Great Western Hotel: Another (Real) Pub Bites the Dust

July 2022

With planning approval having been granted on 27 May this year, the threat of demolition that has been hanging over the Great Western Hotel in King Street since 2017 is now a reality.

The Great Western opened in 1864 as the Star of the West and operated as a hotel continuously until it closed in March 2017. Granting approval for the planned redevelopment of the site condemns the Great Western to joining the long list of historic pubs, including the Stork and the Corkman Hotels, lost to Melbourne.

Built in the Victorian Regency style, the Great Western is a particularly valuable example of a type of Melbourne building constructed before the high Victorian boom. Virtually unaltered since it opened, it remains an excellent example of a 19th century corner hotel and includes a cellar with an operating well. Even the current developer acknowledged that it is ‘reasonably intact’. Yet despite its history, the Great Western only has a C heritage grade, which does not provide protection from demolition.

The first proposal for redevelopment of the site was for a 26 storey apartment tower. This proposal originally included full demolition of the Great Western, but was later revised to maintain the building’s facade.

The current proposal by the Argo Group is for a 23-storey, 80-metre office building above shops, restaurants, and a ‘wellness centre’. And while the earlier proposal for the site was for a tower above the Great Western, the current developer has also secured the property adjacent to the Great Western, allowing the new building to have a significantly larger footprint. The remnant of the pub is now confined to a corner of the project. Adding insult to injury, a new three level pub is to be built behind the façade.

Heritage groups have been united in opposing demolition. The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) has been campaigning for more than five years to save this important piece of Melbourne’s history. It has strongly condemned any plan to develop the site at the expense of losing an irreplaceable part of Melbourne’s history. Charles Sowerwine, Chair of the RHSV’s Heritage Committee noted that the Great Western had escaped demolition because of development deals, but now, ironically after inclusion in the Hoddle Grid Review, will not survive. ‘With it will go yet another chunk of Melbourne’s history. The Great Western was built just after the Gold Rush and is a witness to the impact of the Gold Rush on Melbourne life and sociability. Hotels were a major part of the fabric of urban life in the 19th Century. The small hotels of that era continue to play a major role in neighbourhood social life. Yet we have lost so many that any further loss is a great tragedy’ he said.

The National Trust has also been critical of redevelopment of the site, emphasising the need to  protect the places that directly contribute to Melbourne’s appeal and condemning the tokenism of facadism.

The City of Melbourne approved the project, but as the proposed development has 30,000 square metres of floor area (compared to 24,000 square metres for the original concept) it required approval from the Minister for Planning. Approval was given on 27 May. So Melbourne will lose yet another of its historic and irreplaceable social assets.