The recent history of the former Brunswick West Primary School is colourful and redolent of the politics of an era of economic rationalism in the state of Victoria in Australia in the latter years of the twentieth century.
The history is also a case study of the changing demographics of inner-city Melbourne. Brunswick's population fell from a high of more than 70,000 people in the mid-1970s to under 40,000 people by 1990. Much of the inner city social and physical infrastructure was under threat as cash-strapped governments attempted to meet the needs of the sprawling outer suburbs. The inner suburbs were deemed to have been 'oversupplied'!
The Brunswick West Primary School closed down in the early 1990s as it simply ran out of students. The former Brunswick City Council negotiated successfully with the Victorian Government for a solution that involved a mix of public and private housing and a community facility.
These negotiations had proceeded quite positively and project plans were drawn up but the State Government changed hands and the incoming government passed the site over to a private school, Brunswick Grammar. This venture might well have added to the unique uses to which the building has been put but it did not endure. Brunswick Grammar collapsed.
Unlike Brunswick Grammar which faded from existence, its Principal moved on to work for Premier Kennett, then became Liberal Member of Parliament for the seat of Bulleen and eventually Minister for Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship and Minister for Energy and Resources.
Following Brunswick Grammar's collapse the building was taken off the Register of the National Estate and the site was put up for auction late in 1993. The auction was chaotic; it was disrupted by protesters calling for funds from the sale of a local school to be returned to the education of Brunswick children, an objective strongly supported by the WestWyck consortium. Negotiations with the top bidders continued several days later and far away from the heat of Brunswick education protests.
A consortium of five people clubbed together to establish WestWyck as a company to buy and save the former Primary School building from demolition. The group was successful in buying the school and eventually its detached caretaker's cottage.
'WestWyck' has become a term that applies equally to the company, the school, the site and the environmental project taking place on the site.
The original WestWyck team had saved the building and now needed to find a productive use for it! There were exploratory efforts to set WestWyck up as a performance venue and a conference facility. Some magnificent music and drama performances took place on the site up until 1997, and several community organisations used WestWyck to conduct conferences and planning days.
In 1994 the caretaker's cottage was lifted from its site in Victoria St and relocated to vacant school land at 46 Hunter St where it was renovated and eventually sold separate to the WestWyck ecovillage strata-titled dwellings. The land to the west of the school building was subdivided into ten lots and sold to generate funds to allow the initial building project to commence.
The harsh reality faced by the WestWyck group was that these activities were barely paying for the cleaning of the facility and certainly did not provide any sort of return on the substantial investment. The partners were unable to provide the sort of capital input necessary to make these ventures succeed. The partnership made provision for continuing partners to buy out the shares of others and Mike Hill and Lorna Pitt exercised this option in 1997 and became sole Directors and shareholders of WestWyck Pty Ltd. This company status has endured to the present day.
Since 1993 WestWyck's predominant use has been as a shared or 'communal' housing complex. In spite of the Spartan conditions in winter it proved to be an extremely welcoming abode for dozens of long and short term stayers. In twenty years since 1993 more than eighty people have been part of the communal household, some staying for many years and others for relatively brief periods of time.
The household has included many overseas and interstate visitors and people who have achieved acclaim in their various fields of endeavour. It has included children and their pets and has been the scene for many memorable events. It has largely been a place of great happiness and strong support and an affordable housing base for many people in need of refuge of one sort or another. There has always been a queue of people lined up in the unlikely event of a vacancy.
The household population has usually numbered around eight to ten and while this is considerably lower than the school population of yesteryear, the new inhabitants have been able to do all manner of things not available to the previous inmates! Mike and Lorna lived in the school household for nearly two decades and have had an opportunity to try out several different classrooms for ambience. They are committed to communal living, and being part of a large commune within a school has been quite an experience. A strong communal ethic has grown up around WestWyck and has provided the momentum for the evolving ecovillage.
At the instigation of local heritage enthusiasts, the developers initiated action to ensure that the building was re-listed on the Register of the National Estate in 1999 (Media Release). WestWyck is committed to preserving this beautiful piece of West Brunswick's history by creating a sustainable development of high quality.