Phillip Keir likes to joke that he can tell the age of certain Canberrans based on what they remember of a particular corner of Civic.
The owner of Verity Lane Markets has presided over the large block of the Sydney Building in Civic since the 1990s, when it was the Private Bin nightclub.
The entrepreneur and publisher - he used to publish Australian Rolling Stone magazine - bought the venue, he says, after John Howard became prime minister and reduced the size of the public service.
Perhaps "presiding over" isn't the right phrase; for many years, he held the block as a passive investor, while the Private Bin became Insomnia, ICBM, North Bar and, finally Meche.
When the last bar closed its doors, the proprietors having chosen not to spend up big to rehabilitate the ageing building, Keir decided to have a go himself. Although not a Canberran, his family had a long association with the capital region, through horses, farms and buses. And he also had a particular interest in heritage buildings.
"I just thought it would be a very interesting project, and about the same time, I heard that the ACT government were looking to start to revitalise Civic, and the light rail project was planned," he says.
He decided to turn the venue into a chic food hall, named after Verity Hewitt, who opened Canberra's first bookshop above Leo's Cafe in the late 1930s.
So, an unconventional female bookseller, and later, generations of night revellers of varying tastes and vintages; for Keir, it has been like sifting through the layers of history. "It was like sediments in a lake," he says.
Sediments, layers, generations, history; the Sydney Building, and its twin across Northbourne Avenue, the Melbourne Building, are two of Canberra's earliest structures, built between the two World Wars as the city's main commercial precinct.
And it's worth pointing out that in the early days, the buildings were gorgeous, with black marble skirting, and timber and copper detailing. These have been largely obscured by modern additions, lack of care or outright neglect. While numerous businesses have played up the buildings' heritage and vintage appeal, many more have not.
But such is the way of a precinct with multiple owners. A government or a single owner would normally develop major buildings like these - as is the case with the glorious Queen Victoria Building on George Street in Sydney, and owned by the City of Sydney - but the state of Canberra's economy in the 1920s meant the buildings were auctioned off under Crown Lease arrangements. This was before they were even built; each new owner constructed their part to an overall concept.
The process took two decades; a section of the Melbourne Building wasn't sold in time, and the government moved in and used it as offices. Over the years, various ownerships have passed through different hands, and the lots - each built roughly to the size of a Paddington terrace house - have been parcelled up into different venues. Verity Lane Markets takes up six lots. Dominating a corner of the Melbourne Building, meanwhile, the Quest Apartments, made up of hotel and residential units, has at least a dozen different strata owners .
The City Renewal Authority, the relatively new body charged with shaping the growth of central Canberra, is currently facing the awesome task of getting all these current owners - more than 60 across more than 100 separate titles - to agree on a heritage management plan, one that will spruce up the facades for starters. Again, not the usual thing for privately owned buildings, but these are legitimate landmarks, framing what should be a grand entrance to Canberra's CBD. And these days, they sure don't look the part.
Keir has been getting a kick out of seeing a new - and very different - generation of patrons frequenting his venue, while Canberra architect Alanna King has been engaged in a different kind of unlayering, as it were, when it comes to these flagship buildings.
Working at Philip Leeson Architects, which runs a heritage advisory service on behalf of the ACT government, she has been working on a heritage management plan for the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings.
She says one of the first things ACT Heritage wanted to know was the colour the buildings in their original state. This has involved paint scraping and analysis of, she says, around 30 different places around the structures to try and determine the original shade.
"They went through layers and layers of those kinds of modern creams which it's been since the 80s, and before that, a range of teal-y sort of greeny colours," she says. "And then, the original colour, quite a warm biscuit buff-type colour."
Today's closest reference is the Albert Hall and Manuka Pool, both of the same vintage as the Civic buildings, which were designed with a Mediterranean theme.
Interestingly, she says, Old Parliament House, built in the same period, was also what's officially known as Biscuit 42 in its earliest days.
"But it's been white for a very long time, and Parliament House was designed to to fit with that white colour scheme," King says. "So, a decision has been made that it is not going back to the original colour, that...it has its greatest significance as a white building."
Such decisions around heritage are never easy, as the City Renewal Authority chief Malcolm Snow would tell you.
There have been three separate meetings, attended by around a third of the buildings' different owners, to try and come up with a workable heritage management plan that everyone will be willing to work towards.
And, crucially, to spend towards. Snow says the plan is focusing only on the buildings' exteriors - the facades and colonnades - but not everyone wants to fork out the money to paint the facades, especially if they've only recently repainted in the current loose colour scheme of cream and off-white.
The conservation management plan is now, he says, in final draft form, and almost ready to be given to ACT Heritage to sign off.
But Snow says while owners will be encouraged to remove any intrusive signs and wall-fittings - security cameras outside nightclubs like the iconic Mooseheads in the Sydney Building will mostly likely stay out of necessity - the colour, at least, may well end up being non-negotiable.
Back in March, the authority amended its legislation specifically in relation to the revitalisation of the two buildings. One of the provisions allows the authority to direct an owner to carry out certain revitalisation work. If the work is not carried out, the act says, the authority can organise to have it done by someone else, and charge the owner retrospectively.
But Snow maintains this provision should be a last resort, and at any rate, he anticipates the ACT government will pay for the painting of the exteriors as a way of bringing consistency to the precinct.
"I think the difficult issue there is of course it's public money being spent on private property, but nevertheless, these are in many senses very public buildings," he says.
"The fact that we have a public footpath, the colonnades and the colonnades are enjoyed for public use - I think there's a case to be put as to why government may be prepared to come to the party."
He points out that the ACT is the only jurisdiction in Australia - including the Northern Territory - where owners of heritage buildings are not compensated for their upkeep through, say, lower rates. Heritage grants are small, and few and far between.
But he would much rather the owners arrived at the decision collectively.
"We are confident that because we had a good representative cross-section of owners, all of whom knowingly bought heritage buildings, they also appreciate that if they do the right thing and upgrade or renovate their buildings, it will add significant value to them collectively, not just individually but collectively as a group of buildings, given their configuration," he says.
Getting the buildings all the same colour is one thing, he says, but the finish of the colonnades is another. Keir is unhappy with the proposal to return the colonnade ground coverings to the original trowelled concrete, saying it will be impossible to clean. He favours terrazzo tiles, which would be in keeping with the buildings' Mediterranean feel.
But King says terrazzo tiles "won't meet the slip resistance requirements for a publicly accessible colonnade", beautiful though they would look.
Ultimately, Snow says, once the painting is done, many recalcitrant owners may well get a new appreciation of what the buildings could be, or how beautiful they once were.
Warm cream, black marble and copper details - is this the Canberra we know and love? Not now, but once upon a time, and maybe once again.
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