The race to save Australia’s first flat houses

Surrounded by the 23 surviving huts of the 50 built at Belmont North in the early 1950s, SLM’s Innes hopes it will inspire future buyers and owners across Australia to convert the huts into comfortable homes without losing their architectural integrity or history. .

“That was the initial motivation…to say, ‘You don’t have to tear them down. You can do it in an empathetic way and end up with a beautiful, modern home that maintains integrity,'” Innes said.

Sonia Roberts with her nephew Paul in 1968 near the Nissen Huts in Belmont North near Newcastle.Credit:Roberts family

Formerly known as the Open-Air Migrant Hostel, Pommy Town in Belmont North was erected to house migrants and social housing for families. They were then sold to the families who lived there.

When built, the house was a step up from the tent the Roberts family had lived in earlier when the post-war housing shortage was at its height.

Designed by British engineer Peter Nissen in 1916 to house troops, the huts also use stakes and wire to anchor the structure to the ground and keep them upright.

Because Nissen huts were designed to be transportable, they used the minimum amount of material needed to support the structure, including the roof, that held the building together, Innes said.

Once spread across Australia and common as tool sheds and scout rooms, these industrial relics that look like a Campbell’s soup can cut in half are now vanishing or weathered beyond recognition.

SLM’s Endangered Houses Fund purchased the home in 2008 for its $140,000 land value.

“Nobody valued them,” Innes said.

Because they lacked state or federal protection, they can be razed easily. After the trust bought the house, residents campaigned against heritage listing.

A Nissen cabin being restored.

A Nissen cabin being restored. Credit:

A resident told Herald in 2009 that the huts had reached their goal and had passed their expiration date: “Keep one for heritage reasons and let the others go”,

Charlie Leggat, then 84, a Scottish migrant who twice swapped rented huts before buying his house for $2,800 in 1967, wrote to the council saying conservation plans could “turn the town of Pommy into a slum” littered with crumbling Nissen huts with diminished resale value.

“It’s a good place to live, but only because I made it good. Left alone, he would crumble.

Surrounded by suburbs today, there was nothing but the bush when Roberts was a girl.

But it was a good life, she says, where everyone knew each other. “We were just Pommy Town kids, just average kids,” she said.

His family was second generation born in Australia. “Everyone’s salary was about the same,” Roberts said.

Innes wonders what it must have been like for the new migrants. “It must have been terribly isolated if you were a migrant in Australia who had just arrived and you were heading north, you would be thinking, ‘What did I come too? “”, Did he declare.

While many residents didn’t appreciate Nissen huts nearly 20 years ago, Innes said the way people appreciate the heritage is changing over time.

“Things that were previously overlooked, or not considered heritage at all, change in importance. The imminent threat of demolition often draws attention to whether something is important or not.

A migrant family enters their new home with hopeful faces in Maribyrnong, Victoria, 1965. Nissen huts were a common feature of life in a "silver city".

A migrant family enters their new home with hopeful faces in Maribyrnong, Victoria, 1965. Nissen huts were a common feature of life in a ‘money town’.

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The Endangered Houses Fund was designed to preserve existing homes without turning them into museums.

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