Handling Heritage: Perth’s Past

Much like the building of a city, there is no single formula for handling heritage that can be applied to all places. It may seem like common sense but a number of factors influence the success of particular conservation methods.

These factors can be used to determine how the heritage is handled, whether that is through a maintenance program alone, adaptive reuse scheme or a design intervention. Funding, location and building typology are perhaps the main key influencers which determine whether a type of conservation program will be effective and appropriate. Social and cultural values too play a role in building heritage conservation – or should, these are essential to consider when creating a conservation plan for a place.

How do we handle heritage?

In Perth today, the regulators and custodians of our heritage are the Heritage Council of Western Australia, The State Heritage Office, The Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (now the department of communities) and the National Trust of Western Australia, along with conservation architects and advisors. Local council and planning authorities too pay a role in the management of heritage places.

The Heritage Council of Western Australia is a body of nine individuals appointed by the Minister for heritage, and with the Minister for heritage, are responsible for maintaining heritage policies and for placing properties onto the state heritage register.

The State Heritage Office supports the heritage council and provides information to the public and property owners regarding their heritage place. The State heritage office provides advice and recommendations on place management. Heritage Perth, closely partnered with The City of Perth, promotes heritage to the public and is responsible in a way for the marketing of significant places and their conservation to the public.

These agencies together form the management body of Western Australia’s significant places, collecting and curating pieces of our culture along with land owners and the public – we all handle heritage. The land owner’s role in heritage management involves engaging with our heritage agencies to form an appropriate plan for the place. Without public input or land owners on board, retaining a places significance or ensuring a compatible use can become problematic.

Why is heritage important?

It contributes to cultural identity which in turn develops a sense of place and community. In this way, our social values and historic past can be reflected in our preserved places. Heritage can tell us stories about our past and give voice to technologically, socially and culturally significant events. The way in which we have treated and managed significant places too reflects social and cultural values – what is conserved and how its conserved can be read as a reflection of what is deemed of importance at the time it was listed, re-purposed or demolished.

The cultural importance of The Quod on Rottnest Island was not acknowledged in the adaptive reuse of the prison as tourist accommodation in 1911, contributing to social division and an elongated neglect to recognise the horrors and mistreatment prisoners suffered. In this case, economic factors and the overall masterplan for Rottnest Island at the time took president. The location of The Quod today, the change in social attitudes, heightened public awareness of the place and its typology lends itself to be adaptively reused as a cultural centre and historic memorial museum. Talk of the change is currently underway.

Demolished Empire building. Source: Museum of Perth

Retrospect also casts light onto the perhaps hasty demolition of a number of CBD buildings around the 70s. The Museum of Perth, with the state library of WA has recently developed a project which aims to illustrate visually what our CBD could have looked like if the series of demolitions never took place. Mr Harley, the Museum of Perth’s executive director stated that: “from the 1960s to the 90s, and even as recently as 2014, many of Perth’s historic and architecturally important buildings have been demolished with little concern for the past.” [1]Located on the corner of Murray Street and Barrack street, the Empire Building stood in the city centre from 1902 until 1981. Designed by renown Perth architect Sir John Joseph Talbot Hobbs, Empire building was owned by mining speculator Alfred Edward Morgans, who was Western Australia’s fourth premier. The same year of the demolition, a two-storey steel and glass building was constructed, which has recently become a 24 hour gym. The aesthetic quality of the former is undeniably more dominant and successful than the latter and offers more to the CBD streetscape. It’s also interesting to note the capacity of the building did not increase with the new structure as is often the incentive of many demolitions. The period of demolition was catalysed by the mining and consequential boom in the cities expansion, and allowed due to an absence in legislative protection – the State Heritage Act wasn’t made law until 1999.

During an interview with the West Australian, Mr Harley suggests that if the Empire building, along with other demolished treasures such as AMP chambers, Viking House, the Colonial Mutual Life building and the Adelphi hotel, were protected, they could have been managed and had similar success to the Treasury Buildings, Brookfield place and Perth Technical College. The value of the demolished CBD buildings was not acknowledged by those it needed to be at the time and thus the heritage was lost. The Museum of Perth’s project has been undertaken to share the stories of buildings like the Empire building and to reiterate the idea that we need to “remain vigilant”[2] and to collectively work at both preserving our heritage and retaining its relevance.

