Those Post-War Houses

It’s seven in the morning, and somebody’s knocking down a house.

I’ve heard this noise before, in this suburb of post-war public housing – humble buildings with large backyards. With Brisbane changing and property prices increasing at an appalling rate, these places have become very valuable.

Last year, a plain 1960s brick house a couple of hundred metres up the street from us sold for $870,000. Within weeks, the house had been demolished. The price was for the land alone – an ordinary suburban block.

Young couples and families wanting to own their own home will be out bidden at auction by developers and investors. Often, it seems, the house will then be demolished. In its place will be built a large, two-storied structure that takes up almost the whole block: probably a grey and white painted, gabled “Hamptons style” place like thousands of other new Brisbane homes. It’s this style that has sent grey and white paint spreading across the suburbs of Brisbane like some kind of contagious disease.

Magnificent new Hamptons style, Holland Park

Alongside them are those box-shaped places that seem entirely out of harmony with traditional Brisbane houses.

Box style, Holland Park. Hamptons style under construction next door. Post-war house on the right

Many of the houses that are demolished are not as comfortable or elegant as their replacements will be. I’m sorry to see them go, though, along with their mango trees and old-fashioned gardens of crotons and random brickwork.

A quarter of a century ago, we bought our house in what was then an “inner-outer” suburb, eleven kilometres by road from the CBD.

We now live in one of Brisbane’s “outer-inner” suburbs, with views of the tall buildings of the CBD; but we haven’t moved. The city has changed and sprawled.

In art, television series and novels, Brisbane houses are quaint, in the style called ‘Queenslander”, built in colonial years or the early 20th century, with verandahs, fretwork or cast iron, and frangipani trees.

Beautiful old Brisbane house: iron lace, fretwork and frangipanis. Woolloongabba
Splendid “Queenslander”, Graceville, 1920s-30s

Throughout the older, inner suburbs, this is true. There are houses like this sprinkled through the outer suburbs and beyond, as well: original farmhouses, country mansions of colonial times, and some that have been transported from the inner suburbs to make way for apartment blocks and modern mansions with multi-car garages, multiple bathrooms, pools and tennis courts.

However, far more Brisbane houses, thousands and thousands of them, are still the simple post-WW2 Housing Commission houses that were built from the 1950s onwards to cope with population growth and the results of wartime shortages of materials and labour. They don’t get the attention or respect that they deserve. Over 10,000 houses were built across the state through the Housing Commission in the post war period alone, most of them in Brisbane; and most of them still exist today.

Queensland’s Labor government of the day constructed these houses across enormous swathes of what were then outer suburbs. A huge undertaking in social housing, the Commission was set up to acquire and develop and build on, farmland, bushland, and superfluous wartime facilities such as the vast Military Hospital in Holland Park and the Leave and Transit Centre at Moorooka, and to manage sales and rental of the finished houses and cheap housing loans.

“129 acres of bushland being cleared for the Queensland Housing Commission, Belmont, 1950” State Library of Queensland

From 1950, 1000 houses were built at Carina, another 1000 at Coopers Plains. Thousands were built at Inala, Wavell Heights, Stafford, Chermside, Mount Gravatt, Zillmere and other outer suburbs, as they were then. Expensive real estate now.

One of the many designs for Queensland Housing Commission houses, 1950 State Library of Queensland

The houses were built to a variety of plans, two and three bedroom, some with sleepouts or small verandahs. They were built of a variety of materials: brick, chamfer board, weather board, and fibro, with corrugated steel or tiled roofs; and they could be bought for around £2,000.

“Housing Commission houses at Norman Park, Brisbane, Queensland, ca. 1950” State Library of Queensland

A famous 1950 photograph shows rows of newly constructed Housing Commission houses, built on both sides of a gently sloping dip in the land. Close together and almost identical, each has a long, treeless back yard and, startlingly, an outdoor toilet, a reminder of the fact that Brisbane wasn’t sewered back then. The location details are included with the photo, held by the State Library, and last week I went to see what changes have occurred there in the seventy-plus years since it was taken.

Standing on the site of a demolished house on Walker Avenue in what is now the suburb of Morningside, near the spot where the 1950 photo was taken, I looked north-west along that low valley, between Agnew Street and Moolabar Street.

The same view today, from Walker Street. The house on the right is the house in the centre foreground of the 1950 photo above.

You can see it on Google Maps: https://goo.gl/maps/DnQ5hdUAG1ZtegMz7

Those long back yards are now full of trees. No dunnies in sight. Perhaps a few have been kept, out of a sense of history, hidden among the banana plants and palm trees.

Walking up Moolabar Street and down Agnew Street I saw that many of those little houses, built close to their neighbours, are still there, although mostly extended and altered.

Moolabar Street houses – new and old, grey and white
Agnew Street – new and old, grey and white

Many are charming.

Cute originals

Some look as if they are rental properties, waiting for the owners to redevelop them. Some of them have gone, replaced by large, two-story houses that make the most of those long blocks.

This is now a suburb much in demand in the real estate industry, and the value of those quarter-acre blocks has soared. The average sale price of houses in Morningside is over $955,000, according to recent figures on www.realestate.com.au.

This story is repeated over most of the sprawling public housing developments of the 1950s and 1960s, and these changes are not unique to Brisbane. In many cities, older suburbs are redeveloped as populations grow and middle classes want more than basic housing.

Still, there are thousands of those little post war Queensland Housing Commission houses to be seen across Brisbane’s inner-outer suburbs.

