History is being made and saved in the heart of Australia’s most liveable city.
Surrounded by scaffolding, Queen Victoria remains resolute.
Having stood in the same spot since 1883, she is unmoved by the commotion around her.
While the passage of time has not dulled the lustre of the great monarch’s statue, the same cannot be said for the building that envelopes her.
At Victoria’s Parliament House, one of Melbourne’s architectural jewels, the time for a makeover is well and truly at hand.
A grand dame of the 19th century, the building has had to adjust to life in the 21st century and she’s showing her age.
Crumbling stonework, ancient wiring, leaking walls and creaking floorboards go largely unnoticed by visitors as they marvel at the gilt features, plush interiors and glistening chandeliers dating back to the gold rush days.
But for the building’s custodians, who work in the parliamentary departments, the job of maintaining and rejuvenating Parliament House is a high priority.
Three storeys high, because that’s how far the scaffolding had to reach to paint Queen’s Hall, where pride of place has been given to the statue of the sovereign after whom the state is named.
Parliamentary Services Department Secretary, Peter Lochert says there are two main programs under way at Parliament House: one to restore the fabric of the building and one to improve how it functions.
“It’s almost an archaeological experiment as well as a restoration and maintenance task,” he says.
As the original construction of the building spanned many decades, with different architects and builders involved, there have been many challenges for the restoration team.
“There’s no real documentation from that era and much of the knowledge that existed in those days has really been lost,” Mr Lochert says.
“So we’ve had to search for plans and research some of the techniques that were used back then.”
Fit for a queen
It’s been more than two decades since the last major paint job for parliament’s main auditorium and it’s no wonder, given the logistics involved.
As the most central and largest room in the parliament, taking Queen’s Hall offline for five weeks was a big ask. Throughout the year it’s used extensively for events, tours, exhibitions and as a general thoroughfare between the parliamentary chambers.
Parliament’s winter recess was an ideal time to get the tradies in.
Even before the first coat went on, much had to be done to safeguard the precious artworks and heritage items on permanent display.
Portraits of past Premiers had to be stored, ceremonial chairs moved and special protection measures put in place for the chandeliers, each of which weighs some 360 kilograms.
Using three coats for each surface of the vast interior, more than 800 litres of paint was needed to complete the job. To meet modern standards, an environmentally friendly option was chosen.
A team of nine painters had to work closely with scaffolders, manoeuvring along the walls and around Queen Victoria's statue, to ensure every cornice and each ornate feature was covered and left undamaged.
French polishers were also called in to add the finishing touches to the red cedar windows that had been repaired a few years earlier using salvaged wood.
Time lapse video of Queen's Hall painting
Stone renovation at Parliament House is being completed in stages
Queen Victoria's statue has stood in Queen's Hall since 1883
The scale of the painting project is dwarfed by an even bigger renovation under way around the outside of the building.
A decade’s worth of labour has already been devoted to restoring the elaborate stonework that makes Parliament House such an impressive edifice.
It’s one of the most significant heritage restoration projects in Victoria’s history. Importantly, it has helped to keep alive some traditional skills.
“One of the things that gives us great pride is that the works have given an opportunity to start training young people for skills that otherwise might have been lost,” Peter Lochert says.
“If you go out the back and talk to the stonemasons you will find twenty year old guys chipping away when you’d probably have expected to see much older blokes, as stonemasonry is a very traditional skill.”
In a sense, the stone renovation project reflects the way in which the parliament building was originally constructed – in stages.
The Legislative Chambers were the first sections completed in 1856, followed by the Parliamentary Library in 1860, Queen’s Hall and Vestibule in 1878-9, the West Façade and Colonnade from 1881-8, the Front Steps from 1888-92, the North Wing in 1893 and the Refreshment Rooms in 1929.
The current stage of the restoration project is focused around sections of the Legislative Assembly and Refreshment Rooms.
