Fawkner Mansions was a rooming house but has fallen into disrepair. Photo: Penny StephensIt stands vacant on one of Melbourne’s busiest thoroughfares, a mystery to many of the thousands of people who drive past every day.
Built in 1910, Fawkner Mansions on the corner of Punt Road and Commercial Road in Prahran is one of Melbourne’s oldest remaining apartment buildings. Until a few years ago it operated as a rooming house, accepting referrals from housing agencies until it fell into disrepair.
After it closed, housing workers wondered whether it had been sold, abandoned or prepared for redevelopment.
From about the late 1990s Fawkner Mansions provided accommodation to people facing homelessness.
But one of its co-owners Jeffrey Nguyen said the building’s deteriorating condition and damage had forced its closure. He said he is spending his own savings and time slowly renovating the three-storey building, which has more than 70 rooms.
Now it is home to pigeons that have nested in the rusted pressed tin ceilings.
Uncertainty still surrounds the building’s future partly because it lies within the Punt Road acquisition overlay zone, which means it may one day be acquired for a possible widening of the congested road.
Mr Nguyen said the acquisition overlay made it difficult to raise funds to invest in the building. And renovations to meet heritage requirements were also costly, he said.
Mr Nguyen said one option is to resurrect Fawkner Mansions as a rooming house but he concedes that could be many years away at the current rate.
“It’s a terrible shame when people are sleeping on the street,” he said.
Mr Nguyen said the building was worth preserving for its heritage value.
Inside, Fawkner Mansions is a maze of dilapidated bedrooms, halls and bathrooms. Rotting arched window frames point to a splendid past and the mammoth task in restoring the building.
Housing groups want it reopened so they can resume referring clients who might otherwise be forced into rough sleeping.
Heather Holst, deputy chief executive of homeless support service Launch Housing, said referral options including Fawkner Mansions were crucial. “Now we’ve got more capacity to provide support to people in those units as well,” she said.
However, she said such options were disappearing.
A spokeswoman for Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the acquisition overlay had been in place since the 1960s but it was under review to determine whether it was needed. “It has been in place for a long time but we want to give property owners clarity,” she said.
An independent panel had produced a report but Mr Wynne had asked for more information from VicRoads before making a decision in coming months, the spokeswoman said.
Prahran Greens MP Sam Hibbins said the acquisition overlay needed to be scrapped so that Fawkner Mansions could reopen its doors to the homeless.
“There’s demand out there for this sort of accommodation,” he said.
The red brick building with parapet corner towers was purchased by the Alfred Hospital in 1950 and was used to house nurses, according to a Stonnington council heritage citation report.
Last month The Age reported that at least 300 beds of last resort throughout the inner and middle suburbs had been lost to gentrification. These included large boarding houses, low-cost motels and caravan parks.
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