Fire shows historic Newcastle post office can’t be ‘left to rot’

Charred: Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Rob Russell at the post office on Friday morning. Picture: Simone De Peak
Charred: Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Rob Russell at the post office on Friday morning. Picture: Simone De Peak

The state of Newcastle’s old post office is a “sad indictment” on the city and the community needs to make sure the historic building isn’t lost forever.

That was University of Newcastle archivist Gionni Di Gravio’s response to a fire that broke out at the Hunter Street site on Thursday night.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze at about 10pm, before the building was seriously damaged. 

But the incident should serve as a wake-up call that more than a decade of inaction has to end, heritage experts say.

The post office veranda has become a regular stop-over for people sleeping rough in recent years.

A homeless man, who did not wish to be named, told the Herald that a group of people who were spending the night there lit the fire to keep warm.

Mr Di Gravio said on Friday the community needed to band together to put pressure on the Commonwealth – the building’s original owner – to take responsibility for the long-overdue repairs.

He said Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council, which has owned the site for the past three years, was not to blame for the severe state of disrepair. 

“This whole building is in a mess because of all of us,” Mr Di Gravio said. 

“It really speaks volumes that we can’t work together, we don’t believe in one another, we don’t support one another. 

“The post office should be a great example of where Newcastle comes together.” 

Mr Di Gravio said the post office was the city’s “most beautiful, elegant and palatial” heritage building.

“What do you think it’s telling anyone that visits Newcastle, what do you think that’s telling them about us? It’s a sad indictment because Newcastle is better than this,” he said.

The Commonwealth sold the building, constructed in 1903, to a developer for about $2 million in 2002. 

The Labor state government bought the site back in 2010 for a rumoured $5 million.

The Coalition state government then granted it to Awabakal in 2014.

Awabakal chief executive Rob Russell said the fire highlighted that the post office couldn’t be “left to sit and rot”.

“I was relieved to see no-one was hurt and there appears to be no permanent damage to the post office so we were lucky,” he said.

Awabakal, which was placed under administration last October, had all the building’s locks changed and doors reinforced last week so people couldn’t get inside.

Mr Russell said there were also plans to block access to the veranda. 

“It was given to us in very poor condition. It needed a lot of work done on it straight away and we didn’t have the financial capacity, as I understand it, to do anything with it,” he said.

“It is a priority, we do need to do something about it. It’s a whole bunch of opportunities but a great deal of work needs to be done.”

Newcastle Historic Reserve Trust has managed other nearby heritage buildings as community facilities for more than 30 years.

The trust offered the Commonwealth a $10 peppercorn price to turn the post office into a contemporary art space before the site was sold, but the approach was rejected.

Trust chair Gillean Shaw said she believed Awabakal had been given “a poison chalice”.

She said the fire made her realise the time had come where the building would either be saved or lost forever.

“It’s awful, what’s happened,” Ms Shaw said. “This is one of the most – if not the most – significant buildings in Newcastle.”

Call for collaboration over post office restoration

A working group bringing together “the best and brightest minds” should be formed to restore the city’s historic post office, Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp says.

It comes after a fire on Thursday night at the Hunter street building, which has fallen into disrepair in recent years.

Mr Crakanthorp said the post office had “enormous cultural significance”.

FIRE: Some of the damage from the blaze. Picture: Simone De Peak

FIRE: Some of the damage from the blaze. Picture: Simone De Peak

“Everyone in the community wants to see action with this site,” he said.

“That is why I am proposing the establishment of a working group to bring together key stakeholders to provide expertise and collaboration with Awabakal Land Council to find a way forward.”

Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said Newcastle Council would continue to help Awabakal secure the building.

Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald said he was disappointed to see the damage on Friday morning.

“Thankfully no one was hurt, but for everyone’s sake the building needs to be made safe and the people using the building after hours need to be supported elsewhere,” he said.

Federal Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said she regretted the decline of the iconic building and hoped to see genuine progress on the restoration soon.


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