Fears for future of historic church building
Heritage Victoria questions owners about lack of maintenance of 151-year-old building
REPAIRS are finally set to begin on an historic Sydney Road church building after months of delays caused by a dispute about who is responsible for its maintenance.
The site of the former Wesleyan Church has been empty for a year since the Sydney Road Community School moved out prompting fears about its rapid deterioration while its owners and the Department of Education argued over who should pay for restoration works.
In the meantime, squatters moved in and Heritage Victoria issued the owners – who include prominent Brunswick real estate agent Duncan McPherson – with two “show cause” notices for failing to maintain the property.
The Education Department – which ran the community school on the site for half a century – has now accepted responsibility for “non-structural repairs” of the Wesleyan Church building and in a sign that work is set to begin, a squatter’s belongings were removed and temporary fencing was erected on its Sydney Road frontage shortly before Christmas.
Peter Tregear, who lives opposite the site in the Cumberland Apartments, said it was distressing to watch it deteriorate day by day but he felt his complaints to Heritage Victoria were being mostly ignored.
“It’s really quite disturbing, the building is just rotting away,” he said.
The president of the Brunswick Community History Group, Elisabeth Jackson, said the church and the associated former Sunday School on the same site were two of the most significant buildings in Brunswick both architecturally and historically.
“We have been horrified to see the deterioration of this building in recent years,” she said.
“It is disturbing that the buildings fell into private ownership and that the owner seems to be adopting a policy of demolition by neglect.”
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The church was built in 1872 on land donated by one of Brunswick’s earliest property owners, Thomas Wilkinson. It is distinguished by its polychromatic brickwork, arched windows and elaborate bell tower.
Current owners Tempbak Pty Ltd and Bunjil Pty Ltd bought the property from the Uniting Church for $1.5 million in 2008 and continued to lease it to the Education Department for the Sydney Road Community School for 50 years until the school moved into new premises in Glenlyon Road at the start of 2023.
But what should have been a simple handover back to the owners in May became complicated due to a disagreement over who was responsible for repairs.
Heritage Victoria was first alerted to deterioration of the building, which is considered to be of state level significance, at the start of 2022.
At that time, it approved the temporary removal of two lead light windows facing Sydney Road for their repair and reinstatement, but the December 2022 deadline was not met.
Separate to the lead light windows, in August 2022 Heritage Victoria also wrote to the owner requesting prompt action to address the condition of the property and to provide a schedule of works and timeline by November 2022. This timeframe was not met by the owner, prompting the show cause notice in April.
“Owners of state listed heritage places that are in disrepair are legally required to carry out works to prevent further deterioration – including any repairs to the former Wesleyan Church and Sunday School,” a Heritage Victoria spokesperson said.
A building inspection report obtained through Freedom of Information and seen by Brunswick Voice highlights well over a dozen repairs that are needed to the church and Sunday School buildings.
These include replacing up to 30% of the slate roofing and associated guttering on both buildings; repairs and replacement of cracked windows and window frames, some of which have been temporarily boarded up; stabilisation of some walls because of cracked bricks and internal plaster; and underpinning of the southeast corner of the church.
Duncan McPherson, chairman of the Nelson Alexander real estate group, insists it is not the owners’ responsibility to carry out the repairs but that instead the Education Department must “make good” the building before handing it over to him.
“The Victorian Education Department has responsibility to make good the repairs and maintenance of the property and they are fulfilling their obligations,” he said.
“It will be wonderful for the building and the streetscape when it’s completed. I have been told the works have gone out to tender and it comes back to us when the tender has been completed. It’s in process and it’s been fairly complicated because of heritage requirements and dealing with government agencies.”
But Tregear said he was very concerned about the future of the building as it continued to decay at a rapid pace.
He said the building should be restored and made available for community use, such as performing arts.
“It could be a community space, a place for lectures and concerts, afternoon post-school music courses,” he said.
McPherson said he planned to convert the building for commercial use and had no intention of allowing it to be demolished.
“It’s a wonderful building and we want to preserve it and make appropriate use of it commercially.”
An Education Department spokesman said the building was now expected to be transferred back to the owners this year.
“As the tenants of the site, we are working with the owner to ensure it continues to be of value to the community,” he said.
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