IT wasn't always an intentional battle, but within hours of the quake a pendulum began swinging between the competing interests of demolition and heritage.
The first casualty was the multi-storey Newcastle RSL on the corner of King Street and Perkins Street, its walls knocked in by a pair of crane jibs that afternoon.
Its roof had caved in and engineers quickly declared it unsafe, but the speed with which it disappeared helped spark fears that the tremor would become a developers' dream to remodel the ageing city centre.
Fashion designer Lindsay Otto - mother of actress Miranda - had shops on the ground floor. She said that even with the problematic upper floors gone, and the ground floor intact, she was refused entry and lost $60,000 in stock, bulldozed into rubble.
But it was the George Hotel opposite Newcastle railway station - now the site of the Metro apartment block - that really got temperatures rising.
Days after the quake, Newcastle council ordered it and the adjacent Carrington Chambers in Watt Street demolished.
Lord mayor John McNaughton was in the Herald saying an aftershock could "happen like that" - clicking his fingers - and "those two buildings will tumble to the street".
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Conservationists including the National Trust disagreed. Their engineers said the buildings could be saved.
Peter Evans, then chairman of the City Centre Committee and an owner of the George and its Scott Street neighbour Royal Court, was adamant they needed to come down.
Still active in public life and president of the Newcastle show association, Evans is now fighting his own heritage battle over historic Broadmeadow showgrounds buildings threatened by redevelopment.
Today Evans says he "likes old buildings" but that the demolitions were "necessary".
He says he had just spent $100,000 on the George, including fire protection, and would go on to repair another quake-damaged building - a Menkens-designed Masonic temple in Beaumont Street that is now the Depot restaurant.
Demolition of the George continued despite a Land and Environment Court injunction obtained by Maitland conservationist Dion Ackland and delivered by his solicitor, Richard Anicich - another still playing a leading role in public life, most recently as chairman of the Committee for the Hunter.
Work stopped for a while on the Sunday morning, but the wrecking ball had moved from the George to the Carrington, leaving both buildings with major damage to their exteriors.
Ackland, realising it was too late, withdrew the injunction and demolition resumed in front of a crowd of onlookers and protesters.
In many ways, the earthquake acted as a turning point for heritage in Newcastle.
While the city lost some prominent buildings that might have been saved with money and willpower, the debate brought a new focus on the city's remaining 19th century streetscapes.
Leading activists included the indomitable Margaret Henry, who formed the Citizens Earthquake Action Group, and Keith Parsons, chair of the National Trust's Hunter committee.
Today, Iris Capital's East End project retains its historic Hunter Street mall facades, an example of a once-reluctant city valuing its heritage.