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South Fremantle Power Station: A heritage dilemma?

Ronald Bodycoat

Bodycoat, Ronald 2004, 'South Fremantle Power Station: a heritage dilemma', Fremantle Studies, 3: 65-74.

Current status

South Fremantle Power Station is a former electric power generating installation, located at Cockburn Sound, Coogee, south of Fremantle, Western Australia.

The installation reached full power capacity in 1954 as part of the State Electricity Commission electric power grid servicing the metropolitan region and the southwest region of the state. The power station ceased operations in 1985.

This paper addresses the context of the power station at South Fremantle in the history of the generation of electric power in the State, the cultural heritage significance of the place, and the possibilities for adaptation to new uses in the future. The dilemma of redundancy and of adaptation of an industrial building to appropriate new uses are also confronted and challenged.

South Fremantle Power Station now stands large and languishing on the shoreline at Cockburn Sound at Coogee, south of the Catherine Point Reserve formed recently out of former abattoirs and animal holding paddocks. The place survives as a relic of former industrial development in a region now cleared of active industrial uses and is in the process of rehabilitation for public open space, recreational uses and community access activities. The site of the power station is sublime. This massive and now empty building sits quietly and in a state of deterioration on the shoreline of the sound. The opportunity remains to resolve the future use for this exceptional building without degrading the dunes environment.

South Fremantle Power Station has been stripped of all plant and equipment, with the exception of the overhead travelling crane in the former turbine room. All but one of the subsidiary buildings on the site have been removed - workshops, stores, staff amenities and canteen, gatehouse and microwave tower. Asbestos and other toxic materials have been cleared from the site. The Water Basin and its screens and water recycling chambers projecting into Cockburn Sound and necessary for collecting seawater for cooling and steam production survive, but in a deteriorated condition with the basin partly silted up.

The switchyard, which adjoins the power station site on the northeast comer, is still in operation as part of the power distribution grid. Its future is uncertain but it is expected to be removed in time, together with the massive pylons and aerial power cables.

The major external elements stripped from the building are the four smoke stacks and the coal handling conveyor equipment between the elevated coal storage yard immediately east of the station building. The concrete retaining walls and floor of the coal storage yard survive but it is the loss of the stacks and the industrial equipment formerly expressed on the exterior of the building that robs it of interpretation readily as a former major power generating installation.

The building stands large and isolated, a white masonry building with large areas of glazed walling, waiting for determination of an appropriate new use.

South Fremantle Power Station has been assessed for heritage value and has been determined to be of considerable cultural heritage significance. A conservation plan has been prepared following entry of the place into the State Register of Heritage Places. The place will shortly be advertised for disposal by sale and subject to a heritage agreement to protect its cultural heritage significance. Western Power Corporation, the present owners, have no further use for the empty building or for the immediate site.

History of the power station

East Perth Power Station, the first major government power station, was developed to supply electricity throughout the whole of the metropolitan area, replacing a number of small plants operated privately or by local governments. 1 Power generation from East Perth commenced in 1916 and was extended in 1938.2 To satisfy the growing demand for electricity, the decision was taken to build a new power station at South Fremantle in lieu of extending the station at East Perth. South Fremantle provided easy access to cooling water and a location suitable for connection into the grid. 3 To control the chaotic networks of power stations throughout the state, the State Electricity Commission of Western Australia was developed in 1946. 4

Design for South Fremantle Power Station began in 1943 and work began on site in 1945. Power generation commenced in May 1951 from the first turbo-alternator; the second came on line in September 1951; number three in January 1954 and number four in December 1954. Each unit produced 25,000 kilowatts, a total of 100 megawatts of power. 5 The building was designed and constructed to be developed and operational in stages.

The power station comprised a boiler house, housing eight boilers located in the eastern half of the station building, and a turbine room, housing four turbo- alternators in two stations A and B in the western side of the station building. The boilers were fired from crushed coal conveyed from the coal store on high ground adjacent to the station building on the east. The turbines were driven by steam from the boilers; in turn the turbines drove the turbo-alternators, which generated the electricity. Water for the process and for cooling of plant was drawn from a saltwater basin formed on the adjacent shore to the west in Cockburn Sound.


Aerial view of the complete power station, 1955 (Courtesy Western Power)

The switch house, control room and transformers were housed in the two-level extension that survives north of the station building. Four smoke stacks and eight precipitators were located on the roof of the building above the boiler house. 6

The Electricity Commission extended the electric power system into rural areas of the southwest of the state in 1956. 7 The power station in the region at Collie had been acquired in 1946 and was upgraded in August 1951. The new Bunbury Power Station commenced operation in May 1957. The four power generating plants were then linked to form the grid. Bunbury was completed to full capacity by July 1961. The new Muja Power Station came into operation in July 1965 and to full capacity in February 1969. Work commenced at the Kwinana Power Station in 1966, coming into operation in September 1970 to April 1978. The power grid for all stations was controlled from East Perth in 1973.

