The definition of heritage, and why it matters

By Tristan Davies - Melbourne Heritage Action

Discussions surrounding definitions of heritage have progressed massively in recent years, with social heritage, as opposed to purely architectural significance, brought to the forefront fantastically by the ongoing Hoddle Grid Heritage Review. 

But are we still missing the true value of “social” heritage when the debate remains simply about how much of a building’s structure is allowed to be demolished?

At the time of writing, the City of Melbourne had just given support for an office development above the old Kilkenny Inn pub on the corner of King and Lonsdale streets, ending the site’s use as a pub of various kinds since at least 1915. While the endorsed plans do retain more of the building fabric than developers had previously wanted, having originally made plans for facadism, the former pub will essentially operate as a shell for an office tower in the near future. This is instead of continuing with communal social heritage only made possible by a complete building with all the idiosyncratic interior features that entails.

This follows on from the recent closure of the nearby Metropolitan Hotel to again be “facaded” for offices, the Greater Western Hotel potentially soon also being “facaded”, the Elms Family Hotel and Palace Theatres both also lost besides facades, not to mention the total demolition of the Duke of Kent Hotel, Theosophical building and theatrette and other places full of social heritage in recent years.

The Elms Family Hotel in particular remains an empty shell that in a better outcome could have regained its interior charm and began operation again as an historic pub, creating an historic drinking precinct with the Little Lon distillery behind. But sadly, it still sits as a literal shell of its past.

Lost in the debate among planners, consultants and politicians over the fate of many of these places, even when social heritage was discussed and admitted, is the present and future social heritage of these places. Is a battle over an historic CBD pub really won if eight metres of depth of the structure is kept rather than two simple front walls, essentially creating a bigger window dressing for new developments? 

When we lose all future possibility of that pub having future social significance in the making, big or small, personal or society wide, what do a few metres of depth really mean?  •

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