News / Council

New community and cultural precinct starts to take shape

Brunswick industrial pioneer’s mansion will be site’s centrepiece

Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos, pictured outside the mansion at 33 Saxon Street, is confident the project will be delivered on time and on budget.

Mark Phillips

WHEN a new creative and community precinct opens in Saxon Street in Brunswick in 12 months time, the jewel in the crown will be a 135-year-old mansion located in the centre of the site.

To an untrained eye, the area may look like a bomb site following extensive demolition of other buildings, but ground works are well advanced and workers will begin pouring concrete slabs in the next few weeks.

Amid the debris, the double storey mansion has a commanding presence after it was partially hidden for many years behind surrounding buildings.

Renovation works inside have already revealed original press metal ceilings and fireplaces and allowed extra light into the building.

With a $29 million budget, the Saxon Street project is one of the largest single capital investments ever undertaken by Merri-bek Council.

The project will deliver 3500 square metres of floor space for arts and community activities on the council-owned site at 33 Saxon Street, adjacent to the Brunswick Baths, which once included a Catholic secondary school and the stables building that housed Blak Dot Gallery. 

The double storey mansion will be the centrepiece of the cultural hub, while a new L-shaped five-storey building will be constructed in the south-eastern corner of the site to provide space for galleries, workspaces, and a café. There will also be about 2500 square metres of public open space. 

“This project is a really significant one because it’s creating a brand new arts and cultural hub right in the centre of Brunswick,” said Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos, who accompanied Brunswick Voice on a tour of the site last week.

“We know we have a lot of creatives who need spaces for their creative practice, and so this is a really, really good place for us to have it right here. And it’s a huge investment from council as well.”

Assistant project manager Mark D’Apote said the project delivery date was late-2024.

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But first it needs a name. The council has invited public submissions to suggest a name for the precinct.

Preference will be given to submissions that are traditional Woi-wurrung or other Aboriginal language names, that acknowledge the role of groups or communities within Merri-bek, including multicultural communities, those that acknowledge important social and historical events that have happened close by, and are the names of women who have contributed to Merri-bek’s development.

The deadline for submissions is October 31.

The new precinct will retain some of the features of the old Saxon Street site. The mansion has been stripped back to its original size and shape, with several additional extensions removed, including a balcony. An elevator shaft will be installed at its rear.

The mansion is structurally sound despite its age. It was built in 1888 as a home for Alfred Cornwell who operated his clay pit and pottery works on the adjoining land which is now occupied by the Albert Street Woolworths.

The pottery specialised in terracotta ware such as chimney pots, pipes and architectural ornaments and operated on the Woolworths site until 1965.

But Cornwell died in 1890 and in 1895 the house was sold to the Catholic Church. It was the St Ambrose Presbytery and later became part of Trinity College.

The mansion was built in 1888 for the owner of an adjacent clay pit and brickworks.

“Internally, for its age it was in quite good condition,” D’Apote said. A heritage consultant is on hand to ensure the building is brought back to its former glory.

D’Apote said landscaping on the site had been designed so it would look like the mansion was “floating” on green vegetation.

The shell of one of the school buildings will be used as a dramatic entrance into the precinct from Phoenix Street with a columned walkway leading through to the mansion, while a decision has yet to be made about the remaining school building.

There will be a raised open space for events and performances, and direct access from the community hub through to the Brunswick Baths, and the gardens will be planted with native vegetation to provide much-needed green space in the centre of Brunswick.

The project is being managed by McCorkell Constructions, which specialises in heritage restoration and in recent years has worked on the Queen Victoria Market fresh produce sheds and Collingwood Yards.

The project cost has already blown out by double above the original estimate of $13.5 million, but Panopoulos is not worried it will ultimately be delivered on time and on budget.

“I’m extremely confident that this will be done as quickly as it can be, and in the most financially responsible way as possible,” Panopoulos said.

“We have had escalating costs and various contamination issues at different projects all across the field, but we’re committed to building this thing, and we’re committed to creating a really good arts and cultural hub. And so that’s what I want to see through.”

The council is funding most of the project, supported by a $1 million grant from the commonwealth government.

Arts space consultants These Are The Projects We Do Together have been appointed to manage the tenanacies in the new cultural hub, which Panopoulos said could include visual artists and small arts organisations.

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