Saturday, 22 October 2011

Cairns' historical buildings disappearing

Andrée Stephens
Saturday, October 22, 2011
© The Cairns Post

Colourful past: The Rex Theatre has been used as a cinema, then by a church and a motor bike club. Picture: ANNA ROGERS

We are without a dedicated heritage officer, we have rules which recommend a building be preserved, but with no financial or legal back-up for doing so. What can be done to save our historical buildings?

Much of our remarkable, historic and tropical architecture has disappeared from the landscape, and other classics have been left to rot until there is little to be done but bring in the wrecking ball. But the fate of the Rex Theatre on Sheridan St, which some may label an eyesore, is galvanising the community. The call is out for more, much more, to be done to preserve "old Cairns".

This week we learned the Rex developers may avoid a fine for stripping the old theatre because a demolition application has now been lodged with the council. Two weeks ago we saw the sad images of the glorious Mossman Royal Hotel being burned to the ground.The Herries Hospital on McLeod St, wrapped in plastic, is a modern shroud, its fate almost sealed. And the signs warning us all to get used to not seeing Frangipani House on the Esplanade in the near future will make the hearts of lovers of old Queenslanders creak.

Progress and growth are necessary for any city. The Cairns Regional Council’s 20-year community plan, released this week, makes that clear. But it also reveals "protecting our heritage" and "protecting our green environment" are the other top two major concerns drawn from the community consultations. In the list of iconic characteristics, the community said "heritage" was in the top eight as key attributes to living in the Far North.

"People really value heritage and the environment, it’s among the most important features of Cairns," Suzanne Gibson of the Cairns Historical Society said yesterday. "They are saying it matters, it’s who we are."One of the key issues for the council is having a dedicated officer, Ms Gibson said. She compared us to Townsville, where this role has been established for some time. Townsville also dedicates funds to its historical society. The Cairns society relies on donations.

"I think council is interested in trying to find the right mechanism for preserving heritage, but they haven’t arrived there yet." Working in the History Museum, Ms Gibson said the feedback was clear – a great deal of the community really value our tropical and heritage architecture, and resent and lament the disappearance of some parts of the old town. "I mean, imagine what could have been done with the Barbary Coast stretch now that the cultural precinct is happening and the cruise liner terminal was remodelled."But it’s all gone."

Ms Gibson believes that stretch of old pubs, depicting our rakish past, along with the demolition of the Cairns Yacht Club and the disappearance of the Burns Philp building, are among some of our greatest losses.  The latter was effectively a "glorified shed" for one of the biggest international marine traders in the pacific. "But the front was so grand. It was a beautiful neo-colonial facade."

For Dawn May, Secretary of the Cairns Historical Society and of the Far Northern branch of the National Trust, there have been many great tragedies over the years. She can reel them off in an instant. The loss of the Cairns Yacht Club from the Cairns waterfront (it was relocated to JCU) was a social tragedy more than anything.

"The Cairns Yacht Club operated out of an old rice mill on the waterfront from 1917. However, the building was washed out to sea in the 1920 cyclone. It was quickly rebuilt using mostly volunteer labour," she said.  "It was the major social hub. Dances, balls, weddings, etc, were all held there. It was renowned for its wonderful sprung dance floor." One of the most important buildings in Mossman, the hotel of the same name, was also iconic.

"It was largely unchanged from when it was built. There are not many wooden 1930s hotels left. It was the most important building in the streetscape." The Samuel Allen Warehouse on the corner of Lake and Hartley streets was a wonderful reinforced concrete building from the 1920s built near the wharves. It was demolished in 2001. "It’s significance was as one of the buildings that contributed to Cairns’ history as a port city," she said.

The 1907 timber building of the original ambulance station on the corner of Spence and Sheridan streets is another blow to history. Demolished, again in about 2001, it was one of the oldest buildings in the city and marked the development of transport from hand-drawn, to horse drawn to motorised vehicles during it uses as an ambulance depot. Now Ms May is watching the state of play with the Rex Theatre.

Built about the 1930s as a cinema, then used by a church, then a motor bike club, it has held within its walls a colourful past. The building was on the CRC heritage list but not on the Queensland Heritage Register – an issue that Ms May said can often water down any real protection of the site. "It was the most intact theatre of many that were in Cairns," she said. "Others included the Palace, Lyric, The Tropical, Gaiety and the Plaza – all now demolished or substantially altered."

She wonders what fate awaits the water-logged shell facing the road with its graceful, shabby facade. She also believes the whole precinct of Shields St should be safeguarded, particularly between McLeod and Grafton streets. "Most of the buildings in this section are individually not highly significant. However, as a precinct, with its wide street and verandahed buildings, it is a wonderful example of a tropical city of the 1920s and 30s,’’ she said.

"It is really important to retain this character given the destruction of so many other buildings that contributed to the city’s tropical ambience." Another one to watch is the Herries Hospital on McLeod St. "Matron Herries operated a private hospital in this building from 1921 to 1938. It was the only remaining hospital of its type in Cairns … Prior to WWII it was common for nurses to run hospitals of this type. Indeed, many older residents were born in this hospital."

The building has been vacant since 1996, sold in 2005 and the owner was given permission to remove some of the cladding to check for termites.  "In fact, almost all the external cladding was removed before a stop work order was issued," she said. The building has subsequently been sold again.

The Rex was stripped for "asbestos removal", was stopped by council, is now on the market and awaiting demolition approval by the CRC. So what can be done to sharpen our heritage protection skills? Ms May said the history of heritage protection in Queensland has come about slowly, in starts. While the National Trust was set up in the 1970s it "has no teeth". "It can’t stop a building being destroyed, it can simply say it is a valuable or important building."

Similarly, although the State Heritage Register was developed in the 1990s and does have a bit more bite, it doesn’t stop developers from bringing the buildings down.  "The key is to find uses for these old buildings, we can use them, preserve them and conserve them."

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