Historic Oakleigh Motel reduced to skerricks
With the full blessing of Heritage Victoria, developers have recently demolished or gutted much of the Oakleigh Motel, despite the building’s inclusion on the state’s heritage register.
Heritage Victoria, who are charged with protecting our built heritage and consider the 1957 motel to be of “state significance” seem to show a cavalier disregard for our architectural heritage and appear to have lost sight of their very reason for being.
With nothing left but some walls and a sign, it’s time to take a look at the Oakleigh Motel’s significant history, its architectural and cultural significance, and the path that led to its destruction.
The motel as a phenomenon
The Oakleigh Motel in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Oakleigh was the very first motel ever built in Victoria.
Constructed in 1956, “the Oak” was the official ‘turning point’ for the marathon in the 1956 Olympics and typical of a new style of architecture developed in response to the boom in car ownership in post-war Australia.
These days, we take motels for granted but in the 1950’s, the motel was the newest architectural development to emanate from the United States. Deploying a novel style of design and ‘modern’ conveniences such as car parking, telephones, air-conditioning and individual bathrooms, the motel as a phenomenon would soon spread across the country like a bushfire.
There had been several failed attempts to build motels in Victoria before 1956, but with the accommodation shortage that resulted from the city’s hosting of the Olympics, the pressure to build motels increased. Commissioned by former car salesman Cyril Lewis and designed by architect James Miller, the Oakleigh succeeded where others had failed up to that period. Nevertheless, delays prevented its completion until 1957 when the Olympics had ended.
In the United States, motel design had developed into a form that would later be known as “Googie” architecture. Googie architecture typically relied on the use of garish colours, peculiar eye-catching building materials, bright neon signs and unusual structural forms that were all designed to catch the eye of fast-moving vehicular traffic.
Australian architects travelled to the United States to examine, learn from, and adapt the Googie style to Australian conditions. The Oakleigh Motel was the first expression of Googie architecture in Victoria, and a good example at that.
The Oak’s enormous portico with signage, the enormous neon sign above the motel (added in the late 1950’s) and the unusual form of the building (especially the dining room) typify the Googie style and would have attracted the eye of many. Whilst the Oakleigh was the first, many similar buildings followed.
What made the Oakleigh unique (and therefore historically even more significant) was the fact that in 2009, the motel was still largely as it was constructed in 1956. Still fully operational, but with a different colour scheme and minor modification to the neon sign, the motel had survived where most others from that period were either significantly altered, or demolished.
In 2008, the motel was sold to developers who wanted to turn the site into 54 apartments. The City of Monash was in full support, but many community members were not and the National Trust lead a campaign to have the Oakleigh Motel listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
After public submissions were considered (including one from the City of Monash opposing the motel’s inclusion on the register), the Heritage Council decided in favour of adding the motel to the state’s heritage list, thus protecting it from redevelopment or alteration.
Or so you’d think.
As I speak, the Oakleigh Motel, which is described by the Victorian Heritage Council as an “unusually intact example of 1950’s modernism in Victoria” and as being “aesthetically significant as an example of the American ‘Googie’ style of architecture” is being totally gutted. The walls remain, but almost everything else has been ripped out to make way for 33 apartments.
This is how Heritage Victoria looks after buildings “of architectural, historical and aesthetic significance to the State of Victoria”.
The City of Monash, who evidently value rates and revenue above cultural and architectural history, have opposed the protection of this building from the very beginning.
In 2008, councillors at the City of Monash voted to remove the motel from the Monash Heritage Overlay and advised the new owners that it could be demolished, until the Heritage Council stepped in and prevented wholesale demolition.
Following the intervention of Heritage Victoria, the City of Monash received a proposal to put 54 units on the property from developers Oakleigh Development Pty. Ltd., but felt that the site was over-crowded and so the plan was rejected.
Oakleigh Development Pty. Ltd. then took the City of Monash to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
VCAT also rejected the proposal, so the developers were forced to re-work their plans into a more acceptable form. This involved reducing the number of proposed dwellings to 34. The City of Monash accepted the revised plans, pending approval from the Heritage Council which oddly, was granted.
With approval in hand, the developers set about gutting huge parts of a building that is supposed to be of “state significance”. All of this was achieved with approval from the government’s heritage agency.
What a farce!
Last weekend, I decided to take a look at the Oakleigh Motel and was saddened to see it had been reduced to a shell. Yes, the walls remained (and the large portico), but the buildings had been gutted and the roofs demolished.
I have viewed detailed plans of the redevelopment by architects Carabott Holt (which I cannot publish here) and can say I am disappointed with the design, which seeks as much as possible to conflict and distract from the former Oakleigh Motel’s aesthetic.
Whilst the reception building will be retained, all of the units will have an (unsympathetic) second storey added and a couple of new blocks will be wedged onto the site. Granted, the original front building may remain its single story, but the fact that the only original features are a sign and some brickwork make me wonder whether it might not have just been easier to demolish the lot, because so little of value remains.
Whilst I am unhappy with the plans, I cannot criticise the developers and architects who have acted entirely within their rights and the law.
My criticism lies squarely with Heritage Victoria, which has shown itself to be an utterly useless government agency with an amazing disregard for heritage matters. Heritage Victoria seems to have a far greater interest in economic development than heritage, which strikes me as absurd.
The Oakleigh Motel was significant because of its novel layout as much as it’s Googie architecture.
If its soul is ripped out, its Googie elements reduced to mere tokenism and one can no longer see the design aesthetic and layout of the complex in all its detail, what is the value of retaining this small portion? Anyone viewing this property in 10 years time would be confused at the remaining motel skerricks, and gain no appreciation of what 1950’s motel accommodation was like.
In all honesty, I am getting sick of writing about these heritage matters but it is harder to distinguish who the true enemy of heritage protection is: the proverbial “greedy developers” or the Heritage Council of Victoria.
The longer I look, the more I am convinced it is Heritage Victoria who is demonstrating a dereliction of duty.
- Carnovale, M. (2010) Sign of the Times, Monash Leader, 9 March, p. 5.
- D’Arcy, J. (2009) Strange bedfellows, Sunday Age, 28 June, p.20.
- Heritage Victoria (2009) Oakleigh Motel, Heritage Register entry H2193
- Howe, R et al. (2009) Decision of the Heritage Council.
- Leiminger, K. (2010) It’s here to stay, but sign battle goes on, Monash Weekly, 8 March
- Parkview Terraces (2010) Parkview Terraces website
- Reeves, S. (2009) Submission Concerning Oakleigh Motel, Built Heritage Pty. Ltd. & National Trust.
- VCAT (2009) Oakleigh Development Pty Ltd v Monash CC & Ors, Case No. P126/2009.