When heritage kills


Perth Hospital, 1932

As stories continue to grow about the troubled Fiona Stanley Hospital, Dodgy Perth looks back to a time when medical things were much, much worse. We refer, of course, to what is now called Royal Perth Hospital, but was then simply Perth Hospital.

In 1937, Melbourne architect Arthur Stephenson was asked to report on the conditions at Perth Hospital. His report was damning. The place did not have one redeeming feature. It was “insanitary” and “indecent”.

This was certainly the worst hospital in Australia, and probably one of the worst in the world. Medical care had been better in the fifteenth century. Stephenson was baffled why Perth was not up in arms. The place attracted swarms of flies feasting on partially decomposed corpses piling up in the so-called mortuary.

It was only because doctors and nurses were trying to do their best, he said, that the hospital could even be called a medical establishment at all.

However, reforms were being held up because of the heritage lobby. Improvement required a decision as to whether the hospital should be developed on the present site or a new complex built elsewhere. But the old Colonial Hospital (still there in RPH to this day) and its attendant buildings were much loved. Patient care be damned when there is heritage to save.

Stephenson saw the “ingrained dislike for destroying old buildings” in Perth, but still said it was a simple choice. If the hospital was not to move, existing buildings would have to be replaced. They could have heritage or health care, but not both.

It took nearly ten years to complete the transformation from Perth Public Hospital to Royal Perth Hospital. It is still unclear whether keeping the Colonial Hospital was sentiment or cost-saving. And disputes about the location of hospitals and their heritage value have not stopped yet.