In lockdown Sydney, heritage destruction gets an exemption - the end of Willow Grove - Rusty Compass travel blog

In lockdown Sydney, heritage destruction gets an exemption - the end of Willow Grove

| 03 Sep 2021
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03 Sep 2021

As the wrecking ball moved in on Willow Grove in Parramatta last week, I was struck by the the similarities between heritage battles in Parramatta in Sydney's west, and Saigon, Vietnam's fast-developing commercial capital.

Last week, in the middle of a strict COVID lockdown across Sydney, heritage destruction in Parramatta was given a lockdown exemption. The demolition of Willow Grove, an 1890s villa in the middle of Parramatta's busy business centre, got under way. It marked the end of a long battle between local activists and the New South Wales government.

Willow Grove is being demolished to make way for a new $800 million Powerhouse Museum.

You would expect locals to be jubilant about a new museum. They're not. The Powerhouse is not exactly a new museum. It's a messy re-imagining of an existing museum - inspired more by property developer ambition than cultural innovation.

In Willow Grove, Parramatta loses another little place of charm and greenery. It also loses some relief from a concrete cityscape that's been trashed by developers for decades. Willow Grove may not be Parramatta's most important heritage battle - that'd be the battle to give proper recognition to the nearby Female Factory precinct - but it's a sad loss after a spirited fight by local campaigners.

Parramatta's heritage challenges have surprising similarities with the challenges I've seen in Vietnam and Cambodia in recent decades. In developing economies, arguments favouring the economic benefits of property development almost always win against the economics of culture, liveability, community spaces and tourism.

The Powerhouse case has some unique elements. As many locals have noted, museums are not usually drivers of heritage destruction.

The government says it intends to relocate Willow Grove to another site - so far unspecified - in Parramatta.

Moving Willow Grove degrades it. There are myriad technical complications with relocation. And even if it can be done successfully, Willow Grove's greatest value and contribution is right where it is, in the heart of Parramatta.

Willow Grove Parramatta - heritage demolition received an essential work exemption
Photo: Mark Bowyer Willow Grove Parramatta - heritage demolition received an essential work exemption


The original Powerhouse Museum opened to great excitement in an old tram powerhouse in Ultimo in 1988. It's enjoyed popularity in a fantastic setting over many years, though it's started to feel tad tired and unloved during the past decade.

The Parramatta Powerhouse project seems to have been conceived in 2015 as a clever scheme by wheeler-dealer politicians and property developers to enable the re-development of the original Powerhouse Museum site - valuable prime real estate in Sydney's centre. The NSW government is very fond of selling public assets and assumed a museum would be a negotiable target. After a long public outcry, the Ultimo Powerhouse won a stay of execution in 2020. It will stay put. And Parramatta will get its flawed Powerhouse too.

A flimsy case in support of the project in 2015, is even flimsier now. One museum becomes two because of bungled planning and decision making (Powerhouse also has a number of other small sites).

Original Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo
Photo: Mark Bowyer Original Powerhouse Museum, Ultimo

The Parramatta Powerhouse project meets none of the standards of community validation and accountability that would normally underwrite such a massive cultural investment.

Critics complain that the project has no connection to Parramatta's heritage core. Its hostility to Willow Grove, an attractive building that has stood unmolested for 130 years, illustrates the point.

I have scoured the web looking for a persuasive idea to justify a Parramatta Powerhouse project. I've asked the press people at Powerhouse Ultimo for some advice too. A persuasive rationale is hard to come by. Expert advocacy for the scheme is scarce too.

Everyone agrees Parramatta needs cultural landmarks - but why another Powerhouse?

Female Factory Parramatta - Australia's oldest and largest female convict ruins are left unknown.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Female Factory precinct Parramatta - Australia's oldest and largest female convict ruins and the right place for a unique Parramatta cultural landmark 

Parramatta needs unique institutions that connect with its unique past. A relocation or expansion of an existing museum doesn't cut it. Especially when there are better ideas.

Next week I'll explore some better ideas for a landmark cultural precinct in Parramatta.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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