I’m Going to Tell You a (Scary) Story

I am not good at horror. In any form. I am not good at watching horror movies, listening to spooky stories, scary images are a definite no, and even the mention of something supernatural related just sends my imagination into overload.

One warm summers night I find myself at the Fremantle Arts Centre grounds, sitting on a picnic blanket watching one of my favourite bands perform outside. Perfect setting, right? Me innocently unaware of where I am. A friend starts telling me about the history behind this gothic looking building next to us and immediately my imagination gets the best of me and I keep thinking I see a ghost in the windows staring at us.


The Fremantle Arts Centre was constructed using convict labour which started in 1861 and was finally completed in 1868. I was honestly surprised to learn that its original purpose was a psychiatric hospital, and was primarily called the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, and then (as a half attempt to downplay the name) was later known as the ‘Asylum for the Criminally Insane.’ (Getting a little bit scared writing this.)


Fremantle Lunatic Asylum in the 1870s. Photo from the State Library of Western Australia.


Seriously look at it.

I was equally as surprised when I learnt that ‘In 1957, the building was threatened with demolition… It was of the opinion that “…the outside of the building has an unprepossessing appearance…”and that it was “…beyond economical repair…”’[1] I think my surprise was based on the fact that it was such a historic building, much like the famous prison nearby, with an abundance of stories behind it.

When threatened with demolition ‘the Mayor of Fremantle, Sir Frederick Samson, called a meeting of interested people to discuss the idea of restoring the building… finally in 1965 after much lobbying funding was promised from the State Government and the Fremantle city Council.’[2]

The mayor at the time recognised the vital role this building played in the character of Fremantle and not only saved it from demolition but insured that the buildings character was kept intact. “The project architect was Mr R McK Campbell who faithfully restored the buildings to their former glory.”[3]

Discussing the building with a staff member at the Arts Centre revealed the obvious issues to an old building, “…leak here, mold there, but that’s what you get. We are always discovering new things. There’s layers and layers to the building.”[4]


She was kind enough to give me some documents and research assembled by a past staff member in 1984. I pleasantly found that “The cultural significance of the building was well understood, and the retention of that significance was central to the adaptation to its new use… Another principle usually found in conservation plans is that no work should be undertaken without appropriate qualified professional direction.”[5] Which she then explained “There’s lots of maintenance to up keep the place. We try and keep the building as historically accurate as possible.”[6]

The impressive factor behind this repurposing of the building is that it’s historically intact and physically kept much the same. However, the buildings use has done a complete 360. I think the building is a prime example of how persistence and faith can turn anything (a psychiatric hospital for example) into something the whole community can enjoy and relish as history.

“The building tells a story, there’s history.”[7]



[1] “The Making of the Fremantle Museum and Arts Centre,” The Architect Magazine, 1975.
[2] Research by Beryl Porter – June 1984
[3] Ibid.
[4] (Fremantle Arts Centre Staff), in discussion with the author, March 2018.
[5] “The Making of the Fremantle Museum and Arts Centre,” The Architect Magazine, 1975.
[6] Ibid.
[7] (Fremantle Arts Centre Staff), in discussion with the author, March 2018.