East Perth Power Station ceased power generation in December 1981 as a consequence of uneconomic production due to the inefficiency of the operation. For the same reason, South Fremantle Power Station closed in September 1985.

A heritage assessment and archival record were carried out for South Fremantle Power Station in 1994 prior to stripping out of the building which commenced later that year and ended in 1997. These professional studies and the conservation plan prepared in 2001, established the elements of cultural heritage significance, the elements of little or no significance and outlined possible new uses for the former power station. The documents constituted a necessary precursor to disposal of the place by sale.

Major issues

There are a number of major conservation issues which apply to South Fremantle Power Station as a consequence of the determination that the place has cultural heritage significance, notwithstanding condition and status in October 2002.

The place has been entered in the State Register of Heritage Places and as a consequence attracts statutory protection under the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990, with penalties for improper dealing with the significant fabric of the place.

A heritage agreement between the Heritage Council of Western Australia and Western Power Corporation will be required as a condition of sale, to further protect the cultural significance of the place and to appropriately but reasonably control conservation and use into the future.


Interior of the boiler house (left) and turbine hall (right) stripped of all plant and equipment, 1997 (Courtesy Western Power)

Adaptation of the surviving building and sections of the site needs to be resolved for an appropriate new use, without compromising a reasonable interpretation for visitors and users of the place as a former power station.

It is essential to provide public access to the exterior of the main Station building and to the adjoining open space on the seaward side including the water basin. Public access to interior spaces, at least at predetermined times through the year or by arrangement, will be dependent upon the new use for the place.

Potential purchasers need to understand that conservation of South Fremantle Power Station as a place of cultural heritage significance does not preclude change to the fabric provided only that the significance of the place is not compromised and that all statutory requirements are satisfied. Heritage is essentially what the community chooses to preserve for the future. Conservation is defined to include protection, maintenance and preservation of places and encompasses the concepts of statutory protection and appropriate resourcing for ongoing management. 8

Options for the future

The new owner will be required to abide by the terms of the heritage agreement to conserve the place in accordance with its identified heritage values, and to adapt the building and site to an appropriate new use.

Essential environmental cleanup has been carried out by Western Power Corporation including removal of all asbestos products and other toxic materials in or on the building and anywhere on site, stripping out of all plant and equipment, and the removal of subsidiary structures and buildings on the site. The stripping of plant and equipment was a consequence of the determination of heritage value of the place in 1994 by Godden MacKay, heritage consultants from NSW. These consultants, who are acknowledged experts in the field of electric power generation, determined that South Fremantle Power Station has local landmark value and is an item of environmental heritage value in its immediate physical context. The building is highly significant as a purpose-built functionalist design. Technologically the station is typical of post war large thermal stations around Australia; the technology of South Fremantle is well represented at Bunbury Power Station. Further, Godden MacKay considered South Fremantle to be of value at a state level as the first station to be built as part of an interconnected system for the southwest of the state but the East Perth Power Station eclipses South Fremantle in the national, technological context.

The conservation plan has identified a number of appropriate options for compatible reuse of the power station. 9

Any new use will not include industrial processes. The place is currently closed and not in use; the site is not in a condition to be used without adaptation and conservation and the introduction of new services, all of which will be achieved at high cost.

Apart from adaptation of the station building, the groynes and water basin together with the open spaces immediately adjacent to the building suggest at least a controlled public access and recreational use along the foreshore.

The cleared areas of the site north, south and east of the station building and the building itself should be available for new development, such as commercial, community, residential and recreational, in accordance with zoning and land use requirements set out in the current City of Cockburn planning scheme or subsequent amendments. Public access to the site and into the most imposing areas inside the building, if necessary on a controlled basis, is strongly recommended when determining new uses for the entire place.

Appropriate new uses within the following categories are preferred, as a direct consequence of the location of the place on the foreshore at Cockburn Sound, and the proximity of the site to the City of Fremantle and the designated recreational use for the Coogee coastal strip:

Film and television studios

The power station is ideally equipped to function as studios. This would allow and encourage public access and require large, flexible spaces including outdoor areas and a variety of landscapes - internal, coastal and seascape. Film studios are an important industry currently lacking in Western Australia. Proximity to Fremantle and Woodman Point and the potential for major tourist access and involvement, plus a connection to Fremantle by light rail and other forms of public and private transport including cycle ways and walk trails, reinforces consideration of this adaptive new use and its tourism potential. The potential to develop a technology park on adjacent land to the east is a further incentive for this use.

Public access

Access along the foreshore, to the beach and the existing (restored) water basin is a further recreational incentive for community use of the adjoining areas of the site.

Residential development

The coal storage area and the open areas on site to the north and south of the station building are suitable for new residential development which could incorporate home office uses. Adaptation of the station building for residential use is a challenging possibility within the extensive steel framework surviving inside the former boiler house. Adaptation for residential use inside the turbine room is one option, but may not be the best option since it would diminish the transparency and the immensity of this large space overlooking Cockburn Sound. The introduction of new floors within the boiler house is appropriate, but is not the preferred option within the turbine room. The introduction of new buildings to the existing open areas north and south of the station building and on the former coal storage area, are appropriate for use in conjunction with the station building, but the new development must not unreasonably obscure nor dominate the station building nor compromise its landmark qualities. New structures must be compatible but clearly discernible as new and no part of the former industrial, power generating complex.