AMP Chambers. Source: Museum of Perth

AMP Chambers, located at 140 William Street, was opened in 1975 and stands 131m high. The site was bought by AMP in 1910 and the original AMP Chambers was designed by Oldham and Cox in 1915. The original design was a limestone clad six storey building with jarrah interiors, topped with a 910kg bronze statue. When AMP announced the original building was to be demolished and a new tower to be built in its place, The National Trust Administrator at the time, N.J. Armitage, refused to classify the building and was vocal in commending the new design. The Forbes and Fitzhardinge 1975 Chambers, which currently stands at the site, is a 30 floor high, concrete, steel and glass office tower. The design initially incorporated an observation level which was forced to close after the surrounding Bankwest and Central park towers were erected in its view. The bronze statue, bought by millionaire Lew Whiteman for $1000 when the building was demolished was however saved. AMP later tried to buy the statue back from Whiteman, he refused stating they did not deserve it. The statue was bought at auction after the death of Whiteman for $60,800 by land developers Sherwood Overseas and is currently standing as public art in Herdsman Lake.

AMP Chambers statue in its new location at Herdsman Lake. Source: http://myperthapp.com.au

The aesthetic impact of the building change alone is significant when looking at the two AMP Chambers. The original design cornered St Georges Terrace and William Street, creating a continued streetscape in the CBD. The new design is set back from the corner, and doesn’t run along St Georges Terrace at all, creating an open space at the buildings entrance. The open space is beneficial however the grandeur and monumentality has been lost, despite the additional 24 storeys. This is a common problem with removing buildings from the CBD – a loss of sense of place and hierarchy.

Through acknowledging conservation misconduct and looking at successful heritage programs, we can and have improved conservation polices and practice in Perth. Sites such as Inherit, run by the state heritage office has given the public access to building information and history. Perth Heritage Days, a program run by Heritage Perth on October 14 and 15, opens heritage places to the public to view and connect with. Transparency of records and opens days help to establish our heritage as an important aspect of the community and promote it as rich historical and cultural resource that we are all responsible for looking after.



[1] The West Australian. “New photos show the beautiful buildings Perth lost as the city grew to its modern shape.” Accessed 11/10/2017. https://thewest.com.au/news/perth/new-photos-show-the-beautiful-buildings-perth-lost-as-the-city-grew-to-its-modern-shape-ng-b88476522z


[2] The West Australian. “New photos show the beautiful buildings Perth lost as the city grew to its modern shape.” Accessed 11/10/2017




Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy. “Adaptive Reuse: preserving our past and building our future.” Accessed 13/09/2017. http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/publications/adaptive-reuse

The Stringer: Independent News. “Wadjemup – Sleeping among the dead – They will not be forgotten.” Accessed 13/09/2017. http://thestringer.com.au/wadjemup-sleeping-among-the-dead-they-will-not-be-forgotten-8841#.WbihusgjHIU

“Rottnest Transformed” Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931) 2 September 1911: 8 (CITY EDITION). Accessed 13/09/2017 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article208697763.

“ROTTNEST ISLAND.” Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954) 25 October 1902: 17. Accessed 13/09/2017. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37541601.

Creative Spirits. “Wajemup (Rottnest Island).” Accessed 13/09/2017. https://www.creativespirits.info/australia/western-australia/fremantle/wajemup-rottnest-island

The National Trust of Western Australia. “Demolition by Neglect.” https://www.nationaltrust.org.au. 9/08/2017

The National Trust. “What We Do.” Accessed 25/10/2017. https://www.nationaltrust.org.au/wa/

The West Australian. “New photos show the beautiful buildings Perth lost as the city grew to its modern shape.” Accessed 11/10/2017. https://thewest.com.au/news/perth/new-photos-show-the-beautiful-buildings-perth-lost-as-the-city-grew-to-its-modern-shape-ng-b88476522z

Leave a Reply