Long live the Queen(‘s Wharf Tower)

After the demolition of a local icon, Shea Evans looks back and wonders if things could have gone a different way. 

Well, it’s finally happened. After 30 proud years, the Queen’s Wharf Tower has been demolished. It was a polarising piece of architecture, prone to lewd comments and sniggers, but from its construction, it was always an icon of our city. To some, it embodied the Novocastrian spirit, a symbolic piece of heritage, while to others it was a relic of a time we are now rightly moving away from.

Just as controversial, perhaps, was the 2017 decision to dismantle it.

During a closed council meeting on the 28th of November last year, a confidential report detailing the then current status and future of the tower was discussed. One of the grounds given for closing this meeting to the public and press was, according to the minutes, “the Council or Committee concerned is satisfied that discussion of the matter in an open meeting would, on balance, be contrary to the public interest.”

At this meeting, six key issues were listed as reasons in favour of demolition. These were: negative user experience, poor aesthetic, safety, lack of disabled access, lack of use or need, and primarily, maintenance costs.

A heritage impact statement was prepared in June of this year for the council by EJE Heritage Architecture. According to page 18 of this report, “the complete tower contains 140 tonnes of steel and cost $476,000 at the time (of construction).”

Adjusted for inflation, the initial 1988 construction costs equalled $1.06 million in 2017. Council has predicted that over the next four years, the tower would have required $1.6 million in maintenance. This is $540,000 more than it cost to build the entire tower.

Another questionable claim from the council’s announcement was that “ratepayers have over the past few decades paid millions of dollars to maintain its paintwork.”

This is in direct contradiction to their own findings. In the council’s discussion of the confidential report, on page seven, it was found that the total cost of maintenance and repair between 1988 and 2017 was $765,419. Not “millions” after all.

Other given reasons are just as shaky. In a 2017 interview with the ABC, Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said of the tower that, “it’s at the end of its useful life as an asset. It has no disabled access. Only the very fit and able can get to the top of it.”

This is a fair and true point, the tower is 180 vertical steps, but it’s a weak argument for justifying a demolition. Should we ban surfing because only the fit and able can manage it? Perhaps the BMX trails at Glenrock should be bulldozed as well, while we’re at it.

Even if we concede to their point that it looked like an enormous member, so what? That reason alone isn’t strong enough to tear down a beloved landmark, what’s wrong with the male shape?

Queen’s Wharf Tower was closed for good on Monday the 3rd of September. On the night of Sunday the 2nd, I ascended it for one final farewell. I found a steady stream of locals going up and coming down, all of us drawn by love for the structure. At the observation deck, a small crowd was mourning their impending loss. Strangers came together and voiced their opinions to one another, holding forth on why they thought the tower was really going. More than one frustrated citizen voiced concern that the tower had been slated for destruction to appease wealthy residents and improve their views.

The tone of the conversation was one of disbelief. Many were shocked and angry that council had apparently made this decision for them behind closed doors, with no consultation or opportunity for questioning. The attitudes of these people opposed what the council claimed on the same day as their closed meeting.

From council news, 28th of November 2017, “City Of Newcastle is giving people what they have long demanded, signing off on the demolition of the infamous landmark.”

Also from the same article is the biased and unfounded claim that the tower has been, “derided by locals and tourists alike for decades…”

It seems as if council became embarrassed by the tower, assumed everybody else agreed, and then decided for us that we all wanted it gone.

A general refurbishment of the tower and rebranding it as an interactive museum would have gone a long way towards regenerating the tower’s use. Imagine this: you pay a gold coin donation at an information desk at ground level to get access to the tower. As you ascend you move through Newcastle’s history. The first half explores the indigenous history of the vicinity, and the second half explores Newcastle from its beginnings as a penal camp onward.

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At the observation deck, you are presented with the Newcastle of today and the Newcastle of tomorrow. An attendant assists you with a virtual reality headset which allows you to see planned and proposed developments and also enables you to redesign the harbour and foreshore from above. Newcastle City Council could upload the virtual designs to the internet, and each month’s most popular design is published in The Herald.

Coin-operated telescopes also provide a bird’s eye tour of the city, for $1 you get access to a telescope and a set of headphones. Through the headphones, you are directed to look at landmarks and are given information about them.

For the brave, $10 gets you a flying fox ride from the top of the dome down to the ferry terminal. Okay, this is a little fanciful. But not impossible.

The point is that it could have been made something better, and instead it feels as if it was taken from us. Newcastle Council had a closed meeting and discussed a report, with no press or public allowed, the end result of which was their decision to demolish the tower for us. Clearly, the council can’t ask ratepayers permission for everything they do, but it would have been nice this time.

Images: Reena Bilen, Newy with Kids.

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