NEWCASTLE lord mayor Jeff McCloy’s proposal to turn the historic former Newcastle post office building into a new art gallery is a logical and compelling idea.
Unfortunately, however, it is also a symptom of the planning and funding problems that beset Newcastle, because it should not have been necessary in the first place.
The old post office building on the corner of Bolton Street and Hunter Street, Newcastle, is a neo-classical beauty and quite probably the most important single building in the Hunter region.
That it has entered its second decade as an empty structure is a sad monument to the lack of government investment in our historic architecture, and to a shortage of enthusiasm for adaptively re-using already limited stocks of heritage buildings.
If European cities can put centuries-old structures to good modern use, then so can we. And an art gallery is surely the most sympathetic use for such a grand building, as others before Cr McCloy – including property owner Jerry Schwartz and Newcastle MP Sharon Grierson – have noted.
At the same time, the lord mayor’s suggestion should not have been necessary because the state government should have long ago handed over its $7 million share of a tripartite package of federal, state and local government funding to refurbish and expand the existing Newcastle Art Gallery in Laman Street.
Instead, the lack of progress – regardless of reason – opens the door to uncertainty and indecision where none is warranted. Politicians and their funding bodies can then use this prolonged public debate as reason to withhold patronage on the grounds that they are waiting for the community to ‘‘make up its mind’’.
Political considerations aside, Cr McCloy’s suggestion is worth taking seriously, even if, at this stage, it appears to be little more than a thought bubble.
The chairman of the Newcastle Art Gallery Foundation, Robert Henderson, says facilities at the existing gallery would still need upgrading regardless of whether the building is extended, but there is no real reason why the gallery could not operate from two sites.
A restoration bill of as much as $15 million is a substantial impost, but the old post office is doomed to demolition by neglect without it.
The longer it sits unused and ignored behind its ugly wire fence, the more the work will eventually cost. The question, however, is not whether a gallery is the best use for this grand sandstone post office, but why the money to restore it was not made available long ago.