You are here: Home / Media / The last post

The last post

Heritage buildings have been abandoned by a modern postal service, writes Mike Ticher. In July the Herald received its last letter. from the old Redfern Post Office. Appropriately, it was about the removal of postal services from the landmark building on Redfern Street reports this article from the Sydney Morning Herald of 7 January 2009.

Philip Daley, of Redfern, wrote: "Australia Post has decided to close Redfern Post Office, a listed building, after 125 years. Why? It wants to move the office to an anonymous building up the street so that it can sell all sorts of junk that has nothing to do with the postal service."

He was not quite accurate. As an Australia Post spokesman wrote to point out, it no longer owned the building. The postal services were run by a licensee, who was leaving on the expiry of the lease.

But Mr Daley was right in a broader sense. In the past 20 years the postal service has abandoned dozens of old post offices in Sydney. Almost all have indeed been replaced by "an anonymous building up the street", or a space in a nearby mall. Some have been used for various businesses. Others are closed and empty.

Redfern is perhaps the most architecturally significant building to have its connection to Australia Post severed and its story tells us something about the changing nature of that organisation.

The process began in earnest after the corporatisation of Australia Post in 1989 and the establishment of PostShops in the 1990s. Their emphasis on retail demanded more flexible spaces. Australia Post's corporate history, Delivering More Than Ever, says the older offices "were no longer meeting contemporary needs".

Redfern became a licensed post office when it was sold in 2000, the same year it was put on the State Heritage Register "to ensure that heritage items are properly listed before

they are considered for sale under the Commonwealth's asset disposal program".

City of Sydney councillor and architect John McInerney calls that program "a short-term money-grabbing exercise that ignored the important heritage and social significance of the postal service".

After corporatisation, he says, "the care with which [Australia Post] maintained their heritage tradition disappeared."

Redfern Post Office was built in 1882 by James Barnet, who was also responsible for the Sydney GPO as well as dozens of court houses and other post offices.

Barnet's beautiful and practical buildings, with those of his equally prolific successor, Walter Liberty Vernon, helped transform the postal service. They gave it an identity —today we would call it a brand — that was strengthened by the unifying effects of the electric telegraph and, after Barnet's death, by Federation.

The state was advancing its influence and

the post office was one of its key representatives in every suburb and country town.

If Barnet's post offices were symbols of confidence and the authority of the state, their abandonment surely marks the retreat of that confidence and authority.

In its submission to the Productivity Commission's 2006 heritage inquiry, the City of Sydney wrote that the sale of post offices had "eroded the institutional hierarchy of public buildings".

As the importance of mail has diminished, post offices have returned to something like their pre-Barnet status, when you might have found them in a bakery, train station or makeshift general store.

As Patrick Bingham-Hall, who co-wrote a monograph on Barnet, wrote: "The symbolic position of [Barnet's] buildings within the town or suburb will never be supplanted." And it's true the post office building in Redfern is still a physical landmark. But what is the point of a symbolic position if

it contains offices or a cafe? The former NSW government architect Chris Johnson, now with the Department of Planning, who has also written on Barnet, is not a purist about such changes.

"I don't think that's a major issue, because the most important thing is that a building is used," he says.

The building's owner, the celebrity manager Max Markson, does regret the departure, saying: "It was built as a post office and I think it's ever so sad. I wanted to talk [the licensees] into staying ... but they wanted more space."

No one would suggest buildings should never change their function. And at least they are not being knocked down. Yet there is something a bit shabby about the way Australia Post has abandoned responsibility for buildings.

In its official publications it stresses its "heritage strategy" and last year released a set of stamps celebrating its historic buildings. But the strategy applies only to the buildings it owns, which excludes post offices operated under licence — about 70 per cent of the total in NSW. And it certainly does not take account of buildings that are no longer post offices.

Australia Post declined to comment on whether the changed use and sometimes poor repair of buildings reflected poorly on its brand. Its website refers to the ones that were sold as "redundant". Perhaps some were expensive and difficult to maintain but many could have been reconfigured or partially converted, as at Marrickville, where a cafe now occupies the main area but postal services continue in a side room.

All too late for Redfern. At least Mr Daley got there in time to post his letter.

Photos: Tamara Dean Time moves on ... Australia Post has outgrown the heritage-listed Redfern Post Office. New tenants ...the Haberfield and Marrickville post office buildings.

Mike Ticher is the Herald's Letters Editor

Source: Sydney Morning Herald 7 January 2009