Thursday, June 20, 2024

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HomeIssue 23Heritage under fire

Heritage under fire

The Pitchi Richi Sanctuary just outside The Gap survived a deliberately-lit fire earlier this week, thanks to the quick action of on-site volunteers and up to eight firemen from our local Fire Service.
Surveying the damage brought home to me just how threatened our town’s heritage places have become, where one careless, poorly thought through action can have disastrous consequences.
In this case, it was a lit match applied to dry grass along the fence-line of the property, sparking a fire that spread quickly into the northern section of the Sanctuary.
The loss was limited to a few trees and the “Bush Camp” display set up by the sanctuary’s founder, Leo Corbet.
Fortunately, the fire did not affect the William (“Bill”) Ricketts statues that adorn the sanctuary.  “It could have been far worse” is our only consolation.
But that match can just as easily come in the form of a ministerial decision to put one of our town’s most important heritage buildings, The Residency, up for “commercialisation”.
The Uniting Church is considering doing the same with Adelaide House, another of our town’s heritage gems.
Worse still are the recent decisions of the Heritage Council to not recommend heritage-listing of the old Riverside Hotel (now Todd Tavern), the Wallis Fogarty Store (now Travelworld) and the old Mecca Date Farm, just a short way up the road from Pitchi Richi.
As these decisions are not generally publicised, the first the general public will know of their unprotected status will be when the front end loaders move in to demolish them.
Have our decision-makers gone completely mad? Having overseen the loss of our more “mediocre” heritage places, all of which however contributed to the town’s iconic “outback” character, are they left with only  our most significant, most unique heritage places upon which to direct their attention?
The Pitchi Richi Sanctuary will survive this setback.  With the next rains, the grounds will green up again and our volunteers will work to re-establish the “Last Camp” display.
Sadly, our town’s last remaining heritage places will not recover so easily.  Once they have been adapted for commercialisation, they are unlikely to be returned to their historic state.
And once they have been lost to demolition, they will be gone forever.
[The writer is the chairman of Heritage Alice Springs Incorporated.]


  1. I’ve covered heritage stories with Dom for a couple of decades (give or take). The Alice News was even a tenant in his railway house in Railway Terrace for a time. Heritage is one of our major news beats. We’ve commented on (and I reported it elsewhere) the wanton vandalism by ruthless developers who demolished the Marron’s Newsagency and Turner House.
    At all times our focus was on the interests of the town, on what historical attractions mean to the lifestyle of us locals, their enjoyment by visitors, and their direct connection with the town’s economy.
    At times Dom and I disagreed – but that’s the spice of life, having a vigorous discussion about an important subject. In this spirit I’m offering the following thoughts.
    Would Martin Luther King have coined one of the world’s greatest phrases if he had said: “I have a nightmare.”
    Let’s approach the Residency issue from the other end.
    To oppose its “commercialisation” is counter-productive. All it does is to alienate the many people who are engaged in commerce. It’s not a disreputable pursuit, after all. The current opposition creates an us-and-them situation and drives the heritage promoters into a bunker were most people are reluctant to join them.
    They are seen as being possessive of a public property. Would it not be much better to expand this sense of ownership from a small group, always lamenting the lack of support for them? What is happening at Pitchi Ritchi – not much that’s positive – is a case in point.
    To get on board the broad community would protect the Residency far more effectively from stupid political action than a campaign by a minority. 
    There would not be a soul in this town who wants the Residency bulldozed. So what are we arguing about?
    At present, according to the heritage group, there are 20 one-day functions a year in this old building, such as the flower show. An average of 15 people a day visit, for a look, during opening hours, 11am to 3pm (when most visitors wouldn’t be back from their tours) on weekdays. Slim pickings. 
    We’re arguing about a degree of change: One can take a zealot’s view and say nothing whatsoever must be changed. Look, don’t touch. Why? Because I say so. OK. Have it your way.
    On the other hand, a small change, managed properly, could make a huge difference to the appeal and broad use of the Residency.
    Do we need another coffee shop? Yes, we do.
    One that defines the character of Alice Springs as does a Café of Vienna, great coffee, great cakes, perfect place to have a long deep and meaningful. Special. One that is as memorable as a bistro on Montmartre in Paris. Exciting.
    Sure, a case can be made for sitting on chrome chairs in a glass cage the likes of which there are millions around the globe. We need something better. The Residency gives us that opportunity.
    And this is where the heritage group and it expertise would come into play: Having a positive role in making it happen, while safeguarding the bulk of the heritage values, steering the process.
    Would that not be much better than frowning upon even discussing the options?

