The Corkman Hotel and the Problem of Illegal Demolition of Historic Buildings

The pub as viewed from the diagonally opposite corner with blue sky in the background

The Corkman Irish Pub at 160 Leicester St, Carlton in Melbourne as it appears on the hotel’s website

Last week Melbourne residents were appalled at the news that an historic pub in inner-suburban Carlton had been illegally demolished. The Corkman Irish Pub was opened in 1857 as the Carlton Inn and was one of the few surviving buildings of that era. It was demolished a week after a fire damaged it. The Guardian reports that the developer claimed that damage from the fire made the building unsafe but a Melbourne Council building surveyor and other experts had inspected the building and found that the damage had not caused significant structural damage.

Sadly, this is not the first time that a historically valuable building has been illegally demolished in Melbourne. When I heard the news I was immediately reminded of the illegally demolished Toorak church that we passed by each day on the way home from work in the late 1980s. It stood half destroyed for years.

Toorak Wesleyan Church on the corner of Toorak and Williams roads, was illegally demolished in the 1980s.

Toorak Wesleyan Church on the corner of Toorak and Williams roads, was illegally demolished in the 1980s.

The problem is not confined to Victoria. Just this month in Brisbane two historically significant houses were demolished after a demolition application had been refused. Last year the New South Wales Land and Environment Court fined a developer for illegally destroying the facades of a row of shop fronts on Parramatta Road in Sydney. (You can read the full judgement from the New South Wales Land and Environment Court.) 

A small group gathered closely playing violins and one playing a mandolin

This photo from the Corkman Irish Pub website shows one of many groups who used the hotel.

This is not simply an issue about a collection of bricks and mortar. As the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) has observed, there is more to a building than its physical construction. The National Trust states that Illegal demolition of buildings is also an attack on a community. The interior and exterior of buildings form part of a community’s fabric. In the case of the Corkman Irish Pub, those groups such as the law students at Melbourne University, used it as a social space for many years. Communities are formed and thrive in places. The façade of a building can be an important spot in the visual landscape marking a meeting place, a form of reference to other places, a visual link between a community’s past, present and future. A building can be an important visual expression of culture.

A building is not the owner’s plaything. On those occasions I have owned a house I have known that my ownership of it is temporary. Even if I own it for the rest of my life, the house is quite likely to survive my death and become an important place in the lives of other people. I am fortunate to have possession of it, but that possession is temporary and while I enjoy the benefits of ownership, this necessarily comes with obligations. To my mind there is a lot of sense in the attitude of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples towards traditional ownership of land.

An owner of a building is a custodian of that building. The owner has temporary command of the structure and looks after it for themselves and the community, but the owner also has responsibility to future owners and communities. As recompense for taking on that responsibility building owners gain many benefits. Our society recognises the communal nature of buildings through the laws that govern the use and care of buildings.

Like the buildings they protect, these laws are also a link between past, present and future. The current state of our property laws reflect the decisions of past generations. Our living generation continues to work on these laws to reflect our current values, but given the fundamental place of precedent in our legal system, current laws are often a melding of past and present.

Illegal demolition of buildings is also an affront to a community because it shows contempt for the laws that community has developed. It shows that those transgressors only think of compliance to our society’s laws in terms of how these rules will affect their profits,. Fines are just a cost of doing business, but they are worth it because in our over-heated property market, transgressors have calculated that they can easily recoup that cost.

The illegal demolition of buildings is a clash of cultures between an individualistic mindset and a recognition that people wherever they live, are social beings who need to be considerate of each other in whatever action they do.

Where to from here? The Planing Minister for Victoria is considering new penalties for this kind of destruction and the CEO of the National Trust of Victoria has called for a discussion about  penalties for illegal demolition. Fines don’t bring back buildings, and it is doubtful whether they are a good deterrent for developers relentlessly pursuing profits. A change.org petition started by Melbourne University Law Students is calling for the rebuilding of the pub and a public inquiry into its demolition. The petition won’t bring back the original building as it was but it might be a sufficient deterrent.  If miscreants are forced to rebuild the buildings they illegally destroy and are denied permission to do any redevelopment on the site, then others may refrain from doing this because the potential penalties are too large a burden.

Another innovation which was used in the case of the buildings illegally demolished on Parramatta Road in Sydney was to prosecute the developer personally instead of merely prosecuting his company. A fine hurts more if you cannot rely on the limited liability of your company. The local council also withdrew permission for the developer to build on the site. If they have not already done so, councils could explicitly state that developers will have development applications refused if they have illegally demolished a building.

The communal outcry at the destruction of the Corkman Irish Pub demonstrates that Melbourne residents value their history and cultural heritage. Last week was History Week in Victoria with a wealth of great events. It is sad that in Melbourne last week it was this illegal destruction of an old building which gained the most news coverage about history.

