1 May 2023

How can Goulburn retrieve something meaningful from St John’s site?

| John Thistleton
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Demolition underway at the former St John’s Orphanage site

Demolition underway at the former St John’s Orphanage site in Goulburn. Photo: Leon Oberg.

Heritage advocates say the large and prominent former St John’s Orphanage site could be developed into something uplifting for Goulburn, given the right guidelines and oversight. It’s the ‘Barangaroo of Goulburn’ according to a prolific sketch artist of historic buildings.

Since the Catholic Church sold the former orphanage on the corner of Mundy and Bourke Streets to Goulburn businessman John Ferrara in 1999, various residential projects have been put forward. Nothing eventuated, and the condition of the timber and brick building deteriorated.

The building was to be restored and remaining land redeveloped into residential housing. But fires and vandalism made the 1913 structure so unsafe the council threatened to take NSW Land and Environment Court action to enforce its demolition. Subsequently, earlier in April the remaining scorched structure was levelled to the ground.

Goulburn Mulwaree Council had given conditional approval for redevelopment, but this was contingent on the former orphanage’s restoration. The council would not issue development permits until restoration work was completed.

This week the council’s chief executive officer Aaron Johansson said the status of the existing development application would need to be reviewed, and this process was yet to start. “Council’s priority was to ensure completion of the site’s demolition for public safety,” he said.

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Goulburn Heritage Group (GHG) says establishing good design guidelines on the former orphanage site could create a positive end to a sorry saga.

In a letter to the council, GHG says the orphanage is part of Australia’s social history – not just Goulburn’s.

“How the site is redeveloped will be noted across Australia; a well designed build, respecting the former use of the site will be a positive for Goulburn,” GHG said. “An overdeveloped site will be a negative.

“The site is prominent, forming a backdrop for the central business district. Good design of the site, and of the dwellings will be noticed and applauded,” GHG said.

GHG said former residents of St John’s would like to see a community park as part of the redevelopment, acknowledging the good and the less good activities associated with their childhood ‘home’.

Ron McLaughlin outside the old orphanage

Neighbour Ron McLaughlin outside the old orphanage in November, 2016, after a fire had ripped through the building. Photo: John Thistleton.

GHG said the sloping site provided the opportunity for a split-level building, keeping the mass to a residential scale. The brick fencing and gateway are important elements to be retained.

The heritage group said buildings on the Bourke Street frontage should be designed so that the streetscape appearance was ‘front of house’ as in any residential street.

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It said copies of all photographs of the St John’s building story should be in the local studies section of Goulburn Library.

“The heritage group acknowledge the site is in private ownership, nevertheless Goulburn Mulwaree Council has the opportunity to set guidelines to ensure the very well designed E C Manfred Orphanage is replaced by well designed roadways and residences.”

Prolific sketch artist of Goulburn’s heritage architecture Steve Ayling says the site at 51 Mundy Street is “Goulburn’s Barangaroo” but could end up as unsightly as the prominent Sydney landmark if not given adequate planning controls.

“It’s not your normal project and complex projects need a high level of expertise in terms of concept of design, management and so forth,” he said.

A long-time student of historic architecture, Mr Ayling says the council could hand over planning oversight to the NSW Government to provide the expertise required.

Steve Ayling’s sketch of an intact St John’s Orphanage

Reduced to a memory, Steve Ayling’s sketch of an intact St John’s Orphanage. Photo: Steve Ayling.

He says this a chance of a lifetime for the city, much like the opportunity Barangaroo provided, and the Sydney Opera House. Before embarking on major projects, like the Opera House and the creation of Canberra, there were international design competitions.

“Why not see what’s out there, say here is a competition open to all takers with some parameters, it doesn’t have to be housing, it could be anything?” Steve said. “It could be gardens there, or an urban forest planted.”

  • What is you opinion? Do you believe a carefully managed project could help compensate Goulburn for the loss and anguish caused by the neglect and fires of one of the city’s heritage assets?

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I meant to add, who says Barangaroo is unsightly. Just one opinion. 🙂

A new town hall-concert hall,from an international design competition? A new hospital on the hill with views for recuperating patients? A hotel with restaurant on top floor with views? A retirement village central building on the hill with views for inmates? An observatory and science centre?

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