NEWCASTLE lord mayor Jeff McCloy wants the city to take ownership of the decaying former Newcastle post office and convert it into a new art gallery.
The ambitious plan, which Cr McCloy has detailed to the Newcastle Herald, would replace the proposed $21 million expansion of the existing gallery on Laman Street.
The Herald revealed in December the redevelopment had been significantly downscaled after a budget bungle, prompting a move to take project management away from council staff.
Cr McCloy said shifting the expansion project across town would save the financially troubled council millions and also rejuvenate ‘‘a wonderful old building’’ that is sorely in need of attention.
‘‘From a business point of view and a practical point of view, to my mind it’s a no-brainer,’’ Cr McCloy said.
‘‘It would be a great boost for the east end of Newcastle and Novocastrians won’t have to look at our best heritage building in a run-down state.’’
For the plan to succeed it would require latitude from both the federal and state government.
The city has been given a $7 million federal infrastructure grant for the planned redevelopment of the Laman Street gallery site.
Scrapping the redevelopment would notionally require the grant to be returned, but the federal government would be under pressure to back the alternative plan, especially in an election year.
The other main obstacle is an agreement giving the University of Newcastle Alumni a first option on the use of the post office, which the Herald understands the state government has signed.
Repairs and renovations to bring it up to a usable standard have been estimated at up to $15million.
It is unlikely any tenant looking to use the building for office space would be forced to foot the whole bill, which means the state government would have to commit to some funding.
Giving or leasing the building to the council might be more attractive for the state, which has also come under pressure to contribute funding for the Laman Street gallery redevelopment.
Cr McCloy said a gallery at the post office would be a ‘‘softer option’’ for east end residents compared to a restaurant or hotel, and that retaining car parking around the existing gallery would be of benefit to Darby Street traders.
‘‘The more I think about it the more bloody sense it makes,’’ Cr McCloy said.
‘‘There would be more hanging space in the post office than the proposed watered-down extension [and] the balcony area could be used to hold cocktail functions and other events.’’
Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation chairman Robert Henderson said yesterday the post office might work as a gallery annexe, but that scrapping the redevelopment project would entrench problems with the current site.
‘‘Facilities at the old gallery would still need to be upgraded,’’ Dr Henderson said.
Ageing facilities, lack of storage space and the need for a cafe and shop were key justifications for the redevelopment at Laman Street.
Dr Henderson said any gallery use of the old post office would incur significant spending on top of the basic repair bill, because of specialist requirements including the need for high-quality climate control to protect valuable artworks.
He estimated the post office would offer about 600 square metres of gallery space, compared with 1000 square metres from the planned expansion.
POST OFFICE: A POTTED HISTORY
In 1899 the NSW government began construction of a post office at the corner of Bolton and Hunter streets.
The building, which formally opened in 1903 and was occupied in February 1904, is a rare Australian example of Palladian architecture.
The building is of national significance. It is listed on the NSW State Heritage Register, the National Trust of Australia Register and the Register of the National Estate.
It shares the block with several other heritage buildings, including the former police station, telegraph office and public works department.
Dr Brian Suters says the building is ‘‘outside the [post office] of Sydney, the most important post office in NSW’’.
The post office was the termination site for the World War I recruitment march, the ‘‘march of the Wallabies’’.
The interior of the building has been altered substantially from its original plans, particularly in the upper levels.
The post office was closed by the federal government in 2001 and sold to Sydney businessman Sean Ngu.
In 2006, Newcastle City Council approved redevelopment plans for a lounge bar, basement bar restaurant and function centre.
In 2010, the site was bought by the NSW Government for $4.25 million.