One of Ballarat’s least known yet most historic buildings is getting a long-awaited refurbishment.
The massive George Farmer & Co. building on the corner of Eureka and Joseph streets has stood empty since the 1960s. It was the site of one of Ballarat’s most successful businesses, founded around the time of the goldrush and continuing until the late 1960s.
Now its thick concrete walls are coming back to use, reborn as a venue for the Biennale of Australian Art in September this year.
The Courier took a tour of the building’s labyrinthine corridors and hidden rooms, and spoke to owner Richard Perry and BOAA head Julie Collins about the future of the landmark.
The current building on the site occupies some 10,000m2 and the entire site over 15,000m2, giving some idea of the scale of the Farmers’ meatworks operations. The company also operated an abattoir on site, butchering pigs for bacon and ham.
John Farmer was curing ham on the Ballarat goldfields when his son George was born in 1854. George and his younger brother James inherited and expanded the family business in 1879, moving it from Golden Point to the Ballarat East location.
Self-described as “One of the BEST appointed in the Southern Hemisphere”, the factory produced an entire range of smallgoods including sausages and cured meats of all kinds, dripping and lard. George Farmer and Co. was a regular prize winner at agricultural shows in both Sydney and Melbourne.
But all that came to an end on the September 25, 1913, when the factory caught fire at around 10pm. Fanned by strong breezes, the entire site was soon strongly ablaze, watched by the population of Ballarat who travelled in carriages and by extra trams run purely to carry spectators.
Mr. Farmer at once telephoned for the Ballarat Fire Brigade, and they promptly turned out. Upon arrival at the scene they recognised that a great task was before them, and telephoned to the city brigade for assistance. Four streams of water were soon pouring on the flames, but they made little impression. The place was full of inflammable materials, and the flames greedily licked up department after department.
The Argus, September 25, 1913.
The entire site was destroyed in the fire, fuelled by animal grease and fats. Farmer & Co.’s entire stock was lost, worth £25,000, and the £20,000 buildings were razed, leaving just the front facade. Although everything was insured, George Farmer’s staff of 94 men were instantly put out of work.
But George Farmer knew how to turn disaster to his advantage. Early in the next year, newspapers reported Farmer was proposing to move his business to Preston in Melbourne. The then-mayor of the city, Cr Brokenshire, released an ‘official report’ stating the factory would be rebuilt in Ballarat ‘consequent on the Railway Department having agreed to treat him more considerately in the matter of freight.’
George Farmer & Co. had its own rail siding in Rodier Street for unloading pigs, which would then be taken to its yards off Joseph Street. It was located on the site of the present day Eureka Centre. Having secured himself a better deal, Farmer set about rebuilding his empire, which grew to be immensely successful between the wars and afterwards.
His new buildings on the site were constructed of 12-inch concrete and brick. Farmer was determined not to have his venture destroyed by fire again. In 1923 Farmer extended the buildings again, adding state-of-the-art smoking and steaming facilities and improved coolrooms.
George Farmer died in 1934 aged 80; his brother James in 1941 aged 85.
George Farmer & Co. later merged with Sunshine Biscuits and became Ballarat Products. After averting closure due to post-war regulation, it reverted to George Farmer & Co. Ltd in 1956 when it subsumed Gippsland’s Victorian Bacon Co. Ltd. The company later left the Eureka Street factory, and was later wound up. George Farmer’s massive construction stood empty and decaying for 50 years.
Since purchasing the property about four years ago, co-owners Richard Perry and Megan Wahr of Urban Abstract Pty Ltd have been finding ways to bring the behemoth of a structure to heel.
“What people don’t understand is – it’s all bloody concrete walls,” says Mr Perry.
“It’s that thick.” He gestures with his hands about 30cm apart.
“We’ve been putting the toilets in and we’ve been three days drilling holes through the concrete to get the sewer pipes in, we’ve gone through drill bits and such.
“This was built to last. It hasn’t moved, it’s amazing. We’ve had to fix one truss.”
Urban Abstract has begun to construct apartments within the building, and arts training organisation Oxygen College (based in Geelong) has a campus on the site.
Currently Mr Perry is working to prepare the building as an exhibition space for the forthcoming Biennale of Australian Art (BOAA), opening in September. Ceilings are being repaired, walls plastered, bathrooms installed. Years of detritus are being cleaned away, revealing the bones of a classic industrial space.
BOAA head Julie Collins took The Courier on a tour of the proposed spaces, which will house 25 of the biggest names in the biennale, including veteran performance artist Stelarc, West Australian brothers Perth brothers Abdul-Rahman Abdullah and Abdul Abdullah and inter-disciplinary artist Charlotte Hayward.
Ms Collins says the build is undoubtedly challenging, and working against time to prepare spaces and facilties, while exhilarating, is also exhausting.
“We’re keeping a lot of the elements of the original building while creating new spaces to exhibit in,” says Ms Collins.
“This is a vast building. There is a whole other floor underground, and we will just be using part of the upper floor. You can see the potential of it being almost a Berlin Biennale-type space.”