The timing of this photo, taken on a bleak and gloomy Melbourne evening, is perhaps apt as the outlook for these rare and historic terraces is equally so. To get an understanding of the significance of and the situation faced by this short row of two double storey terrace houses, I’ll paint a brief picture. Take yourself back 155 years to colonial Melbourne.
The town, founded less than two decades earlier was going through some serious growing pains – and I mean serious. The discovery of gold brought hundreds of thousands of people from around the world and the promise of wealth. Grand European inspired public buildings began construction. But many, home was a tent. For the well to do, large terrace houses were fashionable. But the poor, particularly Chinese migrants, often lived cramped in cheaply made terraces in the central city grid. Infrastructure was appalling, there were no sewers and life was tough on the cobbled streets. It is now known as Melbourne’s “slum era” and the area in which this terrace sits was a notorious slum known as “Little Lon”.
Now step forward 155 years. There are just a handful of terrace houses left in the city grid and the area around Little Lonsdale Street fast becoming a wall of tall glass towers. Vestiges of “Little Lon” remain in the small lanes, but few examples as significant as this almost lone survivor. Just a few years ago, archaeologists teemed into the area to uncover fascinating pieces of Melbourne’s history. Little Lon is a extremely rare insight into life in one of the most interesting periods of the city’s short history. This terrace was built just 2 years after Melbourne’s oldest surviving terrace.
Architecturally the houses themselves are a very good representation of the almost Georgian simplicity necessitated by “slum” houses. A rendered facade with linear bluestone base and sashes was all that was required before the era of the fashionable Australian style verandah and cast iron. A wide horizontal string course visually separates the storeys and a strong linear cornice propped up by a pair of acanthus scroll corbels, ornament used sparingly but an attempt all the same to give the houses a dignified appearance. The horizontality is relieved slightly by the appearance of downpipes which originally emptied themselves directly onto the footpath. The double hung windows are in their original state and a single plain entrance with skylight remains.
The former houses also form increasingly rare pre-war streetscape, a city block of low rise old buildings running from lane to lane which is set to also disappear.1
A few years ago the National Trust of Victoria wrote an open letter to the City of Melbourne highlighting a lack of heritage controls in the CBD and the fact that the last heritage study which was not comprehensive was several decades ago. Among the buildings cited as most vulnerable was this terrace. The call fell on deaf ears. Now it appears that there is a real threat and the National Trust has again pleaded with the council to provide protection for the historic terraces. In recent years the council has appeared to show disinterest in heritage, allowing the demolition of several buildings of local historic and architectural importances. It seems unlikely that the council would change this stance for these unfortunately positioned houses. Yet, like many similar cases, at the very least the facade could be easily incorporated into any new development.
In the writers opinion, the lack of any heritage controls and the disrespect shown in the demolition of these terraces is little short of a crime. Should these historic terraces be razed it will almost certainly accelerate the rapid erosion of the city’s heritage and Victorian character at a rate