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Historic Oakleigh Motel reduced to skerricks

G15th October 2010

C16 Comments

Tarchitecture, heritage

The government agency appointed to protect our heritage buildings is complicit in their destruction.

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.

The Oakleigh Motel in November 2009.

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.

The Oakleigh Motel in 1959. (Picture: National Archives of Australia).

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.

The gutted reception area and covered-way.

Legal issues

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”.

Walls are all that remain of the individual units.

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!

The Oakleigh Motel lies in ruins.

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.

The former dining room, later a restaurant.

What now?

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.

Artist’s impression of “Parkview Terraces”.




16 responses to “Historic Oakleigh Motel reduced to skerricks”

  • Written by Glynn on 16 October 2010:

    Great article! and I agree with you – its a shame Heritage Victoria hasn’t protected what it should have. I used to always think that hotel reminded me ones seen in American movies – it was quite iconic in its own way.

  • Written by Sean on 17 October 2010:

    Well put Adam, a disappointing outcome though “tokenism” and “Heritage Victoria” probably belong in the same sentence. You’re right that developers are not always the bad guys and that there should be more strict rules on what can and can’t be done with heritage buildings. I mean think of all the fantastic effort groups had to go to just to get this building listed, just to have it compromised like this. In my personal opinion putting economy before heritage is a truly absurd notion when heritage accounts for so much of our economy. And what is it with owners of heritage buildings having to pay for heritage permits for the privilege of this bumbling bureaucracy when they are supposed to within the law to retain the buildings anyway ?? As someone who has owned part of a heritage listed building I know just how petty they can be when they want to. With less money from the people who are paying to maintain the buildings the outcome is bound to be frugal and less than satisfactory and ultimately it is the buildings that will suffer. In my opinion, Heritage Victoria should chip in, not chip away. In the end they just another government department in need of a long overdue overhaul. Don’t get disheartened though, keep writing, you’re fighting the good fight ….

  • Written by X-RIS on 1 November 2010:

    Heritage Victoria is run by f***heads at the best of times…but for once they did well. All you antique minded morons have no concept of the continuation of time. Seriously…bringing a building with a similar use in a revamped format is a true moulding of historical value, current values, and future values. Much prefer this than seeing it a decrepid, old, run down, and abandoned crack house ‘sullying’ it’s name.

  • Written by cmon on 2 November 2010:

    Come on, the thing looks like a rip off of an American diner, hardly Australian history.

  • Written by X-RIS on 2 February 2011:

    cmon..your a dumbass. Have you ever walked into an Aust milk bar?!? With a moronic response like that probably not. Do some research of all our built styles, then you can have a basis for an opinion that makes sense or at least an argument with some credibility. Your current comment shows how ignorant you are and how much of a sheep or parrot you are by following and repeating what ignorant f***heads would say…like all those poojabbers in ‘save our suburbs’… Education is the key to intelligence…something you are sorely in need of.

  • Written by Tom on 11 February 2011:

    X-RIS, I bet you had something to do with the development of this disgusting s**tcanning of Australian culture..the first Motel built in Australia in 1956…gutted so some hack could make a $…the thing should have been sold to the Government and fully preserved like a time-capsule, the inside restored to fit a 1956 aesthetic and still run as a motel…what a shocking example of the kind of thuggish, hoon culture we live in, a place where certain people have no value of the society they live in..history being something to step over to make a $.

    poojabbers…X-RIS you’ve played your car as an utter moron..”Education is the key to intelligence”..nice theory, go an practice it with your IQ of a doorknob

  • Written by Glenn on 17 February 2011:

    This makes me very sad. I have almost completed pre-production on a time travel film that is set around a motel and I came across this beautiful piece of art – only to turn up one day to see it in ruins. Very very sad.

  • Written by Mel on 20 March 2011:

    Great article. I live within walking distance of the motel and have been horrified as to what has been going on there over the last few months. Sure facilities need to be modernised and upgraded at the motel as I have stayed there many times, but I always thought this would be done within the guidelines of the heritage listing. Keeping the essence of the motel whilst upgrading was always possible, it surely actually would have added to the quirkyness of the motel which is why we all loved it.

  • Written by Julio Amorim on 30 April 2011:

    This absolute farce is unworthy of a civilized country !

  • Written by Patricia on 31 October 2011:

    All very sad, I was looking up the Oakleigh for a small write up on Australian Mid-Century Hotels, not even aware of it’s recent fate.

    But unfortunately I believe that getting angry at small, under funded government bodies and councils for failing to protect these buildings, purely by lobbying for heritage value and caveats does not solve the problem. For every rare protection afforded a landmark such as the Oakleigh, another great home or hotel round the corner is being bulldozed.

    At Modernist Australia we are trying to raise the profile of Australian Mid-Century and Modernist buildings as a whole – be they homes, hotels, public buildings and so on as it’s only through wider public and business appreciation that these great buildings stand a chance. You cannot lock-up every building, in every suburb, in the country with building restrictions, BUT you can create an ever-increasing audience of people who love the architecture and features, and will pay money to own it, restore it etc…

    At any rate, great run-down Adam, we’ll link this to our site if you don’t mind.


  • Written by X-RIS on 9 November 2011:

    you are all retarded morons.. Did any of you contribute any m0ney to its preservation?? No.. So no money means its decommissioned to a decrepit existence that remains an embarrassment to the entire area, all because you think that your opinions of ‘i think it should be left as is’, holds more weight than researched and sympathetic design. If it meant so much, then why didn’t you all organise a committee and buy it and do as you wanted. Put your money where your mouths are.. Or at the very least petition a movement for its preservation..or even a simple application or even a letter of concern to heritage fpr its preservation… but no, that would mean that you actually spent time and believed in your opinions.. I’ve actually travelled and viewed the design proposal, i believe its sypathetic and maintains the integrity of the site and area..and no, i am not affiliated in any way with the construction.. I am just sick of negative rubbish being spewed as a knee jerk reaction to any development..

  • Written by Jonathan on 4 March 2012:

    I saw that building in Princes Highway….
    1959 to present.. =) I’m happy it’s still there…

  • Written by Helena Peper on 30 July 2012:

    WE are farmers about 5 Km from Melbourne and have stayed at the Oakleigh Motel whenever we visited Melbourne, and we are going to miss the motel, as it is the only one we stayed in while in Melbourne since it was built.

  • Written by Rose on 21 September 2012:

    Sad. A nice example of rare Australian Googie architecture.

  • Written by Michael on 1 July 2013:

    Any Update on this place?

  • Written by Mark Dalton on 2 February 2014:

    Heritage Victoria are a toothless tiger that hinder more than help real restoration.
    They are currently stalling any real progress in saving the HMVS Cerberus from rusting into oblivion, my thought is that they think if they stall long enough their problem will rust away and sink into the sea. Not great thinking as it will then become a shipping hazard. Check out this page and help if you can. 🙂

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