THE MAYOR, THE FIRE, AND THE MOSQUE
This is the curious case of the mayor, the fire and the mosque that would be… Now listen carefully, it may seem like a fairytale, but no, this is true, this is what is happening in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, Australia in 2012.
Back in 2009, the mayor of Auburn Ronney Oueik bought himself a beautiful 1916 heritage-listed house known as Camden Lodge in the neighbouring suburb of Homebush from previous owners, family of the late Arthur Bush (of A.J.Bush and sons butchers). Being a self described heritage lover the home was seemingly going to good hands, but Mayor Oueik is also a property developer, and soon lodged a development application to demolish the federation mansion which strides two blocks and replace it with a new home with swimming pool, tennis court and cabana. However his application was unanimously refused on grounds that the house was in ”good condition with high intactness and integrity” and could easily be restored to protect its ”exceptional heritage, social and historical significance”.
In the heritage streetscape of Burlington Rd there was strong local opposition to the DA. A 306-signature petition was presented to the council, and resident Ms Doran said neighbours were dismayed by what they claimed was a lack of maintenance and “demolition by neglect” of the property by the new owners. “When you first saw the house it had a beautiful garden, it was a beautiful home,” she said. “They bulldozed the garden as soon as they bought the house.”
Mayor Oueik argued that the renovations to restore Camden Lodge to its former glory would be cost-prohibitive, despite the fact he found 2.5 million AUD to buy the property in the first instance. So we have a heritage-listed mansion, in a heritage street, held in high esteem by residents and council alike, and one angry Mayor. Now this is where our story gets a little skewed…
Neighbours started noticing things happening here. Trees were removed from the heritage gardens and not replaced, leadlight windows had gone missing. When questioned the Mayor said he had left the windows open to clear out the bad smell of the house and gone for the day, when he came back they had mysteriously disappeared. But then came the worst news. On the night of January 30 2012 a fire suddenly ripped through and gutted the 95 year old mansion, caving in the roof and leaving it in a state of disrepair. Fire crews and Police investigated and opened a crime scene on the site citing suspicious circumstances.
Since that time the house has stood, uninhabited and burnt out, but the debate continues. Mayor Oueik campaigned again to push ahead with demolition, but Strathfield Council rightfully believe the house can and should be saved, and that the damage is not beyond repair but rather that the home remains structurally sound. Cr Oueik was asked to restore the property in 60 days and additionally, place tarpaulins over the hole in the roof to stop weather affecting the building’s internal structure. But since then it was reported the tarps were still not erected.
“If it’s rejected I have a buyer to buy it and what they do with it is up to them,” Mr Oueik said. “I also said to council if you’re so concerned with heritage why don’t you buy it and give it back to the community, but they weren’t interested.” He said the house was not insured at the time of the fire and he couldn’t afford to restore it. He also claimed “I love heritage, that’s why I bought this house. But its not safe to live in.”
But there was to be one more twist in this story. Undeterred by being foiled twice on his demolition plans, Mayor Oueik issued an ultimatum to the council and the community, saying he would turn his house into a Muslim prayer hall if he wasn’t allowed to knock it down. And as if a threat to make good on this promise, he has been seen showing men in traditional Muslim robes around the property. “He’s told us he will be selling it to a Muslim community organisation which wants to use the site as a prayer hall. We don’t need that in the street” one neighbour said to the Daily Telegraph.
But others, like Marlene Doran, who has lived in Homebush for 60 years and is the archivist for the heritage society were less sympathetic, saying the threat to sell the house to turn it into a Muslim prayer hall was nothing short of disgraceful. “This is a threat to get the neighbours onside so he can demolish,” she said. “It’s disgusting. He’s done nothing whatsoever with the house. It’s demolition by neglect… It’s absolutely devastating that such a beautiful home has been destroyed. All the hard work and time we’ve put into saving and protecting this home, which is such a jewel in the precinct, has literally gone up in flames.”
So now the fate of this magnificent home, a landmark in the area, lies in the hands of engineering structural reports. What a shame it would be for this grubby Mayor to finally get his way. We believe that the house should be restored no matter what the reports bring up, and Cr Oueik should have to pay in full. Being a director of a construction company and having more than one house to his family name should help him find the required funds.
And what about poor Auburn, the council that he presides over as Mayor, what hope does heritage have there? Are these the heritage values instilled in that particular council? The Auburn City Council website reads “By preserving, displaying and restoring historic buildings, landscapes, artefacts and archaeological sites we are connecting ourselves to our past and leaving important legacies for future generations.”
Is that what you yourself are doing, Mayor Ronny Oueik, leaving important legacies for future generations? We sincerely doubt that.