Ongoing dispute over heritage listing for St George Greek Orthodox church at Rose Bay

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Battle lines over the proposed heritage listing of the St George Greek Orthodox Church in Rose Bay, Sydney have been drawn.

But in a strange twist, it is the church itself that is resisting the inclusion of the 60-year-old building and war memorial complex in Woollahra Council’s proposal to list a number of local religious sites for heritage protection.

The matter recently came before the Council’s Environmental Planning Committee and was deferred to a full Council meeting tonight (July 10) in response to a request by the church leadership that any heritage decision be deferred until after a site inspection is completed by both Councillors and council staff.

The background to this stoush was explored by The Greek Herald in a detailed opinion piece written by a cultural heritage consultant and former President of the Kytherian Association of Australia, George Vardas, in response to a heritage assessment produced by the church seeking to downplay the heritage and historical significance of the building and its setting.

St George Rose Bay this year.

On March 27, 2023, Woollahra Council had resolved that the heritage significance of St George Greek Orthodox Church at Rose Bay be further investigated and for community engagement to take place.  Council sought submissions from the public in a strategy involving both local print media and social media.

This resulted in a number of written submissions both for and against the proposed heritage listing and a group submission (via an online petition) orchestrated by the church bearing more than 1,000 signatories.

The Church committee’s social media link to that petition was prefaced by the question: “Would you like your home to be saddled with a heritage listing?”. Some members of the Environmental Planning Committee appeared to find this surprising given that in its petition, the Church acknowledged that the Council was undertaking community engagement seeking feedback on the proposed heritage listing. In his submission to the Committee, the Parish Priest Father Gerasimos explained that this was a social media ploy to attract attention to the online petition and hopefully gain support.

Mixed Greek community views towards heritage listing:

Signatories to the online petition include some well-known local Greek Australian identities such as James Stevens of Roses Only, Dr Jim Aroney and the artist Felicia Aroney.

James Athanasou, although signing the petition, wrote that the church of St George is “a unique architectural component of Rose Bay” that has created “a special multicultural expression with immense historical significance to the Greek Australian community.”

The former Mayor of Woollahra, John Comino, posted that the Church does not fit the “classic design of Byzantine Architecture which is traditional to Greek Orthodox Churches” and that to heritage list it would be “incongruous as further works to enlarge the Church for a growing Congregation and its Community activities are in the planning stages.”

On the other hand, the Secretary of the Joint Committee for the Commemoration of the Battle of Crete and Greek Campaign, Nick Andriotakis – who is also a prominent property developer and parishioner of the church – has weighed into the debate. 

Andriotakis noted that the Church is identified in The Australian War Memorial places of pride and is also registered on the New South Wales State War Memorial register. 

The church has been declared a war memorial.

According to Andriotakis: “St George Greek Orthodox church was created by a Greek Australian community, some of which came pre-WWII and others post WWII… From the Flemish blond face brickwork topped by the bright white belltower to the clean interior, the building is a fusion of Greek Australian building elements reflecting a modern society.”

Andriotakis also wrote that the parish committee’s opposition to the heritage listing was made without consultation to its members and the petition seeking opposition to the heritage listing “has been circulated electronically all over Sydney containing a negative argument against heritage without outlining the alternative positive heritage listing benefits.”

Parish board divided:

Opinion within the Parish Board itself also appears to be divided. On the one hand, directors including Dean Haritos, John Barbouttis and Spero Raissis are opposed to the proposed heritage listing. Haritos wrote that a heritage listing restricts the ability of the church to evolve to meet the needs of the community without providing any specific reasons.

On the other hand, Rozy Dorizas, long-standing member of the parish and currently the Parish Board’s  Secretary, submitted that in architectural and aesthetic terms the St George Church at Rose Bay is “one of the most elegant and majestic Greek Orthodox places of worship in New South Wales,” but expressed concern about “tasteless ornate additions” and about what she described as proposals to change the internal configuration of the church together with repainting both the interior and exterior and removing timber paneling. 

What’s next?

Another supporter of the proposed heritage listing is the Woollahra History and Heritage Society which made a detailed submission. The Society disagrees with the heritage consultant engaged by the parish and states that it failed to properly understand the commemorative role of the ANZAC plaque set into the very fabric of the church in a prominent position, which serves as a “a day-to-day reminder of the sacrifice of those who died in for him the church was originally constructed.”

The Society also submitted that the Greek parish appears to misunderstand the role of heritage listing because heritage listing does not fossilise the site, but provides a framework for alterations and adaptive reuses which protected the church’s significance for future generations.

In its written submission, the Parish Council maintains that the community feeling of belonging and the formation of lifelong friendships is intangible and cannot be heritage listed. It also claims that many of the original features of the church building have gone, with improvements having been made over the years, including new entry steps, doors, floors, windows and lighting as well as an entirely modified community hall.

Interior of St George Rose Bay.

The church parish claims that it is on a growth trajectory and points to an existing development consent obtained in 2011 for the redevelopment of the adjoining properties in the church’s portfolio.

In response, the Woollahra Council staff maintain the recommendation that a planning proposal to list the St George Greek Orthodox Church in Rose Bay as a local heritage item should proceed, noting that a comprehensively researched Heritage Study had been undertaken to assess the heritage significance of the Church in accordance with best practice conservation methods and Heritage NSW guidelines.

It emphasises that age is not the only defining quality for a building to be considered to have heritage significance. A place of worship, albeit ‘modern’ relative to other buildings, can be significant for other reasons such as its representative architectural style, its association with a prominent architectural firm, as an example of a war memorial, and its obvious social significance to the community and congregation.

The purpose of heritage listing is to preserve places that reveal and tell the story of our past, for future generations to appreciate. It will not impede any future development.

According to the Council report, the planning controls for heritage aim to manage changes to a building so that they appropriately conserve the significance of a place and any prospective development application, whether it be for alterations, upgrades or new developments, would be considered and assessed on its merits in terms of its sensitivity to the heritage item.

The full Council will meet tonight to consider the next steps in this continuing heritage saga.

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