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Saving Shed 26: why keeping this threatened building could rejuvenate the Port

Opinion

With the future of another piece of Port Adelaide’s maritime heritage in the balance, historian Brian Samuels makes a case for the vast building to become the heart of a new precinct celebrating South Australian history.

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Over my 50 years involvement in SA history circles, I’ve watched enthusiasm for heritage tourism wax and wane. There’s been over-reliance on one-offs – think Jubilee 150, Australian Bicentenary, Centenary of Federation – to deliver significant funding.

What’s missing is a long-term commitment to funding and a blueprint to guide investment.

It is astonishing that after 183 years there is nowhere in the state that visitors – let alone our own citizens and students – can get an overview of our history. Such an overview that would excite interest and signpost heritage tourism attractions across the state. It would be a place where South Australia’s story could begin to be appreciated.

Much can be learnt from the state’s more than 350 museums and historical organisations, but the big picture is missing.

As I write, another opportunity to address this gap is threatened. The former main workshop of the Government Dockyard at Port Adelaide – the vast sawtooth-roofed Shed 26 – is the last surviving building of an enterprise that serviced ports across the state. It may be demolished for housing.

It and the adjacent Fletcher’s Dock sit next to a State Heritage Place, ‘The Fletcher’s Slip Precinct’. Managed as one, those sites represent the last chance to develop a ‘must-see’ Port attraction at a highly visible site in the Inner Harbour – a  site where currently inaccessible, unique collections and significant vessels of the SA Maritime Museum and the clipper ship City of Adelaide could combine to form a lively and appealing precinct. Indeed, the entire Maritime Museum could relocate there and become the drawcard that old port cities like Fremantle, Liverpool and Glasgow have had the sense to create.

It could even become the Museum of South Australian History – a proposal going back to the 1930s – mentioned in the Government’s election platform.

If an Adelaide site proves too hard to find, where better than the Port?

Its history and heritage buildings encompass many major threads of the state’s story – commerce and industry, transport and communication, defence, and the wool and grain trade. Visitors could experience the Shed 26 precinct and cross the river to immerse themselves in streetscapes that are directly connected to that history, and aviation and railway museums that already have much to offer.

Waterfront housing is no tourist drawcard.

Much of the Port’s high-density redevelopment has performed poorly as an investment. An eye-catching, reborn maritime precinct with the right mix of commercial tenants and creative offerings could change all that. It could also put the state’s hidden heritage assets to work.

The author, Brian Samuels, was one of the founders of The Historical Society of SA in 1974 and had long careers with the History Trust of SA and more recently as Principal Heritage Officer, Heritage SA. In 2016 he received a South Australian Life-Long History Achievement Award.

The state Environment Minister, David Speirs, is reviewing an SA Heritage Council decision to list Shed 26 as a state heritage place. He has said he will make a decision by April 11.

South Australia’s History Festival is from 27 April – 31 May 2019. The program is out on April 6 and will be available online.

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