Located at the rear and looking over the impressive parliamentary gardens, the Refreshment Rooms were a gift from the federal parliament after they moved out of the building when Canberra became the seat of the national government. They are a reminder of Melbourne’s historic role as Australia’s first capital.
Around 16 cubic metres of bluestone are being used for this stage of the project and more than 60 cubic metres of sandstone were used on some of the earlier stages.
As in days past, working the stone is a laborious task that requires a high level of skill. It can take up to three months for a stonemason to carve each intricate stone block.
Around 20 stonemasons are devoted to the project.
Joe Michienzi has been working on the site for eight years. He is immensely proud of the work that he is doing.
“The special thing about working here is knowing that it’s an historical building and our works will remain here for a long time to come,” he says.
“Our kids and their kids will be able to enjoy our work into the future.”
Mr Michienzi says it’s ground-breaking work because the building has remained untouched for so many years.
‘We’re the first people to do a really full-on restoration to the place in quite some time,” he says.
While the stonemasons can acquire their initial skills during an apprenticeship, there is also much learning on-the-job.
A parliament for its time
Changes at the building also reflect the environment in which parliament now operates.
Health, safety and security have been important drivers for many of the recent building works.
As the people’s house, Victoria’s Parliament has always prided itself on its openness to and connections with the community.
But access into and around the building has not always been easy, particularly for people with a disability.
Standing at the front of Parliament House, Peter Lochert points to the vast row of steps leading to the main entrance.
“Steps like these are hardly access friendly to everybody, and inside the building there are so many different levels to navigate,” he says.
“Much of what we are doing is about opening up the building to everybody and making it more accessible.”
Construction of disabled bathrooms and better wheelchair access through one of the main entrances address some of the difficulties that have been faced.
“But it’s also about ensuring safe access to the building,” Mr Lochert says.
For those charged with protecting the precinct, images that flashed around the world of a lone gunman attacking the Canadian Parliament reinforced the significance of their role.
While there have been no similar threats to any Australian parliament, new screening and driveway arrangements at the entrances to Parliament House have the aim of protecting the safety of people who work in and visit the building. At the same time there is a commitment to maintain accessibility to the home of parliamentary democracy in Victoria.
Concern about a possible cancer cluster among MPs and staff was another recent issue requiring attention. It led to a detailed assessment of the building and its working environment.
While the expert study found no evidence of cancer causing agents and no heightened cancer risk at Parliament House, there is growing recognition that some of the work spaces in the parliamentary precinct do not meet the standards expected of a 21st century workplace.
The so-called ‘chook house’ at the back of the building – the demountable where many MPs’ offices are located – was a temporary fix that was never supposed to be there so long. It’s one of the many challenges to be faced as the demands on the building continue to grow.
The 'chook house' was built to provide temporary office space for MPs
“The original concept of the building was that members of parliament would not really be based in the building, that they would simply come here to attend the chambers and committee or party meetings,” Mr Lochert says.
“Back then, there would never have been an expectation for members to have had offices or to keep staff in the building or around the parliamentary precinct.
“One hundred and sixty years later members work in a very different sort of way. They need to spend much more time in the building. They need to have offices, they need to bring staff, and they need to meet with constituents.
“The function of the building today is quite different to what it was in its original conception. And so we need to try and improve the function to meet contemporary standards.”
Parliament House has never been completed to its original design. But its iconic façade makes it one of Melbourne’s most recognisable landmarks.
Keeping the building in good shape and making it work in a modern world represents an investment in Victoria’s heritage and in the future health of the state’s parliamentary democracy.
As the scaffolding in Queen’s Hall is removed after fresh coats of paint and polish, Queen Victoria can again survey the majesty of the building in which she stands.
Renovations at Parliament House are restoring and enhancing the building
Written and produced by
Parliament of Victoria News
in association with
Buildings and Grounds Services, Department of Parliamentary Services.
Video by Parliament Broadcasting.