Earlier this month, folk musicians John Flanagan and Daniel Townsend came to Launceston to listen to local stories and convert them into song. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I listened to them perform, and was most delighted to hear their ditty in praise of these small cottages, long abandoned to weeds and graffiti on the North Esk River.
Wedged between Launceston’s Centrelink offices and the newly-reopened strip club, the Boland Street cottages were built in 1876 to the designs of prominent local architect Peter Mills. Twice during the 1990s they were gutted by fires, and so have sat for nearly two decades in a quiet state of disuse.
Yet ‘Centrelink Cottage’ (as the musicians called it) has been the centre of plenty of debate, even as it remains unused. Like the former C.H. Smith building on the intersection of Charles and Canal streets, the Boland Street cottages are heritage-listed, and therefore potential developers of these sites have been subject to great obstacles.
Tasmania has a very proactive Heritage Council, and with good reason: the island’s colonial architecture is preserved better than anywhere else in Australia, with a number of sites declared to be of high value when it comes to expressing vernacular styles and the community’s sense of place.
Both the cottages and the C.H. Smith buildings represent an important part of Launceston’s waterfront industrial tapestry. But as was argued by Michael Newton, who battled for two decades to have the Boland Street cottages released from heritage listing, “How do you maintain a burnt-out and derelict property?”
Ruined buildings like these are consistently dismissed as ‘eyesore’. But others argue that such sites have an alternative value. As British nature writer Roger Deakin wrote in his journals, “We need more ruins...more evidence of a past, a living past. Ruins have a special life of their own.”
The Boland Street cottages have been sold and a significant development is mooted for the site; work is being undertaken to allow the C.H. Smith to house 20 retailers and a carpark.
“Cities carry the past and they obliterate it,” writes literary critic Gillian Beer. Urban landmarks are always under more pressure to change, to be adapted. Our commercial tastes dictate this. If you were to read this town’s architectural history, you would be able to interpret what has been driving us. Today, our built spaces are being converted to whisky bars, tourism ventures, tattoo parlours – but each of these, in time, will be out of fashion and replaced by other interests, all of which will be explainable through the myriad economic and social forces around us and within us.
There are countless changes that have occurred in my two decades living in this town. Walk around Launceston and look up: you’ll find more, from the last two centuries. “Cities here are communicative: present and past coexist in a conversation that composes layers and striations of reference.”
As a budding adolescent photographer, oblivious to the existence of the romantic aesthetic but drawn to it nevertheless, I entered the ruins mentioned above. My eye was attracted to the exposed skeleton of the cottages and the wiry branches of buddleja; inside the C.H. Smith building, I found a shelter that seemed to have belonged to some homeless people, with cushions and stuffed toys. “The bosses here are fascists,” a note from some unknown time read. The images I took (and photoshopped to death) are of places that will belong only to the long distant past soon enough.