Another Fig Tree
One day, I met a friend of mine for lunch and we settled on meeting at the Cloisters in St George’s Terrace at the top of Mill Street. We stopped alongside the big Port Jackson Fig Tree at the entrance, to chat about how it was saved when the huge building behind it, Mt. Newman House, was constructed in the 1970’s.
The architects were Howlett & Bailey, my husband Robbie (better known as Growly Granddad to our readers) worked for Jeff Howlett as a construction supervisor on other projects and I remember Jeff telling us about how the tree was saved.
Designed in 1858, the Cloisters was built by convicts to be a school for the sons of well-to-do colonial settlers in Perth. There were not enough sons to make the school a long term success, although some of its famous students included John Forrest. It has been used as a school for girls, a training school for priests and a hostel for students at UWA. Its designer, Richard Roach Jewell has left a huge legacy of iconic buildings in Perth, besides the Cloisters. He was Chief Architect of the Town Hall, designed the Wesley Church and the beautiful Deanery next to St. George’s Cathedral. He planned the Treasury building, the Barracks and others including the old Masonic lodge and contributed much to our legacy of iconic buildings in Perth.
The only photo I could find of the Cloisters in 1900 is slightly damaged on the right hand side, with none of the tree in view. It was given as a seedling to William Stephens and his wife, Mary Kathleen (nee Cromartie), who lived for a short time in the Cloisters when they arrived in the colony of Perth. Married on 25 January, 1881, they came from Ireland in 1887 with one daughter and their two other daughters came to Perth in 1892. Sadly, Mary Kathleen died in the Cloisters in 1893 at the age of 30 from TB, leaving William the single father of three girls, one of whom also died of TB about a year after her mother. On 25 March 1899, he remarried and later fathered two more daughters.
Pictures of the Cloisters in the late 1960’s show the building standing clear against the horizon, uncluttered by any background building and the huge Port Jackson Fig towering above it.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Perth demolished many of its historic buildings as the first mineral boom of the north west and a surging gold price fuelled development in St George’s Terrace and the city centre. Across the road from the AMP building (which fell to the demolisher’s swinging steel ball), the Palace Hotel was only saved by a major community campaign through the Palace Guard, spearheaded by the biting satirical pens of the Daily News Newspaper cartoonist Paul Rigby and his columnist friend Kirwan Ward, who lobbied for its retention.
When the redevelopment of the Cloisters site was first mooted to build Mt. Newman House, the original plan was for them to be demolished. Like the Palace Hotel campaign, it was a public outcry which sparked the Cloisters retention and refurbishment. At the time, the Port Jackson Fig was a highly recognizable tree in the city centre and was regarded as being very important for the overall project. In return for restoring the Cloisters to their former glory, the owners were given approval for a larger building and the building budget included $100,000 for the restoration of the Cloisters and the retention of the Port Jackson Fig tree.
During the construction of Mt Newman house, the tree began to show signs of severe distress. On three sides the roots had been cut through twelve feet out from the main trunk, and on the fourth side was a wall. Its branches were beginning to droop, and Jeff’s partner, Don Bailey, contacted Perth’s leading landscape architect and botanist, Marion Blackwell to ask for her advice on how the tree might be saved.
Marion had a special interest in the successful transplantation of trees in coastal conditions, reducing their stress using polymer called Acropol, which in Russia was used to deter frostbite. By spraying the fig tree with Acropol, she enclosed it in a virtual raincoat that helped stop the tree from transpiring, so keeping it highly moisturized and she arranged for it to be watered regularly. When the tree had largely recovered, she engaged a professionally trained tree surgeon to cut away the dead ends and reshape the tree to suit the new surroundings. She gave it about a fifty percent chance of surviving.
In 1972, the architects received the WA Clay Brick Award for their design of the Mt. Newman complex, which so successfully incorporated the Cloisters and saved the magnificent Port Jackson Fig tree. The Cloisters together with the tree was placed on the permanent state heritage register on 20 October 1995.
Right now, (April 2012) there is a plan before the Perth City Council for a new nine story office building at the Hay Street end of Cloisters Arcade, which has already changed dramatically from the original design, and an upgrade of the St George’s Terrace access to the complex. According to Council records accessed on line, any approvals are contingent upon the both the Cloisters and the tree being retained.
In the light of the current demolition of 300 trees for the new development of Elizabeth Quay on the Esplanade, near the Bell Tower at Barrack Street, one wonders whether the City of Perth Council really would regard these approval considerations to be more than an idle thought. What do you think? We would love to hear from you.
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