BY KALON HUETT
With its strikingly symmetrical art deco facade, the former Majestic Roller Rink dominates the block of New Canterbury Road and overshadows its neighbours in both size and splendour. If Petersham were a set of Lego, this heritage building would be some random, oversized piece taken from the toy box by a confused toddler, dipped in a jar of blue paint, planted recklessly onto the neatly assembled suburban scene and abandoned. The Majestic stands tall but without pride; colourful yet hardly cared for.
Behind the picturesque exterior of this theatre turned roller rink turned massive unused space, lie eclectic features from across the decades: the tiled red, black, and cream floor; the 1920’s ornate plasterwork; the art deco detailing that consumes the foyer. Architectural hints of Hollywood grandeur can be seen in the 1950’s renovations of Guy Crick, a well known cinema architect for Great Union Theatres. The Majestic is a reflection of Petersham’s history.
Internally, the mishmash of styles and elements, from a variety of uses and periods, represent the changing face of entertainment in Australia from the early 20th century. The Majestic might not have fitted comfortably into any one style, but its popularity meant it always fitted into Petersham.
The building’s charm, though, has been fading with its pastel paintwork. The line between art deco facade and part deco farce narrows yearly. ‘It’s got a very interesting history, but if it stays unused it’s an eyesore,’ says Sam Santoro, whose family has owned Charlie’s Deli – a few doors up – for 32 years.
Mr Santoro is also a member of Petersham’s Main Street Committee – a collection of local businesspeople that regularly liaise with Council over all things Petersham. Like many other members of the community curious about the building’s future, he knew that peering through the unwashed glass doors in recent times revealed chaos and clutter, not character.
The Majestic has long resembled a London squat house – albeit one with potential – dusty; dishevelled; devoid of tender loving care. On Petersham’s main road, this empty roller rink is the elephant in the room. And it’s not an elephant with skates on; it’s an elephant on its last legs.
The vertical, multi-coloured sign out the front still says ‘roller skating’, but it hasn’t been illuminated in years and the Majestic has well and truly hosted its last skate. Now the wheels are in motion to finally make use of 49 New Canterbury Road after a long stretch of abandonment. And it seems that local residents, building developers, heritage societies, and the Council are all in rare agreement about what’s best for the future of this architectural and cultural icon of the area.
Marrickville Council has approved a development application for the ‘retention and sympathetic adaptation of the existing building’. And so will begin the Majestic’s new life as a mixed-use complex, with apartments perched above shops, cafes, and a basement car park – Petersham’s version of Leichhardt’s Norton Street Forum?
Such plans don’t always appeal to those who value the cultural over the commercial, but Marrickville Heritage Society reported their approval to Council because – unlike previous proposals – development is to be contained within the existing structure. It won’t be the same, but it won’t be gone.
In the past this idea would have seemed as much a fantasy as some of the movies people came in their hundreds to see on the big screen. 2011 marks the 100th anniversary since films were first screened on the site, although the existing building was actually constructed as the Majestic Theatre ninety years ago, in 1921. It spent nearly sixty years, a handful of name changes, and countless modifications operating as a picture theatre until it became a roller skating rink in 1979. The one thing that never changed was the building’s cultural and social significance in the area.
Old photographs tell the story of the Majestic’s popularity. There were queues out the door for the opening of a film; people flocked to skating nights from across the inner west.
Peter Chessell moved to Petersham as a young man in 1964, before it became little Portugal. He’s lived and worked there ever since, and despite being nearly seventy still drives people home safely in the RSL courtesy bus.
Mr Chessell was around when the rollarink began operating. He recalls the nights it stayed open til ten or eleven and kids would be skating down the street – excited, carefree, and just a little noisy. ‘A few of the locals didn’t like it because of the influx of young people,’ he says with a tone that suggests he didn’t necessarily agree.
These days, though, an influx of any people to Petersham – young, old, or in between – is viewed as a positive to most locals, believes Mr Chessell. ‘As long as they don’t just put another Portuguese chicken shop in, because we’ve got a few of those already,’ he jokes.
The reality is that nobody is quite sure what types of shops will appear when the re-development is complete. The difference between this application and its failed predecessors, however, seems to be an acknowledgement that the Majestic cannot be unceremoniously dethroned and replaced. At the same time, what is the benefit of a large derelict building that continues to deteriorate in the name of heritage?
Mr Santoro says the area has changed so much that perhaps heritage doesn’t matter as much as it used to. ‘If you’d asked me ten years ago I might’ve said something different. But there are facades on this road from so many eras – it’s not like we have all these beautiful 1920s facades alongside each other that have to be maintained.’
It’s a dilemma Mr Chessell is well aware of. The Council wouldn’t allow him to knock down his old removalist store – opposite the Majestic – because of the structure of the roof line. ‘It’s just an old shed in my eyes, but people want to maintain it. It’s all very well saying it’s a lovely building if it’s not your money being spent on it.’
Still, that old shed lacks the pedigree of the Majestic across the street. Marrickville Council might be allowing this re-development, but it has taken a long time and a lot of unsatisfactory applications to reject before reaching this point.
So the obvious question remains: how can anyone be certain that this ‘sympathetic adaptation’ or ‘adaptive re-use’ is not a euphemism for what will amount to a drastic, essentially comprehensive overhaul of an entire building that is, in fact, a listed heritage item?
For a few days in mid-March a large, black banner was hung outside the Majestic to inform passers-by that change was on its way. ‘Growthbuilt: Building on Growth’ it read, seemingly the ideal slogan for a project of this kind. The only problem was that it hung limply from one corner, as its bottom half scraped the pavement. Not an image to inspire confidence, and hopefully not an omen.
The banner disappeared for a while after that. It has since returned and been erected soundly. There is daily movement and machinery inside the building. Although still in the early stages, ‘building on growth’ has officially begun. So how will it end? What is going to take centre stage in Petersham’s shopping hub alongside Mr Santoro’s deli, Frango Charcoal Chicken, and the Locals Barber Shop?
The development application will tell you that the current pitched roof and primary facade will remain similar – punctuated, but not eradicated, by skylights, recessed balconies, and timber framed doors and windows. Good intentions, however, will mean little until the ribbon is cut and the doors opened. The final verdict will not be delivered by the planners. It will be delivered by the people of Petersham.
Mr Santoro believes there are advantages and disadvantages to the proposal. On the one hand he expects it to add diversity to the area and create healthy competition amongst small business. However, he is also warns that attempting to combine a modern development with the historical look of the Majestic has the potential for aesthetic disaster. ‘Sometimes new and old just don’t mix. I’m not sure how this is going to work out,’ he says.
It’s a common sentiment – hopeful but hesitant. ‘With a lot of those new developments the shops stay vacant for quite a long time,’ says Mr Chessell. ‘Do we need any more vacant shops?’
The answer to these concerns, according to architect Philip Thalis’s report for the initial proposal, is that it will joyfully interpret the building’s many changes over time and be an appropriate addition to its urban heritage.
Of course there’s no guarantee it won’t still be the elephant in Petersham’s room – a newer, fancier one, but an elephant nonetheless. In the end it comes down to one question – is Petersham better off with a decaying memory or a modified Majestic?
Featured image: The Majestic Roller Rink, formerly a cinema known as The Odeon, in 1947. Photo: Sam Hood, public domain, courtesy The State Library of NSW