Last drinks called at goldrush era pub as fight continues to keep Melbourne’s slice of history

Brendan Rees

Calls are mounting for the few remaining historic pubs in the CBD to be saved after regulars of the 158-year-old Great Western Hotel gathered for one last drink. 

The beloved watering hole in King St officially closed its doors on May 29 as the current owners, the Argo Group, plan to build a 23-storey office tower as part of a $95 million redevelopment.

After initially securing approval in 2020, Argo bought the adjacent property to enlarge its mixed-use development, which was endorsed by the City of Melbourne this February.

However, the plans include the retention of the pub’s façade with a three-level hotel to be built in its place.

The proposed redevelopment of the 1864-built pub, which was rebranded as Hotel Animal two years ago, is currently before the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne for final approval as the plan exceeded 25,000 square metres of floor space, the cut-off of whether developments are decided by the council.

If given the green-light, construction is expected to begin this year with its completion due by 2024.

But heritage groups have vowed to fight the plans as they voice alarm that too many of Melbourne’s iconic pubs were being knocked down for apartment towers.

The National Trust of Australia’s CEO Simon Ambrose opposed the plans, saying “historic pubs need to be protected.”

“The response to the demolition of the Carlton Inn and the current threat to the Curtin Hotel have shown how important these meeting places are to local communities. The Great Western Hotel has been operating since the gold rush,” he said.

“The proposal to only retain the façade of the building in the redevelopment, known as ‘facadism’, is unacceptable.”

“The National Trust has supported new policies introduced by the City of Melbourne in recent years to discourage the practice of facadism, which have sadly come too late to save this building.”

Mr Ambrose added the National Trust “strongly supports” the council’s ongoing work to review heritage protections across the city to “ensure that other important heritage places like the Great Western Hotel don’t fall through the cracks.”

President of Melbourne Heritage Action Tristan Davies said the council and state government should develop a social heritage listing for places like the Great Western.

“The Great Western is interesting because it will again have its social use as a pub behind the facade as part of the plans, in that sense it’s better than many developments involving historic pubs and venues in recent years,” he said.

“Though we do believe the City of Melbourne or state government should develop a social heritage listing for places like this that have a longstanding social heritage use to ensure they we don’t lose these important places to facadism like the infamous Palace Theatre, where technically heritage has been saved at the expense of what actually made the building worth protecting.”

Dr Charles Sowerwine, chair of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’s (RHSV) heritage committee, which has been campaigning to save the building for five years, said if demolition was approved it would be a “tragic loss.”

“Hotels were a major part of the fabric of urban life in the 19th century. The small hotels of that era continue to play a major role in neighbourhood social life. Yet we have lost so many that any further loss is a great tragedy,” he said.

Dr Sowerwine said the pub had witnessed the impact of the gold rush on Melbourne life and sociability and in “architectural terms, it is a witness to Melbourne’s character before the high Victorian boom.”

To celebrate its final days of operation, Hotel Animal threw a party to mark an end of era “on the highest of notes”.

If the redevelopment is approved, the developer would upgrade a “pocket park” on Brown Alley, with design changes to ensure the character of the laneway (including the use of recycled brick) is retained. •

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