Steiglitz Primary School is one the earliest state schools in Victoria. Designed by renowned surveyor and architect Henry Robert Bastow, who oversaw an unprecedented school building program after the passing of the Education Act (1872). This legislation proclaimed that education should be free, secular and compulsory for all children. 615 schools were built within five years.

Steiglitz is a place replete with stories. It is a rare place where the history of the gold rush can be interpreted through architectural remains, remnants of an early urban fabric and the mullock heaps that have been progressively reclaimed by nature. It presents a fascinating reminder of the many questions of heritage and place that constantly surround us.

Steiglitz is significant for many reasons. It is one of the first places where both alluvial and reef gold mining occurred in the central Victorian gold rush. Quartz mining brought investment, technology, colonial government, commerce and civic infrastructure.

The first substantial gold rush to Steiglitz was in 1856 and the town’s population peaked at around 2,000 people with the school’s attendance booming along with the town throughout the 1880s. State School Number 1487 was opened in 1874 at New Chum, a defunct settlement near Steiglitz. The school was relocated in 1880 to its present site just outside Steiglitz and renamed as the Steiglitz Primary School.

The 20th century brought changes in mining practices and the decline of Steiglitz, with many buildings disappearing. Bushland has reclaimed the surrounds, further cutting off the school from the remnants of the town. This isolation and the ongoing deterioration of the building has made the former Steiglitz Primary School a fascinating case study in heritage conservation dilemmas.

Located on public land, the building is at risk from bushfire, vandalism and ongoing decay. Its isolation means it is rarely seen or interacted with. But while doing nothing will likely result in the building’s erasure, the question of what can or should be done is complex. It displays tensions in local planning policies, within the Burra Charter (2013) and in the politics of public land management.

Since the closure of the school in 1960, the site has had a variety of uses, which ceased come the 2000s. From the 1990s, there has been a succession of plans for the school site and building. Many elements of these plans that related to the building including recommended maintenance works have never been implemented. It appears that government funding to implement conservation plans was often not available, while community groups lacked the resources or authority to carry out maintenance works themselves.

In 2013, Back to Steiglitz, a local community group, commissioned a plan that recommended relocating the school to a site within the Steiglitz township as the only viable means to ensure its conservation. This is in light of Article 9 of the Burra Charter’s reference to relocation being “generally unacceptable unless this is the sole practical means of ensuring its survival” given the physical location of a heritage place forms part of its cultural significance. And yet, the regrowth of bushland and the increasing isolation of the school site from the rest of the Steiglitz township raise questions as to the role geography plays in the cultural significance of the school site. It might be argued that moving the school into the old Steiglitz township not only better protects the building, but makes it more visible and accessible and re-establishes the school building’s link to the township. In other words, changing the geographic context may preserve or even reintroduce a social context formed in the school’s links with the Steiglitz township.

Even if moving the building is acknowledged as a suitable solution, the same questions of resourcing, responsibility and political will that have affected the building’s upkeep still arise. Heritage buildings, like other planning objects and issues, are subject to the inertia of governance systems and politics. But the slow process of deterioration of built fabric means resourcing requirements for maintenance will continue to increase over time if indeed the building survives.

The gradual decline of the school in its current location raises further questions. Is this decline through neglect a form of demolition, which is discouraged under the Burra Charter and the relevant municipal planning scheme, which identifies the school site as of heritage significance? In a planning sense, neglect of a heritage place does not require a planning permit and yet works to maintain or demolish a building protected under the Heritage Overlay are likely to require permits. However, the end results of neglect and demolition may end up being essentially the same.

Planning policy affecting the school site encourages “restoration, adaptation and reconstruction of heritage places in a manner that does not detract from the cultural significance of the place or area”. Such work has proven impossible in the school’s current location. Could it be that sympathetic restoration, adaptation or even reconstruction of the school on a vacant site in the Steiglitz town centre might allow for the preservation of this significant piece of cultural heritage?

The old Steiglitz Primary School raises an array of heritage questions that reverberate far beyond the township of Steiglitz. These questions of heritage and context cut to how we define and assess cultural significance and the types of maintenance or conservation approaches that might be acceptable in complex situations.

Source: Steiglitz State School: A Cultural Heritage Dilemma by Fiona Gray PhD Architect and Research Fellow. Published on July 20, 2016 in History News, Issue No 325, July 2016, Royal Historical Society of Victoria

The spelling of the name of this place follows the pronunciation of the family name von Stieglitz, early pastoralists in the district.