In Memoriam | Heritage at the Old Kings School, Parramatta 2002-2016

I hesitated to make this post one year ago, but now on the first anniversary it seems an apposite moment.  There are many good people working within the heritage system in New South Wales, often against overwhelming and depressing odds.  This story is part of our patrimony, to be remembered.

The days of ‘Yes Minister’ as an ironic statement from the enduring mandarin Sir Humphrey are long vanished.  In its stead is ‘Yes Minister’ as a statement of deference from a disposable short-term contractor.  The responsibility for the white-anting of public heritage management,  the dissipation of the NSW Crown estate, and the devaluing of heritage conservation as a proper role of the State and governments, has to be shared between those we have elected to high office, and we who elected them.  As one of the elect is reported to have said

The state government houses hundreds of back-office bureaucrats in prime … real estate with stunning views … historic, iconic and centrally located buildings are accessible only to government bureaucrats, with their heritage locked away from the public who own them … inefficient use of real estate … big government is a broken relic of a bygone era … we are to sell land in sites such as Parramatta.

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway

This memorial notice is but another reflection on the continuing despoliation.

Unwatched, the garden bough shall sway,
The tender blossom flutter down,
Unloved, that beech will gather brown,
This maple burn itself away.[1]

[1] ‘In Memoriam AHH’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson 1849


Friday 22 April 2016 marked the final demise of the New South Wales’ state heritage agency’s life in the Old Kings School in Parramatta.  After just 14 years, and in recent years an alphabet soup of name changes, the once-great NSW Heritage Office has finally been interred in an anonymous office block beyond the railway line, its beautiful historic offices and their parkland setting cast aside as a mere extravagance.

Once was a library …

Once was a Heritage Council chamber …

I joined the NSW Heritage Office in 1997, moving with it to the Old Kings School in Parramatta on 17 December 2002.  The new Office was officially opened on 12 March 2003.  Three days later, Ben Chifley’s House in Bathurst was listed on the State Heritage Register.  I had worked on that listing, and it seemed an auspicious beginning.

It was a time of high hopes in the tardis-like Old Kings School, with its 1832 southern facades and 1906 northern facades encapsulating a fantastic early 21st century interior.  For the first time, there was a dedicated Heritage Library open to heritage professionals and the public, with a professional librarian on staff.  For the first time there was atmospheric Heritage Council Meeting Room from where the Council exercised its stewardship of a growing heritage estate in Australia’s oldest jurisdiction.

Time slows to standing-still on the 1832 facade …

… and the cloister falls silent on the 1906 facade

There were decent work spaces for a dedicated and professional staff of (mainly) young and enthusiastic public heritage officers.  Professional development, heritage education and community outreach were the order of the day.  Heritage had come of age, in that fantastically adapted heritage building that was itself a model and showcase of possible futures.  It was never empty, near quiet, always hosting public and community events, nourishing a living heritage as a part of a whole community.

The date stamp fades into cobwebbed archaeology …

Now, all is abandoned.

The Heritage Library, once an unparalleled collection of unique conservation studies and a source of expert research, now just an empty shell of vacant shelving.  The grand Heritage Council Meeting Room, once resounding with passionate debate, now fallen silent, only the sound of the wind to disturb the funereal gloom, or was that the walls whispering their memories while there was still someone to hear them?

Wandering the grounds of the Old Kings School, gardens bedraggled and overgrown, lawns rank and patchy, piles of pigeon droppings on the sandstone paving, autumn leaves swirling in unkempt nooks and crannies, it’s hard to believe that delegations from interstate and overseas once beat a path to this very place to see and learn the ways of an innovative and dynamic heritage system.

while the State of Things reveals a truth …

The garden wall where the emblem and the name of the NSW Heritage Office once proudly welcomed all, prised from the wall in 2007, just faint scars remaining.  Five short years, a golden age.  After that, nothing was the same.  I resigned in August 2008, my diary till then an endless round of staff farewells.  I thought my work was finished on my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the nomination of the Australian Convict Sites for inscription on the World Heritage List.  Luck and a remote Pacific island exile would prove otherwise.

Back in Parramatta, the beauty of ruins, their capacity to provoke the imagination, their embodiment in crumbling decay of the poetry of lives lived and yet to be dreamt.  But the melancholy and pain in the ruin of a great institution, so much so carelessly wasted. The windows of that lovely edifice stare blindly out, hooded as if ashamed of once visioning the shared patrimony of community, history, tradition, continuity, future.

The tender blossom flutter down …

Just 14 years, just 5 years.  The chill winds of the neoliberal revolution blow through the grounds of the Old Kings School.  As I stood in those dusty rooms and neglected grounds on that end-day on 22 April 2016, there are tears in my eyes, stung neither by mote nor impermanence but the tragic irony of mammon’s hand.

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.[1]

[1] ‘Ozymandias’, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818


And today, one year later on 22 April 2017, the Old Kings School remains empty and forlorn, a wrecked monument to a monumental wreck.

… and a future marches onwards … Look on my works, Ye mighty, and despair

All photos by mrbbaskerville, 22 April 2016