Australia — A KINDERGARTEN in Cockatoo that was a refuge for hundreds during the Ash Wednesday bushfires will soon be demolished, to the dismay of community activists who say a vital part of the village’s heritage will be lost.
When fire ripped through the Dandenong Ranges in 1983 an estimated 300 people took shelter in the McBride Street Kindergarten. They huddled all night as a handful of local men kept the flames and embers at bay.
Six people died in Cockatoo and more than 300 buildings were destroyed, but all who sheltered at the kindergarten survived. The building was not unscathed. Roof damage caused chronic leaks, leading to its ultimate abandonment five years ago. Advertisement: Story continues below
Since then it has become a target for vandals and the Cardinia Shire Council says it would be too expensive to refurbish the building.
”Council has looked at alternative uses for it but have had nobody take the opportunity and the building is in a pretty bad state of disrepair,” said Cardinia mayor George Blenkhorn.
But residents – many of whom formed a financial co-operative to build the distinctive carousel-shaped kindergarten in the 1970s – say they fought a long, losing war with the council to maintain it and had made many recent suggestions to convince the council to give the building new life.
”We’ve spent five years working with them about how we can get this building back,” said long-time Cockatoo resident Dot Griffin, who said it was one of the village’s most important structures.
”For us as a town, we tend to have very few buildings that are old buildings because we’ve had so many bushfires,” she said.
Plans for a community centre and a youth drop-in centre have been mooted, but the shire announced in April that it had bought a vacant store elsewhere in town to convert into a community centre.
Cr Blenkhorn acknowledged the building had ”emotional significance” for many, but said it was unviable because it was on top of a steep hill. Its fate has been sealed.
”It’s in the hands of a contractor for demolition, so it’s up to his timetable when that occurs,” he said. The council then intends to build an official bushfire memorial on the site, as Cockatoo does not have one, even though Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited the spot a month after the fires and planted a tree.
Resident Janette Black, who helped build the kindergarten, said it was senseless to build a new memorial when so many residents were attached to the existing one. ”We worked like mad to get that building,” she said. ”If it had been repaired it could have been used for years to come. It’s just crazy.”