Recent interest by large developers in Melbourne's former red-light district has put heritage buildings in the area - located in the three city blocks north of Spring Street - at risk of being demolished.

In the 19th century, the slum and red-light district was known as Little Lon. The area was once bounded by Lonsdale Street, Spring Street, Stephen Street (later Exhibition Street) and La Trobe Street, and was further divided by numerous narrow laneways.

The area consisted of a group of timber and brick cottages, shops and small factories hosting an ethnically diverse, predominantly low-income population. Several buildings in the area hold historic significance, such as the restaurant and bar hub bordered by Lonsdale, Exhibition and Little Collins streets, which is home to the threatened Palace Theatre and which was once home to prostitutes and thieves.

The National Trust of Australia stressed that the precinct has not undergone a heritage review since 1976, potentially putting the city in danger of losing part of its architectural history.

Committed to promoting and conserving Australia’s indigenous, natural and historic heritage, the National Trust of Australia is a community-based, non-governmental umbrella organisation supported by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.

At Melbourne City Council’s most recent meeting, councillors agreed to scope and cost a review of the heritage grading of all buildings in the Bourke Hill precinct and of other built form controls which contribute to the protection of the site. They will consolidate this work into a draft planning scheme amendment to consider in early 2014.

The Collector's Marvellous Melbourne

Councillor Rohan Leppert said he was aware of about half a dozen plans that showed spectacular breaches of height limits or complete disregard for heritage; in recent months the Palace Theatre has been marked for demolition to make way for a $180 million luxury hotel/apartment complex.

“There are so many applications for new developments that are fundamentally changing the character of the precinct and the laneways. My personal view is that the controls in this area are too weak,” Leppert said.

Lord mayor Robert Doyle said a review of the city’s heritage was necessary to identify and protect valuable buildings, rather than to block development. He pointed to “the chequered history of Crossley and Liverpool streets, which were of course in the early part of Melbourne our brothel streets known colloquially as Romeo Lane and Juliet Terrace.”

The Bourke Hill precinct is the first area singled out since the council resolved in June to progressively undertake a review of heritage precincts.

A bird’s eye view of Melbourne with Little Lon in the foreground, 1880.

A bird’s eye view of Melbourne with Little Lon in the foreground, 1880.

The Bourke Hill Precinct’s importance is based largely on its association with the Parliament House, which was first built in 1856. The complex dominates the Bourke Street vista from as far away as William Street, and is emphasised by the sympathetic scale of the buildings on either side of the Bourke Street Hill.

The precinct also includes some stylish buildings facing Spring Street, such as the Princess Theatre (1886) and the Hotel Windsor (1883), which contribute to the character of Spring Street and its gardens. These buildings reflect the variety of social activities that have taken place in this area in the past.

The scale of the City’s buildings before the boom era of the 1880s is exposed in the simple design and low scale of the two-storey Crossley’s Building.

Furthermore, buildings such as the Salvation Army Temple (1890) reflect the interest of social reformers in the nearby ‘back slums’ epitomised by the nearby former Gordon House (1883-1884).

Little Lonsdale Street

Little Lonsdale Street from the Old Governor Bourke Hotel, corner Spring Street, Melbourne, 1870-75.

The juxtaposition of the Parliament, the former deprived areas of Little Bourke Street and the style of Bourke Street give the precinct an unrivalled historic texture, and the theatres, hotels, cafes and quality bookshops contribute to the relaxed and elegant character of the eastern end of the city.

Because of its key attributes – the low-scale Victorian buildings and the visual dominance of the parliamentary buildings on the Bourke Hill skyline – the National Trust has called for a timeline for the heritage review project of the precinct.