Junk Explained: Can The Palace Theatre Still Be Saved Or What?
It's not over yet.
It’s been nearly six months to the day that Melbourne’s Palace Theatre officially closed its doors, but there are still tens of thousands of people holding out hope for its return. It’s been a tough battle. The building has been sold to a Chinese investment company who plan to demolish it, the countless attempts to appeal to Melbourne City Council have largely proved fruitless and we’re all a little bit tired. We’ve stopped sharing the links, we don’t go to the protests, we’ve almost reached the stage of begrudging acceptance. There are only so many times you can get knocked down before you don’t get up again.
But this week, the fight has been revived anew. Just as Melbourne City Council were due to consider the site for heritage protection, it was revealed that the owners, Jinshan Investments, were carrying out a secretive demolition of the building’s interior. Pedestrians stumbled across skips full of old walls, plastering and decorations that had been in place since the early 1900s. Much of what people were fighting to protect was now being unceremoniously torn apart by rude tradies.
There was a lot of confusion. People who had long since put down their pickets felt a renewed sense of outrage. First reports indicated that it was in fact illegal; people were calling the cops. Many didn’t even know about the possibility of the Palace getting heritage listed at all. Most of us cared about it. We shared the news with a sad little emoji on Facebook, but didn’t know enough to head along to the snap protests. After all, what can be done?
Here’s what you need to know.
There a bunch of reasons to still care about the Palace
The Palace wasn’t your average sticky-floored late-night city bandroom. First opening in 1860 as The Douglas Theatre, it’s been one of Melbourne’s oldest and most beloved venues. Over the years it was also known as The Apollo Theatre, the St James, and the Metro; it was a home to cinema, theatre and music, and at one point it was even a nightclub. In its most recent form it hosted legendary musical acts like Sonic Youth and Nick Cave, and within its final year it featured Florence and the Machine, Animal Collective, Kasabian and the Arctic Monkeys.
While the Palace no doubt held a sentimental value to everyone who patronised it over the years, it also had an important role to play in Melbourne’s music scene. With a capacity of 1855, it was one of the few mid-sized venues in the city — the perfect mid-ground for bands needing something between a club gig and an arena tour. There’s now a frustrating gap in the market for Melbourne. This week the old owners of the venue posted this article from FasterLouder on their Facebook page. Lamenting the lack of big name (but not quite festival headliners) on our shores this season, the article was captioned by an earnest but telling message: “Unfortunately we knew this was going to happen.”
Add to this the ongoing concerns about St Kilda’s historic Palais Theatre and the impending sale of the Prince of Wales and things are starting to look pretty grim. How will Melbourne boast its title as “the cultural capital” of the country if we have to start hosting international headliners at the local pub?
But the building’s been bought. Isn’t that the end of the fight?
Yes, the venue’s operators were pushed out when their lease ended earlier this year. Yes, the owners Jinshan Investments want to demolish the venue and turn it into a seven-storey boutique hotel. But everything is far from finalised. The Chinese developers have already been halted once when Planning Minister Matthew Guy imposed interim mandatory height restrictions, and now their process is getting held up further by the push to get the building heritage listed. They don’t yet have a permit to demolish the building at all.
Last month there were even talks that a “white knight” international developer was in talks with state government to buy the building. The tip-off came from Music Victoria’s chief executive Patrick Donovan who claimed the outside interest was from a group who have restored theatres in both the UK and US. If all went ahead, they would plan to re-open the site as a live music venue.
That’s not even to mention the possibility of heritage protection. The Melbourne City Council last month voted to endorse a heritage significance assessment of the site. It was due to be carried out this coming week before Jinshan took things into their own hands and stripped the venue.
With the Victorian election just next week, there’s never been a better time to put pressure on the government to do the right thing. After the demolition was discovered on Thursday, the Council stated they were launching an investigation into the incident and met to discuss an immediate interim heritage protection, but there hasn’t been any word back yet.
Still no word from state dept re #PalaceTheatre emergency heritage controls. Council’s building dept officers remain briefed and on call.
— Rohan Leppert (@RohanLeppert) November 21, 2014
— Michelle Harford (@one_small_duck) November 23, 2014
Was the demolition illegal?
The short answer is no. Many posts and articles have interpreted the fact that Jinshan don’t have a demolition permit as proof of some kind of illegal activity, but that’s just not the case. Though much of the stripped interior was set to be considered for heritage protection, a demolition permit only applies to the structural integrity of the building. Barring the implementation of emergency protection, they can do whatever they like with the inside.
Releasing a statement on Friday, Jinshan stated they were “undertaking works to improve site safety”. “Some internal elements have had to be removed in order to carry out this work,” they said. “The perception the building is in pristine heritage condition was unfortunately not the case … over the past 100 years it has been dramatically altered”. –
Where to from here?
The protest group Save the Palace Theatre has been campaigning non-stop since the venue’s official closure. They’ve hosted regular vigils with handmade signs and sing-a-longs, but have struggled to keep people interested when the cause seemed hopeless. With more than 37,000 followers on Facebook alone, they’re now finding a way to band together. Though the small snap protest on Thursday was met with a disgusting and unnecessary show of violence, a second protest has gone off today at 2pm with better results. Another is reportedly planned for Friday, November 28 at 6pm.
Of course, sentimental banners and well-meaning guys with guitars will only go so far — the decision makers would rather have your thoughts put forward in a much more boring format. If you want to lodge a complaint, fill out an official objection form for the Council to consider.
All in all, we’re not sure where this will lead. Even if the Council grant the site heritage protection, there’s no guarantees what will happen. Jinshan would need to be significantly reimbursed by the Council for their trouble, and repurposing the now damaged space would be difficult to say the least. But, either way it goes in the end, one thing’s clear — it’s definitely not over yet.
Image via Zeb Parkes.
This article originally claimed that Melbourne City Council were responsible for pushing the mandatory height restrictions on developers. Organisers from the Save the Palace movement have since got in touch to say that it was in fact Planning Minister Matthew Guy. The piece has been amended accordingly.