The near destruction of a Dulwich Hill heritage home – which has been stripped to its original wooden bones and left exposed to the elements – has illustrated the need to better protect the suburb’s timber cottages.
The former home’s shell is sitting on a development site on the corner of Victoria St and Little St, where two new terrace-style dwellings are being constructed.
It is believed to be Dulwich Hill’s only fully timber heritage-listed home.
The official 2011 heritage listing for the home, on the NSW Government heritage register, describes it as “one of the best-preserved timber cottages in the municipality”.
“The timber detailing includes turned verandah posts, brackets, shallow frieze, awning and gable boarding,” the listing says.
“The original timber ventilation blind remains to the verandah”.
You wouldn’t know this by looking at the cottage today.
Most timber cladding, apart from an area around a front window, has been removed.
The building no longer has a front door. It also doesn’t have a roof, nor a floor. In fact, there is nothing much left, of the home, at all.
An approved development application for the site, dated 2016, said the home would be “repaired and restored”, as part of the construction of the two new dwellings on the same lot.
It is difficult to imagine that a restoration process is underway – and if anything the current scene leads to suspicions that the cottage is being deliberately vandalised and destroyed.
Inner West Council appears to have formed a similar view.
On 22 August, a council spokeswoman told UrbanDebate.com.au:
Council has investigated a report of unauthorised demolition works at the address (122 Victoria St) and subsequently briefed Council’s Heritage Advisors given the property’s significance.
Council has served statutory stop work orders which have been complied with.
The property owners have since submitted a development application (DA) to reconstruct the dwelling which is currently being assessed.
Council is working with the owner to ensure the heritage value of the property is reinstated if the DA is approved.
Last year, a resident commented on the Planning Alerts site that the property had in fact been allowed to become rundown by its current owner since 1992.
“The front timber verandah has rotted. There were original wooden venetian blinds removed from the front verandah. Gates and picket fences need replacing and windows repaired,” the resident said.
“The home has the potential to be a gem but will need to be overseen by council and strict heritage laws where it’s been neglected in the past.”
The cottage’s sad fate has exposed a range of issues in the way that heritage is preserved in Dulwich Hill, and indeed in the Inner West.
Firstly, while the council’s intervention is welcome, it would also seem appropriate to consider a fine against the builder – rather than simply allow the allegedly illegal works to be remedied through a development application.
It would be hard to imagine that a restoration of the cottage, from this point, will bring it back to life as an authentic heritage gem, given the need to install new building materials.
The council needs to send a message to developers that this behaviour is not acceptable and will be punished.
Secondly, if it is true that the property has been allowed to become rundown over the decades, it raises the question as to whether councils should have greater powers to ensure landowners cannot be allowed to allow local heritage items to deteriorate over time.
Currently, there are only minimum standards of repair in place for State items.
Thirdly, the incident exposes the fragility of our current framework to protect heritage timber houses in Dulwich Hill.
Although Dulwich Hill is best known for its brick Federation homes, it does also have a healthy smattering of timber homes. Largely, these homes are not protected and therefore remain at risk of being flattened at the stroke of a private certifier’s pen (and without community consultation).
These cottages add greatly to the character of the suburb, although at present there is little known about them.
Lastly, this is another example of a poor planning decision where a heritage home has been placed in a development zone, without site-specific provisions in place to protect the home.
This is not the first time this problem has happened – there was a recently similar near-death experience for a historic home in The Boulevarde.
This home was only saved after a last-ditch interim heritage order was placed on the property by the council and upheld by the Land and Environment Court.
When you put a heritage home in a development zone, you increase the chances that the owner will want to get rid of the home to maximise dwelling yield.
The council has the ability to better manage this issue in its upcoming revised local environmental plan.
Overall, as a community, we need to value and fight for our heritage – including these precious timber homes – which add so much to our local environment.