IT’S early days, admittedly, and plenty could go wrong as reality sets in, but the impending sale of the former Newcastle post office to the entrepreneurial cosmetic surgeon Jerry Schwartz is the best bit of news to be heard about the building in a long time.
With his long hair and casual demeanour, the Sydney-based Dr Schwartz does not fit the mould of the conventional developer/investor. Having followed on from his father, an Hungarian emigre who used his dental practice to build a sizeable property portfolio, Dr Schwartz has made a number of purchases in the Hunter over more than a decade, although most of his biggest buys have been in Sydney.
He first bid for the post office in 2010, when it was being put to market by its initial private owner, Sean Ngu. Earlier this year, after lodging his now successful bid with the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council, Dr Schwartz said he would consider anything he did with the building to be “a gift to the city”, saying it would be a shame to see it “ruined and turned into some sort of money-making project".
Unfortunately, the years of neglect that followed the Howard government’s lamentable decision to sell it in 2002 mean this heritage-listed landmark is already close to ruin. The cost of restoring it to anything like its Victorian grandeur is usually put at $10 million to $15 million, a figure that could well prove to be an under-estimate.
The usual response in such situations is for developers to propose some sort of add-on tower to improve the finances, but to this point, at least, Dr Schwartz has shown no sign of wanting to follow such a path.
Should he succeed in bringing the post office back to its hoped-for glory, the city of Newcastle will indeed owe Dr Schwartz a large vote of thanks for doing what others have promised to do, but failed.
After years of decline, the inner city is quite obviously in the middle of a construction boom, but projects involving old buildings – and that includes Iris Capital’s East End project in the mall – are always harder and more expensive than knocking down and rebuilding.
But it’s our older buildings – led by the impossible to replicate beauty of the post office – that have given Newcastle its character. It is something to be celebrated that the grandest sandstone pile of them all looks likely to be finally brought back to life.