Travel Story Perth: Then and Now

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Richard Offen's deep historical knowledge makes him the ideal person to pen a book about Perth. 

For Richard Offen history is all about the quirky detail. The Heritage Perth executive director delights in the tiny and unexpected details of our city’s heritage.

Chatting over coffee at the most apt venue of the repurposed State Buildings, he relays his delight in finding what he originally thought was a blurry dot on an 1862 photograph of Bishop Hale’s School (now The Cloisters) to be a cow. A cow grazing along St Georges Terrace.

The photograph forms part of Offen’s new book, Perth Then and Now. Sought out by publisher Pavilion Books to put together a Perth version of the Then and Now series, Offen was the perfect candidate given his extensive knowledge, radio and television profile and role as a council member for numerous committees. 

“It took me all of about a millisecond to say ‘yes, I’ll do it’,” he says.

Offen took a week off work to write Perth Then and Now, and the entire project was turned around in just four months. The time frame is testament to Offen’s depth of knowledge and familiarity with the State Library of Western Australia’s photo collection.

“Ten years of working with Heritage Perth has allowed me, indeed demanded me, to immerse myself in the history of this city. So the result is I have this very strange brain where I can’t tell you what I am doing tomorrow but I can remember all these dates and things from the past.”

Offen didn’t want to write Perth Then and Now as a melancholy piece that focused on the heritage lost but, instead, a celebration of what remains.

“I wanted to show how we have grown and developed into what I think is an exciting, beautiful city,” he says

Offen says views about our city’s heritage have changed during the last 50 years, the awakening beginning in the 1960s with the saving of the Barracks Arch.

“Attitudes have changed completely. We are leading the nation in the adaptive reuse of our heritage buildings,” he says.

“The best way to preserve heritage buildings is to give them a really good use, then people love and cherish them. 

“This is a perfect example, it is so, so good,” Offen says, gesturing towards the elaborate Postal Hall ceiling of the revitalised State Buildings.

He says when developing and repurposing heritage buildings the mantra should be “do as much as necessary but as little  as possible”. At the same time, he says a building should evolve with new chapters written.

“Never put on elements that are exactly as the heritage buildings — ones that are supposed to look old before they are. You need buildings that blend in. The new City of Perth library is a perfect example of a modern building. It’s gorgeous, it blends in and doesn’t jar with the State Buildings,” he says.

“Perth should be proud. We have learnt from our mistakes. Yes, we demolished far too much of St Georges Terrace during the 70s and 80s but if you look at the rest of the world, they were doing exactly the same. 

“West Australians have a nasty habit of beating themselves up over stuff that was acceptable at the time it was done. We all look at history through the wrong end of the telescope and judge what went on by today’s standards.”

Offen says Perth is coming of age beautifully, now rid of its desire to grow up too quickly.

“People were saying we have to be 24/7 like Melbourne but we have reached that critical mass where the city is coming alive. Perth is an exciting place to live with an amazing future.”

Offen believes in keeping all eras of our heritage — ugly or not.

“We should keep examples of most things we have done, if for no other reason than to remind us to never do it again. You have to show the history — warts and all,” he says.

He first came to Perth on exchange from the UK’s National Trust where he “fell head over heels in love with Perth” and it’s a love affair that is still going on, he says.

He became Heritage Perth executive director in 2006, immersing himself in the city and putting his love of history to good use.

His original 2001 arrival in Perth coincided with the hanging of the Swan Bells at the Perth Bell Tower. He has been bellringing since the age of eight, including at St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square, so was quick to take up the invitation to start ringing here. With his busy schedule he now usually rings at noon on Thursdays.

His Heritage Perth job is made a little easier by Perth’s excellent written and photographic records. He attributes this to the State’s colonial history coinciding with an increase in literacy rates and the then-recent invention of photography. Offen says there are excellent photographic records of the mid-1800s in Perth thanks to lawyer Alfred Stone and his adoption of photography as a hobby.

And as for his favourite building? His Majesty’s Theatre tops the list of Perth’s surviving buildings. While the AMP Chambers, demolished in the 1970s and replaced with a skyscraper at 140 St Georges Terrace, sits at the top of his lost list.

Image at top of page - Perth Railway Station in 1881. State Library of WA

FACT FILE

Perth Then and Now is $29.95 and Dymocks Garden City, Booragoon, is offering readers $5 off that retail price until November 22, or until stocks last. Just take this story with you to get the discount.

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