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Overseeing PENTRIDGE: Part One

The Site Manager of Pentridge during its rebirth is an imposing figure. Tall and solidly built, he has the air of a man who will brook no mischief and could even have passed as a prison officer himself in a past life.

Despite his daunting presence, however, he is an entirely engaging and welcoming character, and a veritable font of knowledge regarding the history of the old Bluestone College – a history he is more than happy to pass along.

He and his son, who requested their names not be shared for the purposes of this interview, have been an integral part of the behind the scenes story of the Pentridge rebirth, working tirelessly for years to restore order to the vast site managed by Shayher Group. It’s a seemingly endless task, but one which they have both embraced with passion.

Despite their schedules, each were happy to open up about their experiences at the end of a recent Pentridge Guided Tour, and have some of their observations recorded. It was a wide-ranging conversation that covered multiple facets of their experiences there.

In the first of two articles, MM and MR (as the father and son duo wished to be called) talk about their role in helping unlock Pentridge to the public.

THE CHALLENGES OF BLUESTONE

“I’ve been here going on twelve years as site manager, MR’s been here six or seven years now in OH&S,” says MM. “Before that both of us were in construction on Pentridge. I was here with the original developers who bought the site off the government and split it in two.”

The split MM refers to resulted in the creation of the larger northern portion of the complex along Champ St, currently operated by Shayher Group, and the Metropolitan Reception Prison site situated along Urquhart St, presently owned by another developer.

MM is excited about the possibilities opening up with Shayher Group’s vision for the new Pentridge, but is under no illusions as to the scale and challenge of the task. When asked what the biggest challenge has been in maintaining the site’s integrity, MM points immediately to the cost.

“The Heritage Overlay is by far the hardest thing to keep up. We have a duty of care to Heritage Victoria to ensure it’s protected as a condition of owning this property,” he says. “It costs us in all over a million dollars a year just to hang on to it. It’s a very expensive property to have.”

Not just that, but the work required to protect it in its current state is significant.

“Quite often,” MM says, “people take chips off the bluestone walls, off the arches. You can see it with the Gate One archway. All the pieces missing there, people come up with a hammer and take a piece off. If you allow that to keep happening, there’ll be nothing left of the place, or it will become unstable and start to fall over.”

And as becomes apparent, bluestone constructions of the age of Pentridge represent a significant upkeep challenge.

“They need to be completely maintained all the time,” says MM. “ It was put together with lime sand so there’s no mortar to speak of. As time goes by, water runs down between the cracks and washes out the lime and sand. The walls destabilise and eventually, if they’re left to themselves they’ll fall over.”

There are other challenges as well, according to MR. “You get trees starting to grow between the cracks. Rain runs down and washes the minerals into them and feeds them. It starts very slow, but if you don’t get onto them all of a sudden you can have blocks that have moved six inches. That’ll pull down a wall or roof or even a building.”

The work seems endless. “We’re getting everything back to a state where it can stabilise a bit,” explains MM. “That means removing all the steel, all the nails. When it was run as a prison they didn’t think or care about the heritage of it all. They were putting conduits in everywhere, nailing them to the bluestone. All the razor wire has proven very difficult to remove. When we’re not doing maintenance or tours and so on, we’re spending the time removing nails, removing pipes from the bluestone. If you leave these things in there they rust and split the stone.”

It’s an ongoing process. “As you can see, we’ve done the guard towers and re-pointed them with a special mortar mix approved by Heritage Victoria that will stabilise things for at least another hundred years,” explains MM. “These buildings require constant maintenance – it’s in the way they were built, to be continually pointed again and again to keep the integrity and strength of the buildings intact.”

A DAY IN THE LIFE

Describing a typical day reveals a rigorous routine honed over years of practice and experience. “First, we do a security check every day,” says MM. “Then a safety check, to make sure nothing is out of place that could cause a risk. We check everything where anyone might walk.”

“Things move about,” says MR. “We make sure they’re in the right place.”

“Then there’s access,” continues MM. “People who need induction. Site walks, depending on where the contractors are working. Maintenance stuff – general works, which could be any number of things.” And it’s not just the buildings that need oversight. “We’ve had some dodgy contractors through here. So every couple of hours, we check on the tradies, make sure they’re not doing anything silly, anything they’re not supposed to.”

Additionally, there are the occasional demands presented by overseeing film productions – anything from student films to full-scale movie and television events. “We do that ourselves and it can take up a lot of time. They often go six, seven days and they’re very long days.”

Both are pleased with the care and attention to detail that has been displayed by JBM Group with the recent restorations.

“JBM Group have been particularly good,” says MM. “As we said, we’ve had some difficult crews in, but JBM is certainly one of the good ones. Bryce has taken particular care. And there’s more to do in conjunction with the proceeding developments of B Division and so on.”

When pressed for details, both MM and MR relay what’s happening down the line with evident excitement. “The original wooden doors of the main entrance are going to be put back instead of the roller door. The clock tower is going to be restored and the clock going again. An iron founder who worked on the Rock Breaking Yards is going to reconstruct the break-out bell.”

MM expands a little. “The bell was originally used on the prison boats, the hulks in Port Phillip Bay.” MR mentions the original gas lighting is also to be restored. “Of course, you could do that with electric lighting these days, but it’s going to look amazing.”

“It’s been locked up so long I think people aren’t really aware of everything that’s been going on here,” MR continues. “It’s had such a bad vibe, it’ll be good to bring a bit of goodness back to it.”

Both are adamant that the future of the site is to honour its complex history as a place of punishment, while opening up a new future for it and its surrounds.

“The legacy I’d like to see,” says MM, “is people will see all this restoration work and say ‘wow’, but still be considerate of what the place was. Because these are our stories – they’re worth hanging on to.”

This is Part One of a two-part interview. Read Part Two here.

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