Post-war houses in Mt Gravatt East, as far as the eye can see

Some look virtually untouched, sitting there with only a mango tree or jacaranda in the yard, or surrounded by a carefully tended garden.

Almost unchanged for 70 years

Some have been lifted up, built under, moved aside, or extended with verandahs and extra rooms.

Up there on top of the brickwork is an old Housing Commission house, Mt Gravatt East

I look out for them as I walk around the suburbs. I like them. Maybe one day I’ll move out of our family-sized house and into a cute and snug post-war cottage.

If I can afford to buy one.

Weatherboard

My first weatherboard, Nambour

I was born in a weatherboard house.

Well, not actually in the house. I was born in the hospital down the road.

The doctor who’d delivered me dropped in on Dad on his way home. They were old army comrades, so the doctor walked straight into the house, into the bedroom and shook Dad awake.

“You have a baby daughter,” he told him.

“That’s good,” said Dad, and went straight back to sleep.

Dad was an excellent sleeper.

Ours was a post-war weatherboard house, almost ground-level at the front and on high stumps at the back. For the first year or so the timber was oiled brown, because there was a paint shortage post-war. My earliest memories are of that house, and I love that simple wooden style still, with the elegance of its horizontal lines of overlapping boards, layered to keep the rain out. No fretwork or iron lace, just some battens, perhaps, or geometrical woodwork trims. It’s how they built through the depression, wartime and post-war years.

As a teenager, my mother lived in Landsborough, in a late nineteenth century timber house. It’s still there, beside the road to Maleny. It has verandahs round three sides, pretty timber fretwork on the many verandah posts, a fancy front door, French doors on to the verandah, and a separate kitchen out the back.

My mother’s family’s house in Landsborough

In the vandalistic years of the 1960s and 1970s I mourned for these charming houses as Brisbane bulldozers knocked them down to be replaced by brick six-pack blocks of flats or pretentious mansions.

Now they are valued, for their charm and for their timber. Irreplaceable hardwoods from Queensland forests.

There are mid-twentieth century weatherboard houses by the thousands across Brisbane and the regions, and they have proved their durability.

Derelict, but still standing – weatherboard cottage in Oxley

They sprawl across the outer-inner suburbs (or is it inner-outer?) such as Kedron, Holland Park, Moorooka and Tarragindi. Many of them are simple housing commission houses, now valued for their location and for their solid timber construction. In the old streets of Holland Park the street plantings of the period, jacarandas and poinsettias, are now gnarled, shady and beautiful; and young families build cubby houses in huge backyard mango trees.

Holland Park houses
Weatherboard house in Ashgrove that my parents lived in in the 1970s, since beautifully renovated

My Dad’s family lived in a 1920s-30s weatherboard beauty in Nambour, with gables, timber arches and a handsome staircase.

My father’s family house, William Street, Nambour; since removed

It was sold for removal, years ago. That’s another feature of timber houses: they can be cut up, loaded on a truck, moved to another town and put back together again. I’m always amused when driving through Burpengary at the sight of all the houses perched up on blocks there, ready for sale, just like items in a shop. Many of these houses come from the rapidly developing suburbs of Brisbane, and they’re often moved to subdivisions in nearby regional areas. A tricky business, always undertaken at night when the roads are quiet.

In Woodford, the old school house we’d been living in was sold for removal, to make way for a new administration block for the school.

Under the old timber Woodford school house, lifted up and ready to be towed away.

Many grand, two-storied, verandahed country hotels were built of timber, because there was so much hardwood available in Queensland forests early last century. Now it would be impossibly expensive, and the hardwood would probably be imported from Papua New Guinea or Indonesia’s threatened forests.

In Killarney, on the south-eastern Darling Downs, Killarney Hotel is proof of the durability of hardwoods. I spent a couple of nights in that fine old weatherboard building, several years ago, and heard from the publican about all the times that the Condamine River, only a couple of hundred metres behind the hotel, has risen up and flooded it. And yet it stands, still providing beer and beds.

Killarney Hotel. Trees in the background mark the Condamine River

I like the charming timber public buildings in the regions, such as the spectacular Surat Shire Hall, built in 1929; the School of Arts, Mount Morgan, built in 1924 and setting up for early voting when we visited; Ravenswood Courthouse, a tropical-style government building dating from 1884 and now a museum; quaint Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Theodore, dedicated in 1934, that I spotted on a recent road trip down the Leichhardt Highway; the pretty Emerald Railway Station, dating from 1900.

Shire Hall, Surat
Mount Morgan School of Arts and Library
Ravenswood Courthouse and Museum
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Theodore

 With the distances involved and cost of transport, with economic stress and the problem of termites, in some parts of the state, especially in the tropics, other building materials have been used in preference to timber. Concrete is popular in the north, and so is fibro; and earlier last century, corrugated iron. I’m pleased I haven’t had to spend a summer in a house made of corrugated iron.

Corrugated iron and weatherboard side by side in Saint Lawrence, Central Queensland
Derelict corrugated iron farmhouse outside Babinda

Starting with the Nambour house where I was born, I’ve lived in twelve timber houses, including six school residences dating from the early 1900s to the late 1970s. I now live in a mid-1970s house of brick and weatherboard, so I haven’t gone all that far from my origins.

Brick – and weatherboard

There won’t be many more of these Queensland hardwood houses built.

Perhaps we should all plant eucalypts in our back yards. In a hundred years’ time, they’ll be worth their enormous weight in gold.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