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From North Wharf to Northbank

First, to get our bearings.

Between the CBD and Docklands, an island bounded by the River, Flinders St, Spencer St and Wurrundjeri Way where every site is being renewed, reimagined or remade.

A letter to the Age today complained about the overuse of the word ‘icon’. I anticipate the same criticism about these ‘re’ words but sometimes jargon words best describe what’s going on.

North Wharf, Port of Melbourne Quarterly

When the Charles Grimes Bridge was built, ships could no longer access North Wharf. It left a time capsule of a working wharf from the pre-container era languishing, but highly intact, for almost forty years. The Malcolm Moore crane, the wharf apron itself and Shed No 5 have the highest level of heritage significance and all are listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. The site was purchased by developer Riverlee in 2015. Riverlee takes its heritage responsibilities seriously and has already restored the crane and the wharf.

During lockdown when the River was a solace, I often spent time at the South Wharf landing opposite the site with the companionable BUDZ graffiti.

Returning a year later, construction of Seafarers is well underway, a development by Riverlee designed by their associate and collaborator, Nonda Katsalidis.

Site of Shed No 5 and the Seafarers Residences under construction August 2022

Goods Shed No 5 replaced an earlier shed on the same site. It was constructed during the war between 1940 and 1942. The supply and erection of the structural steel framework was undertaken by Charles Ruwolt. The crane was manufactured locally in Malcolm Moore’s workshops in Port Melbourne, Fishermans Bend.

Demolition has an association with careless wrecking. Not here. The Mann Group was contracted to undertake what foreman Aaron Clark described as a process of ‘delicate dismantling’.

blue stones, numbered, catalogued and boxed photo: courtesy of the Mann Group.

2,200 blue stones were numbered, catalogued, and boxed to be returned as part of the development. 3,500 rivets put in by another generation of workers at Charles Ruwolt eighty years ago were removed. More than 2.2 kilometres of timber was recovered, to be stored and re-used in the new Seafarers development. (I’m sure that the North Wharf sign that I so admired is more carefully stowed in one of those boxes than a suitcase on an aeroplane).

North Wharf sign

But the work is not done yet. Further investigation into the history and stories in all those boxes will continue under the guidance of historian Emma Russell who says:

“The real stories inside these old buildings are often granular, intangible and multi-layered and need to be told if, as a community, we are to appreciate and respect them. If the cultural heritage argument for preserving the past doesn’t hold up, it’s usually due to a lack of interpretation rather than a lack of interest.”1

Rather than going to landfill or the recyclers, the material will be given a second life, woven into the reconstructed Goods Shed No 5 and the Seafarers development behind it, an example of reversible design.

I look forward to hearing more of the stories of the objects and the social history associated with them to reveal the contrast between the harsh working conditions of the waterfront with the ‘ethos of sustainable luxury’ of Riverlee’s Seafarers development.

The Seafarers Rest Park, for which the final design was approved in 2021, will also be delivered as part of the redevelopment. The Park, designed by Oculus will create spaces for people and for nature, and encourage engagement with the River. The Park will become a focal point for people living in the precinct.

The Maritime Precinct, as the ‘island’ is referred to, will also become one element of the Greenline, the City of Melbourne’s plan to transform the North Bank of the River from Birrarung Marr to the Bolte Bridge.


Enjoy an overview of the site, and the way Mann Group went about dismantling Shed No 5 here

1Emma Russell From Whelan the Wrecker to the circular economy History at Work April 2021

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