I must confess that I’m a bit of a heritage geek, with an especial love for built heritage. I can’t really explain it, but I have always loved old buildings; the architecture, the texture of materials used, the smell and the stories they can tell, or you imagine. I was fortunate as a child to spend my early years living mostly in a village in England complete with cottages, a manor house and a church of many centuries vintage. These buildings were part of the fabric of the community and of such antiquity that they seemed to have always been there. It never occurred to me then that some might question their utility or threaten their existence. Sadly, as I got older I came to understand that for some people, buildings have no value beyond the land they occupy. As an adult in Western Canada I became blasé about the fate of built heritage and largely resigned myself to the argument that everything has a lifespan, old must give way to new, and old buildings are costly to convert.
There are lots of things about the aforementioned argument that have validity, but here is the thing; old buildings were once new, had purpose, vitality and perhaps more importantly, said something about who we were as a society. Through their placement, architecture, composition and size, heritage buildings tell us who our community builders were, what they valued, how they shaped society and the influence they had on their communities after they had passed. Losing built heritage is losing part of who we are as a community, a vital link between who we were and who we will become. This should, in my mind, be enough reason for communities to take a considered and critical approach heritage preservation, but there are even more compelling reasons.
Spending time in Adelaide has been eye opening in terms of built heritage, because there are a lot of old buildings rubbing shoulders with new development. What is notable, are the efforts that have gone into repurposing old buildings and it is easy to appreciate why. Heritage buildings are sturdy. Some of the examples I have seen are built from cut and dressed stone with huge timber beams, finished with fine native wood or granite. These buildings were designed to display the wealth of the builder and meant to last. The durability of these buildings makes them highly suitable for repurposing without losing their essential character. Beyond that, they form an eye-catching part of the cityscape that contributes to a vibrant tourism industry. There have been several moments when we have turned a corner or taken a short cut through a lane here and come across hidden heritage gems like the Old Methodist Hall, nestled behind a commercial tower in the centre of Adelaide. Rather than being subjected to the wrecking ball as part of the new development, it underwent a transformation into a public meeting hall; a fine example of period architecture and a useful, multi-purpose space. It is certainly an accolade to the City that built heritage is viewed as a vital asset rather than an impediment to progress. It should serve as an example to municipal governments everywhere of how buildings and built heritage provide not only continuity for cities, but marketable assets that contribute to the economic and cultural growth of a community.