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BOOK REVIEW: A City Lost & Found by Robyn Annear: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne –Black Inc 2006

Someone recently gave me A City Lost & Found as a birthday present. That is not a valid motive for writing a review of a book published more than a decade ago. But in this case there are good reasons for reviewing it now. One is that it is a remarkable historical work which is now available as an ebook. (The paperback edition is still available.) Another reason is that A City Lost & Found serves as a stark reminder of what can so easily yet irretrievably be lost. It is not that long ago that the 159-year-old Corkman Irish Pub near Melbourne University was illegally destroyed.    

Robyn Annear has used the history of a demolition company called Whelan the Wrecker on which to hang the stories of many noteworthy edifices that were demolished in the city of Melbourne. Wrecking of a city building, often in difficult and confined conditions, requires special skills and is dangerous work. The Whelans did this exceptionally well, and took great pride in their safety record, but were not entirely accident-free. The period covered is from the time a young Jim Whelan arrived in Melbourne from Stawell in 1884 to when Whelan the Wrecker went into voluntary liquidation in 1991. The company name was finally sold for $50,000 after three generations of Whelans had run the business successfully. 

For those interested in the history of Melbourne, A City Lost & Found adds another dimension. The reader not only learns why a building was being demolished but also its history. One notable case was that of the Colonial Mutual Life Building which ‘as everyone knew, would last forever.’ It was originally known as the Equitable Building, commissioned by the Equitable Life Assurance Society of America, ‘whose Melbourne offices were built to reflect their permanent commitment to Australia’. Unfortunately, though, it did not feature on the National Trust’s list of treasures because it was disdainfully dubbed as ‘Americanised Renaissance’. Inside and out it was probably one of the most beautiful and well constructed buildings demolished in Melbourne. An allegorical group of statuary from the building’s magnificent entrance now stands in the Melbourne University grounds near the Baillieu Library.

At the beginning of each of those chapters dealing with demolitions there is a map of the Melbourne city streets showing the location of the buildings described in that chapter. In addition, Annear has included a number of black and white illustrations. It is a pity these were not larger, and the book would have benefited from more of them.

Annear does not imply that buildings should never be demolished. Nor does she apportion blame to the wrecker of a building that should perhaps have been preserved. As one or other of the Whelan family would say, they are not the ones who decided what should be wrecked; they are the tools. In her research notes for this book, Annear quotes Myles Whelan, to whom she has dedicated this book, as saying ‘[a]ll things come to an end. In Europe demolition instructions are incorporated in the architect’s construction plans . . . Demolition is the first step of progress.’ A City Lost & Found documents that ‘progress’.