WHY is a vandalised old Newcastle house suddenly seen as a hidden heritage gem?
That's the dispute at present pitting Newcastle City Council and prominent inner-city developer Iris Capital against the National Trust and some angry inner-city residents.
At the centre of the fracas is a neglected, two-storey dwelling quietly approved for demolition at 74 King Street, almost on the corner of King and Newcomen streets, and opposite the prestigious Newcastle Club.
Iris now plans to erect a 10-storey apartment building in front of the club, to rise in height by almost 10 metres (to 51.7 metres) from the originally approved concept plans.
Opponents of the major scheme, now seeking amendment, claim the dwelling, possibly 161 years old, is likely "by far" to be the oldest timber building in the Newcastle local government area with important past city links.
They say they development application (DA) understates its significance and have called for an independent, detailed assessment of its worth by a heritage architect with specialised knowledge.
In the meantime, they urgently request an interim heritage order (HO) be placed on the former home, circa 1862, to prevent its looming demolition.
Equally important, the Anglican Dean of Newcastle, the Very Reverend Katherine Bowyer (and others), fear the proposed height of some of the new EastEnd buildings will block view corridors to Newcastle's jewel on The Hill, Christ Church Cathedral.
Much earlier, a consultant's plan of the site classified the now empty and vandalised building as having little heritage value. Number 74 King Street is described as "dating from pre-1930s" and most likely constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, at first glance, this seems at odds with photos of old Newcastle (see main picture) supplied to Weekender by the scheme's opponents. These seem to show a building on the site since at least about 1864. A building seems also visible there in about 1870, 1880 and 1900.
And what's more, a supplied paper trail of records reveals the fifth owner of the 74 King Street land in 1861 to be renowned colonial architect Mortimer William Lewis Jnr.
He was responsible for overseeing the completion of Nobbys breakwater (using the last convicts in Newcastle) plus designing and supervising other landmark local buildings such as the police lock-up and telegraph office, both in Hunter Street, between Bolton and Watt streets.
Lewis Jnr was also the son of Mortimer William Lewis Senior, one of the most influential public servants in the then Australian colony. He's been described as being Australian architectural royalty. Among his many achievements, he's credited with having built five NSW gaols and 12 churches, mostly in the Hunter Valley.
And, according to the chief executive of the Newcastle Club, Ian Baker, 74 King Street potentially could also have been designed in collaboration with his son, making it a "rare item of exceptional heritage value, not only in Newcastle, but nationally".
The timber building's true heritage value had been "significantly underplayed" by Iris' consultants, Baker asserted.
In his submission to council on behalf of the club, Baker wrote of his belief the background of the timber King Street house (circa 1862) was "an inconvenient truth until now" and "hidden in plain sight" until recent close site scrutiny.
Baker also proposed the theory the actual building might have been erected by Thomas Adam (the site's fourth owner 1860-61) who, as a local builder, was known to value add to vacant land by erecting dwellings on them.
Thomas Adam is known as the man who created "Adam's Town" (Adamstown). For 40 years he bought and sold land and had a sawmill on Bullock Island (Carrington) between 1857 and 1861.
"Adam's Town" was originally a speculative venture to provide housing for miners at neighbouring Hamilton.
Baker asserts it would be "senseless vandalism" to demolish 74 King Street now due to its deteriorating condition as it was not beyond saving.
Even in its poor state it retains traces of its unique Gothic Revival style with pointed arches to window frames, delicate but recently damaged stained glass and with extremely rare flush-mounted timber weatherboards evident.
On the available evidence, the timber house was "a hidden gem" of early Newcastle settlement where few heritage buildings had survived. Exceptions nearby include Claremont House circa 1843 (owned by the Newcastle Club) and Rose (or Toll) cottage, circa 1857.
The family of Mortimer Lewis Jnr owned the King Street property from circa 1861 to 1930 but lived next door for about 12 years, Baker discovered.
In a series of reports last month, Newcastle Herald journalist Michael Parris wrote that Iris Capital's development application was the final stage of its huge EastEnd project over two blocks between Perkins and Newcomen streets.
The Newcastle Inner-City Residents Alliance (NICRA) has slammed the latest plans, saying Iris had strayed too far from its 2017 concept approval and wanted to over-develop the site.
The new plans will add three floors to the proposed building in front of the Newcastle Club. Five storeys will also be added to another apartment tower on site. Ibis justified the height variations by moving one building to "remass" the site to create a public square and open a view corridor to the cathedral.
The Newcastle Club CEO has called the proposed height changes "a betrayal of previous goodwill from East End residents" who, with concessions, supported the original conceptual DA.
Newcastle council will assess the development application, but the project's final approval authority is the Hunter Central Coast Regional Planning Panel.
National Trust Hunter chair Mark Metrikis says, judging from historic photos, it seems 74 King Street lost two of its Gothic gabled Dormer windows in the 1970s to 1990s, plus two terracotta chimney pots, although the brick base survives. The house was last occupied about 10 years ago.
"Lewis Jnr, among others, (also) supervised The Hill's 1865 leadlight tower construction, the 1861 police lock-up, plus 1891 ground-floor additions and Wallsend's 1878 public buildings, Lambton Post Office (1883) and Maitland Gaol (designed by his dad)," Metrikis says.
Lewis Jnr also designed Morpeth Courthouse and was on the Newcastle Hospital Committee.
Meanwhile, Newcastle Anglican Dean Katherine Bowyer is concerned about any loss of clear views from the waterfront to the cathedral because of its iconic heritage status. She says visitors from regular cruise ships say the one desire they have on entering the harbour is to "visit the castle on the hill".
(In preparing this article, Weekender came across some odd news stories from Britain. One was a story about a hasty developer over there in March who illegally demolished an historic, but derelict, Lancashire pub. He was heavily fined, then ordered to pay about $3 million ... to rebuild it exactly, brick by brick. The ruling was meant as a deterrent. It was also the second such court case reported in two years. In 2021, another developer tore down a west London tavern days before it was to receive protected status. It also had to be rebuilt. This 1920s pub had been the only building in the street that wasn't destroyed during the Blitz in World War II.)
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