Landmark or eyesore? Queen's Wharf Tower demolition exposes mixed views in Newcastle

Politicians and tourism bodies have backed Newcastle City Council’s decision to demolish Queen’s Wharf Tower, but it seems the wider community is not so sure.

The Newcastle Herald reported on Wednesday that the 40-metre observation tower would come down in the middle of next year after the council received a forecast maintenance bill of $1.6 million for the next four years, including $1.2 million to repaint it.

The news prompted a flood of memes, ribald jokes, poetry and even a rap song on social media as the city celebrated and mourned the loss of the phallus-shaped structure.

One Facebook follower suggested the city could celebrate the same-sex marriage “yes” vote by retaining the tower and erecting another one next to it.  

A Herald online poll suggested the community was divided over the issue as 54 per cent called for the tower to be retained and 46 per cent wanted it gone.

But lawmakers on different sides of politics said the time was right for the tower to be levelled.

It doesn’t have any historical significance or utility or aesthetic value.

Cr John Mackenzie

“It certainly has ignited a bit of interest,” NSW parliamentary secretary for the Hunter Scot MacDonald said. “It doesn’t serve any functional purpose any more. It should go.”

Mr MacDonald said the Labor-controlled council, which was elected in September, had a “pretty strong mandate” to make decisions such as demolishing the landmark tower.

“That end of town, it’s got its good heritage mix, of course, but it is reinventing itself very quickly, and Supercars has probably given a little bit more of a catalyst to that,” he said.

“I think people are in that mood to reinvent, revitalisation and renewal.” 

The council intends to seek feedback on how the space should be used, and Mr MacDonald said he would like to see more public art in Newcastle.

Cr Kath Elliott (Ind) said the council should have consulted the community before deciding the tower’s fate.

“I think it’s outrageous that we can demolish something that is significant in our landscape, whether you like it or you don’t, and ignore people,” she said.

“We went through this exercise with the fig trees . . . we might have people who are really concerned about this who might chain themselves to this.

“We might end up spending an awful lot more money than we expect because we haven’t asked people.

“To decide and defend is not a way to consult.”

Greens councillor John Mackenzie spoke passionately at Tuesday night’s council meeting in favour of retaining the heritage facade of the Store building in Newcastle West, but he said bringing down the 30-year-old Queen’s Wharf Tower was the right decision.

“It doesn’t have any historical significance or utility or aesthetic value,” he said. “There’s many other great things in Newcastle to spend $1.6 million on.

“I do think we could have gone to consultation [but] the consultation is going to happen in the public sphere anyway through social media.

“We’ll get an understanding of where people sit on it, but the decision itself is not controversial.”  

The observation tower will remain open for six months to allow residents a final chance to climb it.

The council’s interim chief executive officer, Jeremy Bath, said on Tuesday that the tower was an embarrassment and did not match the city’s efforts to appear more modern.

The Queen’s Wharf complex, including the tower, was designed by Newcastle architect Kevin Snell and won the Royal Australian Institute of Architects’ (NSW chapter) Lloyd Rees Award for urban design in 1988.

Queen Elizabeth II opened the cluster of buildings named in her honour during Australia’s bicentenary celebrations that year.

Tourism Hunter chairman Will Creedon said the tower was impractical by modern standards.

“For young and old, it’s not a practical tower. It’s difficult to get up and down. It poses risks from injury and health,” he said. “Nothing ever stays the same, even though we may want it.”

Many Herald readers commented online that the tower was an “eyesore”, smelled like a toilet and was rarely used.

Others argued it was part of Newcastle’s culture and offered excellent views of the city and water.

Another suggested removing the building’s bulbous top to make it less evocative.