Dawson Street's former Baptist Church, years boarded up and home to nothing but pigeons and rats, has been revealed after a stunning renovation by Ballarat businessman Michael Whitehead and Nat Twaits Building.
For many years the home of Ballarat's Baptist congregation, then a series of restaurants and nightclubs including Powerhouse, Playground and Dawson's, the Greek revival-style collonaded structure had fallen into disrepair of late, a leaking roof threatening its ornate interior plasterwork, its exquisite cement exterior mouldings degrading.
Mr Whitehead told The Courier he'd first thought about buying the building some 20 years previously, but it was only in the last few years it became a reality.
How do you purchase a building like that? How do you find it on the market?
"It was on the market nearly 20 years ago, and I looked at it at that stage and I didn't buy it. My wife thought it was stupid, and she was right. However when it came back on the market, I thought I'd buy it, I think it was May 2016.
"It was in an awful state. It had been actually on the market for quite some time. There had been nothing done to it. It was full of pigeons, it was rotting; the roof was failing with the slate tiles; the rain was getting in, and the pigeons, obviously.
"The price dropped, and I jumped because I thought, 'I've always wanted this for 15 years'. And I was shifting out of my other place, which was The Central Bowling Club in Mair Street, which I've had for 20-odd years anyway. "To some extent I was trying to downsize, in so far as I had an acre at Mair Street, and I just didn't need a garden. And this certainly hasn't got a garden.
"I didn't realise it'd be so hard to restore though. I had these ideas, and I didn't realize how extensively bad it was. That was the problem from the start.
"The supports of the roof go up and down, and all the bearers are leaning about 15 degrees towards Dawson Street. There was major structural damage. We had to brace between each of the roof bearers right across and from Dawson Street back towards the east. So it was within an imminent state of falling in on itself. And I didn't realise it was that bad, but I had taken the risk of thinking that was probably solid enough to go ahead with."
How did how did you go with council? Were they supportive?
"I had no trouble with council. I think they were very happy to see something done because it was an eyesore in its current state, and it was a beautiful building that nobody had ever done anything for.
"I wasn't doing anything council would be particularly fussed about, because I was just building it with the opportunity of having a bed and breakfast in one side and my own residence in the other, which meant that I could reduce my personal footprint by having a quarter of it as a bed-and-breakfast or self-contained accommodation.
"When that was put to council, they said it would fit within the planning arrangements, and then I was happy to go ahead and purchase it on that basis. Council said if Heritage Victoria were to allow it to be modified according to my plans, then council would go with it, and they did.
"Heritage Victoria were easy to deal with They appreciated that it was falling apart, and enabled me to put about 12 skylights in the roof cavity. So they cut the slate away and created big lightwell, or two big lightwells, and enabled me to cut out huge five-metre windows at the back facing the Target carpark, and put glass in there.
"They enabled me to put two doors, an upstairs and downstairs out the back, because it wasn't really facing the front of the street; it was facing the carpark. And they enabled me to cut out the blind pediments, which were look like framed windows but they were bricked in or stoned in.
"Because it's in the shape of a Greco-Roman temple, those three blind pediments at the front would have been statue placement areas in the old days. So they are really Greco-Roman architectural ornaments in a modern sense. They didn't perform the old function of having statues in them, and they weren't deep enough anyway."
You didn't think about getting a sculptor to make one of you?
"I couldn't have one made with me as a victor because I wasn't victorious in those early years! They enabled me to cut windows there and let the west sun go down both sides of the building. So they were pretty good. The big stopping point was I thought I could put a slab down, and heat the slab for Ballarat's winters.
"When I told them I was putting a slab down there, Heritage Victoria said I couldn't. I'd already arranged to put a slab in. I couldn't change it, because it would cost me, and they wouldn't change their mind. And I couldn't take it to VCAT. So I was stuck.
"So what I did was search the internet for a wooden hydronic-heated floor. They were in the USA. And they're about 38mm thick, wooden boards, eight by four with routed channels for the water pipes. All of the panels came out numbered, and they were just assembled like a jigsaw and then the pipes are put in and heats an aluminium surface and spreads across the whole floor. It's a new technology here; it cost about $137,000 but it is a big floor, 22m x 11m.
"The reason why I couldn't put a slab in? Heritage Victoria said if it was put in, nobody could return it to being a church. I don't think they assume that will happen; it's just the protocol for a wooden floor is to be replaced by wooden floors. So we did that, it's fine. It was just an expensive process and a lot of stress in order."
Would you do it again, Michael?
No, I don't need to.
You must be proud, giving new life to a Ballarat building 150 or 160 years old. When will you open it?
"Yes, it was built in 1867. And it will reopen at the end of November. I think, looking forward to the next 12 months, people aren't going to travel overseas anyway. People are going to discover their own countries and they're going to discover the regions.
"Melbourne people just want to get out of Melbourne, and Ballarat is very close. And it's taken on a new popularity, because people know one area, an hour-and-a-half from Melbourne was relatively blissful while the pandemic was on. So there are a lot of people who would be interested in coming up and checking out Ballarat.
It seems every second person in Ballarat has a story about something the saw or did when they went to a nightclub in the building. I suppose you've been tapped on the shoulder a lot with 'this happened while I was at...'
"Yes,everybody. In fact, I was leaving the back of the building this morning., and there was a guy there on a bike with his kid. And he was saying he remembers a nightclub very well. A lot of people have been actually snooping around, having a look around, since it was on TV."
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