Other commercial uses

The extent of the surviving fabric can accommodate more than one new commercial use. For example:

- a boutique brewery;

- a marina incorporating the repair and servicing of small boats in conjunction with the water basin;

- supporting restaurants, coffee shops and a small bar, with exposure onto external flat roof areas and the grounds adjacent to the building.

Museum type uses

The qualities of the site and its location, proximity to Fremantle and Woodman Point, and the physical characteristics of the Station building suggest consideration for the following new tourist and public access type uses through adaptation:

- a recreational leisure centre as a component of the Coogee coastal park including access to the water at Cockburn Sound for further recreational uses;

- a ship museum and restoration workshops, notwithstanding that the Fremantle Maritime Museum has usurped the state collection of maritime artefacts;

- an industrial museum also incorporating restaurants, arts workshops and sales outlets, a marina, theatres for the exposition of the associated industrial/marine activities;

- an energy museum incorporating the Fremantle Energy Museum in improved and enlarged facilities, should the East Perth Power Station fail to eventuate as an energy museum;

- a transport/railway museum linked to the existing railway system and incorporating workshops; the robustness of the empty Station building is appropriate for such non-aggressive presentation and is readily adaptable to such a use. There is a need for proper housing of the historic railway rolling stock and for the support facilities necessary to house and promote the collection.

A regional arts centre

As a wholly regional centre initiated and run by the community it serves, and not as a satellite of one of the high-profile arts centres already in place, the place would incorporate exhibition space, theatre(s), studios, workshops, and a performance space, and would be developed in stages to take advantage of what is, in truth, a majestic building where the community can delight in the luxury of grand space and a sublime setting.

Internationally, large industrial buildings have been successfully adapted to new, non-industrial uses, overcoming the issue of demolition and loss of cultural diversity. For example:

• The Casula Powerhouse, Sydney, NSW - conversion in the 1990s to a regional arts centre within 45 minutes of the Sydney CBD.

• St Louis USA - conversion of the central railway station building, a large and impressive structure, to hotel and visitor centre.

• Tate Modem, London UK - adaptation in 1995 to 2000 of the former Bankside Power Station in the United Kingdom to an adjunct of the Tate Gallery.

• Brisbane Power Station, Queensland - conversion to new cultural and community uses.

• The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney NSW - adaptation of a former powerhouse for brilliant new museum uses.

• Musée D’Orsay, Paris France - adaptation in 1986 of the Gare D’Orsay, an abandoned railway station, on the bank of the Seine opposite the Louvre, to house a major nineteenth century art collection.

• Gasworks Park, Seattle, USA - redevelopment of a redundant gasworks, abandoned in 1956, to a public park on the edge of the lake in Seattle, incorporating public facilities.

• Maritime and Industrial Museum, lower Swansea Valley, South Wales - an industrial building converted to a big sporting complex and a regional multipurpose leisure centre.

• Convent Garden, London - following removal of the market in 1974, adaptation to a highly successful and dynamic ‘people’ place.

There are other relevant examples internationally.

Local examples of adaptation worth noting are the Swan Brewery in Perth, Midland Workshops and the Bunbury Silos.


Condition of external fabric showing deterioration and vandalism, 2001 (Courtesy Western Power)

Challenge or dilemma

This noble giant, set in a sublime location on the shore of Cockburn Sound, is slowly rotting away while bureaucracy vacillates from afar.

The challenge is clear and Western Power Corporation is keen to move on so that the future of the place can be resolved. They have done everything in their power to facilitate disposal.

The dilemma has been the damage done to the fabric by acts of vandalism such as graffiti, the smashing of glass and the destruction of internal finishes and railings including the staircase and treatment to the main entrance foyer. The deterioration of steel, concrete and glass in a building where little if any maintenance has been carried out since 1985 in a location of extreme exposure has been extensive.

Sadly, the dilemma is likely to prevail over the challenge.

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
27 October 2002


1 Bodycoat, R, and Richard, O, East Perth Power Station Conservation Plan, vol l, prepared for the East Perth Redevelopment Authority and State Energy Commission of Western Australia, October 1993

2 ibid.

3 Edmonds, Leigh, Cathedrals of power: A short history of the power-generating infrastructure in Western Australia 1912-1999, University of Western Australia Press, 2000, p 24

4 ibid., p 24

5 ibid., p 126

6 Documentation for construction of the power stations in the archives of Western Power Corporation

7 Edmonds, Cathedrals of power, p 40

8 Extracts from A future heritage places regime for Australia, Australian Heritage Commission, May 1997

9 Bodycoat, R, South Fremantle Power Station Conservation Plan, prepared for Western Power Corporation, 2002, implementation section 5.6 compatible uses

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