A New Life: The Development of Historic Australian Buildings

Peppers Silo Hotel

Can a former prison shake off its shackles? These development plans highlight the changes for five historic Australian buildings being given a second life, including the infamous Pentridge Prison and White Bay Power Station and completed projects such as Peppers Silo Hotel.

Pentridge Prison

Pentridge Prison’s castellated walls, with their Gothic-style arrow slits and watchtowers, appear a little gloomy beside the sparkling new buildings of suburban Coburg in Melbourne.

The prison closed in 1997. But now two white cranes stretch over a walled and gated section of the 6.5-hectare site where Ned Kelly’s remains once lay, Ronald Ryan became the last man to be executed in Australia in 1967 and standover man Mark “Chopper” Read spent part of the 1970s.

Pentridge Prison in 1966

Pentridge is a mix of commercial and residential properties. A shopping centre, cinema and, in what was the E Division’s hospital, a pub are being fitted out. Soon there’ll be a landscaped piazza, along with a 120-apartment hotel and day spa. Guests will stay in cells converted by Cox Architecture, the designers behind the Hepburn Bathhouse & Spa redevelopment.

Henry Sciberras was among the first to buy and restore an old Pentridge building, opening The Boot Factory café in 2014. He says “hipsters, mothers, businesspeople and former inmates” come for the coffee, ambience and ghost stories (clairvoyants claim to have seen an apparition near the café’s door). “It was a really friendly ghost, standing and waving,” says Sciberras, who believes the spirit was pleased to have worked in the prison’s boot factory and not the rock-breaking yards.

White Bay Power Station

Sydney architect Luigi Rosselli says that industrial buildings from the manufacturing age have a magic that new structures lack. “People look with nostalgic eyes to history because it enriches architecture – it tells a story. So we look at those old, large spaces like a power station with great affection.”

A new building, he adds, “is like a baby – they all look the same. When a person grows and they get a bit of character, they’re more interesting. It’s the same with buildings. Character comes with time.”

Rosselli created some of the first designs to reincarnate the heritage-listed White Bay Power Station, which was built in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Rozelle in stages between 1912 and 1958 and electrified trams and trains before shutting in the early 1980s. The vision for the site is to transform it into a technology hub in a multi-billion-dollar redevelopment.

The NSW state government plans to complete the nearby Sydney Metro West rail line before beginning the renewal of the power station, which stands in rusting magnificence on the western side of the Anzac Bridge.

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Peppers Silo Hotel

Where Launceston’s Tamar and North Esk rivers meet, four stark concrete grain silos have stood tall since the 1960s. At the turn of this century, when the industrial area lost its appeal, the wharves ceased to be a vital hub and the silos fell into graffitied decline.

Peppers Silo Hotel lounge

Local developer Errol Stewart wanted to turn the structures into high-end accommodation to encourage daytrippers to spend the night in “Lonnie” rather than travel back to Hobart. ARTAS Architects managing director Scott Curran noted at the time that converting the silos will end up being more profitable than building a brand-new hotel on the riverside site.

The towers reopened in 2018 as part of the slick 108-room Peppers Silo Hotel, with a rectilinear building at its base. There are 52 rooms inside the barrels of the former silos, now with windows carved into their curved walls, which reveal drips and different-coloured pours of concrete.

Sub Base Platypus

The dollars and sense of adaptive-reuse developments don’t always stack up. Sometimes lengthy approval processes send developers broke – several different developers have owned Pentridge (see previous page) since it was subdivided in 2001 – and it can be prohibitively expensive to remediate a site, which often involves removing hazardous materials.

Gasworks at Neutral Bay in 1884

Mary Darwell, executive director of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, which has overseen the transformation of heritage sites such as Cockatoo Island, says it cost $46 million to remove pollutants from Sub Base Platypus at Neutral Bay. The site was a gasworks plant before operating as a torpedo factory then submarine base for the Royal Australian Navy between 1942 and 1999.

Commercial tenants are moving in to two industrial buildings at Sub Base Platypus. The Trust believes the revenue will help restore other harbourside locations.

Darwell says for such sites to have a future, it’s vital to attract crowds to shop, eat, work, picnic and stay. She wants visitors “to be active during the day and into the early evening, with programmed activities but also opportunities for people to find their own leisure in the space”.

Sub Base Platypus in Neutral Bay, NSW

“Gentrification is driven by people who take ownership of a place and create an improved environment,” says Dermot Lowry, partner and head of occupier services for property experts Knight Frank. “Reputation change is actually people-driven.”

Barnett Glass Rubber Factory

Last year, commercial property investor Chris Lock sold what was once the Barnett Glass Rubber factory in Footscray, Melbourne, for $33.1 million. Built in 1875, bought by Bradford Cotton Mills in 1939 and later housing travel guide publishers Lonely Planet, the red-brick industrial building, with its dramatic chimney and boiler, has been transformed into The Dream Factory. It includes the “makerspace” Fab9, with prototyping tools, workshops and 3D printers that members pay a monthly fee to access. Lock, whose company IP Generation owns old buildings in Adelaide, Sydney, North Geelong and Torquay, says millennials in particular want to work in sustainable buildings with unique character. “I’d rather repurpose buildings and make an impact from an environmental perspective,” he says.

Barnett Glass Rubber Factory

Lock’s firm also owns The Brewery, part of Sydney’s Central Park precinct. Originally the Kent Brewery built in 1835 for Tooth & Co, the site was reimagined in 2015 by architect Alec Tzannes and his co-director, Ben Green, as a light-filled, energy-efficient office and retail space. Their Brewery design added cooling towers clad in zinc mesh, connected to an underground plant, which could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 190,000 tonnes over 25 years.

“Much of The Brewery’s power plant is underneath the courtyard, except for the rooftop cooling towers,” says Tzannes of the building, which includes five floors of commercial offices above a ground floor of retail space. The plant’s exhaust is housed inside the original brewery’s chimney, which is now lined with stainless-steel tubing.

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TOP IMAGE Peppers Silo Hotel. Photograph by Dave Groves

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