  2. Erwin, I’m trying to comprehend the common ground between Paris, Vienna and Alice Springs in your post.
    I think the cafe of your dreams is a very poor fit on the Residency site and you’re wrong to assert that Heritage Alice Springs is opposed to entrepreneurial activity.
    But I can’t help wondering if an organisation like HAS wouldn’t get a better hearing and receive more recognition and trust for its professionalism in Paris and Vienna.
    Why is it so difficult to see that HAS is doing a remarkable job and needs support to do better? I’m sure you can identify with the premise that small business owners are frequently showered with advice from those who reckon they could do it better; usually a mixture of irrelevant nonsense, sometimes a stating of the bleeding obvious and always plenty of cliches.
    Rarely is unsolicited business advice deeply considered and truly ground-breaking in its insight or profitability and rarer still is it accompanied with the offer of practical help, especially the funds to make it happen.
    By all means patronise cafes in the mall or lease one of the growing number of empty shops. Go to the Red Ochre Grill for a faux heritage experience in what used to be Marrons Newsagency.
    Visit the Old Riverside (a special heritage building of significant scale that could be knocked down because it’s heritage nomination has been rejected) where you’ll discover alcohol is more profitable than coffee and cake, buy Katja’s that’s currently up for sale or visit the RFDS cafe on the southern edge of the CBD.
    I think the whole cafe idea at The Residency site is a fantasy and a furphy that is playing into the hands of the NT Government.
    Unless Matt Conlan can sway the economic reductionists wielding influence here I believe the NTG will seek the highest rental return from the Residency and this is likely to come in the form of offices – that would be another retrograde step for an already struggling northern CBD.
    I think it’s a fairly safe bet that Heritage Alice Springs have a business plan that reflects their working knowledge of the site and its constraints.
    One off events in the past have been value added by food /coffee on occasion but even if the gardens were levelled to provide sufficient extra car-parking (virtually impossible to meet parking regulations), the modest profits on offer won’t attract a serious cafe investor willing to fit out the building, pay a commercial rental and care for the building.
    Given the treatment of HAS, a volunteer organisation (that receives NO government funding) I doubt they’ll want to share their business plan with your online readers or potential competitors.
    If I was Dom Pecorari (President of HAS) who has given generously of his time over many years I’d drop the keys in your collective laps and wish you the best of luck managing the place.
    But Dom and the HAS Committee are too principled for that – they actually care about the place.

  3. I should have said that Heritage Alice Springs receives no recurrent government funding. Over the years they have received various heritage grants to allow for specific conservation works eg. Chapman House at Pitchi Ritchi.

  4. I am sincerely sorry for writing to your Alice Springs News, Erwin, particularly as it seems to have given you the opportunity to take my words out of context (just who’s saying the Residency is under threat of the bulldozers?) and the chance to criticise Heritage Alice Springs Inc for shortcomings born only of your ill-informed imagination.
    I’m afraid I won’t be responding further to your provocations as I consider it a fruitless exercise and will not be drawn into your game for raising controversy.
    Heritage Alice Springs is actually achieving more than you will ever acknowledge, under difficult circumstances, but we are not one to blow our own trumpet, preferring instead to continue working, head down, bum up, as many of our town’s “quiet achievers” before us. Your words are an insult to the many hard-working volunteers that are actually “doing something” for our town, people who are actually closer to Martin Luther King’s legacy than those who would twist his words around for a cute “one liner”.

  5. Well, here we have it: debate isn’t an option for Domenico.
    We have published – so far – 26 readers’ comments on this issue in two postings, including seven from Domenico. The comments are running about two to one in favour of his argument.
    Our respect for the views of the writers in our comment section is in no doubt (except by Dom): we give these writers space to express their opinions. We have published thousands of readers’ comments. We’re the town’s biggest public forum of its kind (that is, moderated).
    This debate will, of course, continue, and it is Dom’s call whether or not he participates.

  6. I’m shocked, but not surprised. On 24/6/2012 I was engaged by Dom [Pecorari] to restore sculptures on site at Pitchi Richi Sancturary.
    It was at the time of the beanie festival. Having taken a week to get there from Tweed Heads, my wife was happy. My role at the sanctuary was to assess on the site the 22 sculptures’ condition and location, after getting over the surreal feeling of being here, [a special occasion] because of the sculptures.
    I expressed my view to persons on the site, and also emailed Dom, it’s a miracle that any of the sculptures were still here. Most required urgent major restoration. The site was in danger of destruction from falling tree branches in winds, as well as from fire and vandals.
    The site totally overgrown with thick meter high grass. To provide the low level sculptures with protection for two years would require major work.
    My disappointment is that Dom, Clare nor anyone else has contacted me since. My emails were not replied to.
    These treasures in Alice created by of William Richetts may now be seen because fire exposed them.
    Open your eyes to Australian art. You have a gift like no other. With a garden backdrop [the site would be suitable] for a restaurant with Alice flare. Or move sculptures to a park with a garden fenced area and maintain them.
    I would do this and return each year to restore the sculptures.


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