intervene on any development.
But Mr Wren said he thought Mr Wynne’s comments in support of Festival Hall’s heritage listing could disqualify him on the grounds of bias.
Mr Wynne has acknowledged the proposal could still go ahead regardless of heritage protection.
“Heritage Victoria will advertise the application for 60 days and ultimately the Heritage Council which is independent of government will make a final decision,” Mr Wynne told 3AW.
“Clearly I would have the capacity to intervene as Minister for Planning but I think (heritage protection) would be widely supported … it doesn’t mean that all of Festival Hall would be retained, but any application has to respect the cultural and social significance of the site.”
From the outside this looks to be likely to be an interesting battle. Let’s hope the current State Government steps up to the plate and develops a realistic program to ensure the retention of this most iconic Melbourne location. Without Festival Hall through the mid twentieth century to the early twenty-first century Melbourne would be a very different place. As Bon Scott and AC/DC once belted out from its low level stage ‘Let there be rock, Sound Light and Music’ – and this our very own Festival Hall will always be the place.
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