The Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM) has joined calls to preserve Fairfield Park Amphitheatre complex on the north bank of the Yarra River which was built by the then City of Northcote with support of the local Greek community.

The City of Yarra which took over responsibility of the complex in 1994 is now proposing to redevelop the dressing room facilities for the use of a rowing club that has shared the facilities since the building of the amphitheatre complex in 1985. Critics of the plan say that this will compromise the unique architectural integrity of the blue-stone buildings.

The site that was first used an open-air theatre by the Greek community to host the Epidavros festival in 1983 and 1984 which was the precursor of the Antipodes festival.

The success of the Greek festivals showed the potential for a permanent structure on the site and inspired the design of the of the amphitheatre which was carefully modelled on the ancient Greek theatre at Epidavros. The accompanying facilities providing changing rooms and storage for stage settings and props made it a unique, professional-standard, open-air facility in Australia.

The president of the Greek Community of Melbourne (GCM), Bill Papastergiadis, told Neos Kosmos that the GCM opposed any actions that affected the integrity of the existing infrastructure which supported the amphitheatre.

“Our community recognises the importance of this theatre to the cosmopolitan fabric of our state. Equally, it also represents the ancient Hellenic part of our heritage. The Greek community was one of the driving forces for this project.”

The amphitheatre buildings were designed by top Melbourne architect firm Edmond &Corrigan and built using bluestone salvaged from Northcote’s gutters and laneways.

READ MORE: Campaign to Protect Fairfield’s Ancient Greece Inspired Amphitheatre

Athenaeum Theatre producer Greg Hocking AM who is also a conductor for Melbourne Opera and who four years was intimately connected in the running of the Fairfield Park Amphitheatre for the City of Northocote said that in its heyday the complex had hosted important productions but its use had waned after the switch to the City of Yarra.

“It is a great site and was very popular. It was a fantastic (performance) venue. It was innovative and it required imagination from bureaucracy.

“I run the Athenaeum Theatre and I am well aware that the concentration of funding (for the arts) is for the entertainment ghetto south of the Yarra” Mr Hockinig told Neos Kosmos.

“The Fairfield Park Amphitheatre was a local initiative by the local council and it was very carefully built to reflect the Epidavros design but on a smaller scale. It took some time to build but it was built by the community.

“We would go to Northcote council meetings on the amphitheatre that were chaired by Brian Howe who was Bob Hawke’s deputy prime minister at the time.”

“We were running six to eight-week productions there, now the City of Yarra hardly uses it for one or two performances a season.”

Mr Hocking said the facilities were of a professional standard that would benefit a theatre company. It could have a role to play in helping revive Melbourne’s performing arts mauled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have conducted operas in Italian amphitheatres in Rome, Florence and Taormina in Sicily and although it is on a smaller scale, the acoustics at Fairfield are just as good.

“It is fully wired up, has strong professional standard facilities and a fantastic view. It is just sitting there ready to be use but it needs to be freed from bureaucratic inertia.

He said that when the amphitheatre was first set up, the agreement had been to share the facilities with the rowing club and that any changes to the buildings for that reason were not warranted.

“It has strong story in the city’s arts heritage and I cannot believe that the Heritage Victoria recommended against its preservation,” Mr Hocking said.

READ MORE: Fairfield Theatre, part of our multicultural heritage

Helen Madden of Stork Theatre who initiated the campaign to stop the City of Yarra plans to re-develop the amphitheatre change rooms has garnered over 1,700 signatures petition and has brought the matter before the Victorian Heritage Council on 12 October.

Neos Kosmos contacted the City of Yarra and a spokesperson said in a statement: “Fairfield Park is protected under the Heritage Overlay HO147of the Yarra Planning Scheme as a major recreational facility. The Statement of Significance for Fairfield Park however does not include any specific reference to the amphitheatre, kiosk or pavilion.

“Last year, Heritage Victoria had received a nomination to include the Fairfield Park Amphitheatre, the River Pavilion and Kiosk in the Victorian Heritage Register. This matter is currently with the Victorian Heritage Council; an independent statutory body responsible for making a determination about whether a place should or should not be included in the Register.

“A Registrations Hearing was conducted by the Heritage Council a few weeks ago and their decision is expected in January 2022.

“Yarra City Council is awaiting the decision of the Heritage Council about the state listing of the place and has not asked officers to before undertaking any further assessment in relation for its to its local heritage significance at this stage,” the statement concluded.

The Victorian Heritage Council will announce its decision 90 days after the hearing.