30 May 2016

Stop the Rot at Boggo Road

Are you concerned about protecting the heritage and history of the Boggo Road heritage prison?

I am. I've devoted a big chunk of my life to the old place, as a labour of love without financial reward.*

There has been some recent debate about whether people should support or oppose plans for the future of Boggo Road. The best approach to this is to step back and look at the big picture.

Unfortunately, what we see is that the old prison buildings are dying a slow death. Ever since it closed as a working prison 27 years ago, Boggo Road has been in gradual decline.

There are no plans to demolish original red-brick 1903 buildings such as the cellblocks, but they have visibly decayed over the decades. Rust is eating metal, brickwork is weakening, gutters are collapsing, wood is rotting, invasive plants are spreading, and paint is peeling away.

Paint peeling in a Boggo Road cell, 2012. (M Wilson)
Plants growing into brickwork, Boggo Road, 2012 (C Dawson)
Inside an old office room, Boggo Road, 2012 (M Wilson)

New money is needed to fix this

The immediate problem is that, in a time of spending cuts across Australian society, there is insufficient public funding available to preserve Boggo Road into the future. The government can provide some, but only so much.

And although the prison has been used for occasional tours and functions since the 1990s, these activities have never raised anywhere near enough money to look after Boggo Road properly. As they stand now, the buildings are badly underused. Most of the time they are empty and dead.

New money is needed to save Boggo Road. This is the reality of the situation and it needs to be faced up to. If we continue with the same old failed approach, it is only a matter of time before the decay of the heritage prison gets past the point of no return.

As the most recent heritage report on Boggo Road, written by one of Queensland’s leading heritage architects, warned us:
‘Without adaptive re-use of the site there is little prospect of maintaining the cultural heritage significance of the place. The buildings are currently vacant apart from a limited use by a private tour operator. Unless the place is adaptively re-used, at least in part, the site will continue to degrade and ongoing maintenance will be further minimised.’

It is time to bring Boggo Road back to life

To protect the future of Boggo Road, we need a brand new way to attract thousands more people to discover its history, appreciate its unique heritage qualities, and contribute to saving the buildings.

But how can we re-use Boggo Road in a way that has a strong focus on history and generates substantial revenue to help protect it into the future?

The answer is to create a brilliant new heritage, arts and dining hub at the old prison. One that retains the old buildings and is home to new exhibitions, educational tours, drama and music activities and events, community meeting spaces, history research facilities, and top-class dining and coffee venues.

A place that is always alive with a constant stream of visitors, where things are always happening, each day and night. A place that becomes one of Brisbane’s very best cultural destinations.

Some of Brisbane’s leading history, visual arts, drama and music organisations formed the Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance and have already been developing plans for just such a centre for over two years. Working closely with other stakeholders, the vision of a thriving cultural hub at Boggo is now very achievable.

The official Boggo Road development plans put forward by Calile Malouf Investments Pty. Ltd in October 2015 come close to enabling that vision. Those plans include refurbishment of the decaying parts of the old prison. They also include adapting some internal spaces for re-use.

The main compromise is that some of the 126 cells inside two of the three cellblocks would be modified to create larger rooms and the spaces needed for sustainable community, dining, arts and heritage facilities. The third cellblock would be left as it is and used exclusively for History and education. The clear assessment of heritage professionals is that the cultural significance of Boggo Road would be retained, and that new works would be carried out in a reversible manner.

Evidence suggests that some of the opposition to the plans is disingenuous and based on stakeholders trying to protect their own financial interests. However, I understand how some people can have genuine concerns about these changes. I know where they are coming from. I too wish modifications weren’t necessary. But the big picture cannot be ignored. This is the only viable plan there is to fix and sustainably protect the physical heritage of Boggo Road into the long-term future.

To just carry on under-using the place - as is happening now - is not an option. It has been over ten years since the prison was fully open to the public. Another ten years like that and the place will continue to slowly rot away. And the huge educational potential of this unique heritage site will continue to be wasted.

So if you are genuinely concerned about protecting the heritage and history of Boggo Road, remember that the current plans have two massive benefits:

  • PROTECT HERITAGE: A sustainable way to raise revenue needed to fix and protect the heritage of the old prison buildings for generations to come.
  • PROMOTE HISTORY: More people than ever before will discover the history of Boggo Road, and in exciting new ways.

While they might not be perfect, the proposals do present a very rare opportunity to create and fund a brilliant new heritage venue for Queensland.

On balance, I think that is an opportunity that we should be brave and forward-thinking enough to take while we can.

Chris Dawson, MPHA (Qld)
May 2016

*  I am a professional historian; former councillor of the National Trust of Qld; founder and committee member of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society (Inc.); author of 14 publications on prison history; the curator of the Boggo Road Gaol Museum; and currently serve on the managing committees of the Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance, the Brisbane Southside History Network, and the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery. I have also been closely involved in the Boggo Road planning process since it began well over a decade ago, and has met extensively with other stakeholders and decision makers during that time.

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