Adendum

The illegal demolition of the Corkman Irish Hotel continues to unfold:

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15 thoughts on “The Corkman Hotel and the Problem of Illegal Demolition of Historic Buildings

  1. Well said, Yvonne. Given the deep pockets of developers and the companies they can hide behind, I think that legislation should make provision for a significant percentage of any profit ever achieved after a demolition be returned to the community for public housing. If developers knew that whatever price they could get for a redeveloped site would be mostly lost in an ongoing fine, transferrable to the next owner/s in perpetuityas well, it would be a powerful disincentive to destroy our heritage.

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    • wadholloway

      talking of inequitable, did you see the new Essential poll published in Australia on Tuesday 24th Oct 2016? Re the number one threat to international peace and stability:
      42% of us nominated Islamic radicals as the greatest threat
      21% nominated a Trump presidency as the greatest threat
      11% nominated growing inequality between people and
      6% nominated global warming etc

      I am a socialist but I would never have thought of saying “growing inequality between people” was a major threat. Good on those Australians!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You got it exactly correct – the Corkman Irish Pub was opened in 1857 as the Carlton Inn and was one of the few surviving buildings of that era. HOW DARE some owner or developer tear down a heritage protected building, just because he doesn’t like it any more. Or because he wanted to build a giant car park on the site. I am beyond angry :(((

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    • The strange thing about it is that is was not a heritage listed property but was part of a heritage overlay which gives some protection, but less. When researching this post I was quite upset to see that the Palace Theatre in Bourke Street is to be legally demolished. Then there is the problem of ‘demolition by neglect’ which was raised at the recent Professional Historians’ Association and the problems Aboriginal peoples in NW Australia are having protecting ancient rock art from miners.

      I get that we need to compromise between the needs of people today and preserving everything, but I think the balance has been tipped too far in favour of demolishing anything old.

      You feel angry. I feel really sad about this. I just hope the anger, outrage and sadness can be channeled into productive steps to addressing this carnage.

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  3. Over and over ‘companies’ are found to have breached environmental laws and yet no (real) person is found to be at fault. Politicians protect their fellows (and donors!) in business and criminalize industrial action and protest. Weren’t we naive in the 60s and 70s to think the C19th was behind us.

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    • I have been thinking that there are a lot of archaic ‘industrial revolution’ practices still going on and agree that people need to be properly prosecuted for these actions. The big problem is the belief that life is about accumulation of money and that nothing should prevent financial gain. This is something that is deeply embedded in our culture, that we all harbour to some degree or other. The illegal demolition of the Corkman Hotel is an extreme example of it. Our society raises too many people like this. What can we do to change these attitudes in society?

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      • I think the current & past combative political binary is part of the problem, not the solution. Yes, we have to work with what we have and institute meaningful penalties, but I am thinking that there is a deeper malaise. We have got the politics we deserve. After working in tax accounting many years ago, it became apparent to me that passing more laws to deal with people cheating the system was just adding huge costs to everyone and creating more intricate ways to get around things.

        The problem is that if people want to cheat and to break laws they will continue to do so. This never-ending quest to make harsher penalties and put more people in jail is not working. There are no quick fixes. We need to deal with how we view the world, how we raise our children and how we affect everyone around us. We admire people with lovely houses, expensive cars and those with power. I have lived in very wealthy suburbs but became sick of people expressing surprise that rich people did bad things. As if having wealth makes you a better person. Likewise, do we wish that we were the poor person, who lives simply and enriches the lives of people around them through the friendship and support they give to others? The Corkman Irish Hotel problem is about an extreme individualistic and materialist mindset, but clearly that culture is destructive in our society.

        We can make a short-term fix to the Corkman Hotel problem. Each one of us needs to dig deep to change the way we think and act if there is to be a long-term change. It is not simply up to someone else to do something.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with you, and I (or more likely their mother) must have done something right because I’m pretty sure my children agree with you. Personally I think things are getting so obviously inequitable that we are approaching a breaking point.

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      • I agree. Inequality is a massive problem and increasing. ‘A fair go’ and all that stuff has gone out the door. It is now everyone to themselves. You are right, there are people who think beyond materialism. What we need to do is to find ways to make a difference. I have been thinking about this a lot in the last year or so. But I have to move beyond just thinking.

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  4. Dear Yvonne,
    A good argument about consideration of the historical versus developmental perspectives. There needs to be a balance and they need to be negotiated.

    When illegal actions occur there can be 2 parties involved, although often they are combined. The first is the owner of the property and the second is the developer. If the owner permits illegal activities to occur then there should be forfeiture of their ownership rights. For the developer there should be a fine equivalent to an agreed percentage of either the goal profit or the value of the property, whichever is greater.
    The penalty should be sufficient to dissuade the possibility of illegal activity.

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    • Thanks for dropping by Kevin. Your suggestion sounds reasonable. As you point out the purpose of penalties should be to prevent this from occurring again. It will be interesting to see how the Victorian government and Melbourne City Council respond to this.

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