Despondent about the CBD’s heritage

By Rhonda Dredge

When people move into the CBD they love the novelty of being able to walk everywhere and discover new places down small alleys, particularly ones with great back stories. 

Debra Van Ommen was no exception when she bought a first-floor apartment in Collins St and began exploring.

Her legs led her one-day past Russells Old Corner Store on King St and she was hooked. 

Dora and George were sitting in the luncheon room of their historic home and “I fell in love with George,” Debra said. “He was very charming.” 

She found herself wanting to help the couple in their daily lives – with washing, sweeping and making sandwiches.

“They didn’t have a washing machine,” she said. “George washed the sheets by hand.”

By this stage George was looking after Loka. They were in their 90s yet they were still offering tea to passers-by at $5 a pot from their lounge room, plus putting on the occasional play.

To the former Box Hill resident, they epitomised CBD history. Lola had lived in the CBD’s oldest house since she was one month old and written a memoir, City Kid, about her life.

“She used to see herds of cattle go by along King St to Kensington Saleyards,” she said.

Now, just a few years later, Lola is in a nursing home, George is dead and their heritage-listed building is up for sale. 

Debra is worried that it will be bought by a developer and allowed to deteriorate so that it is condemned by the council. 

She said the couple had offers which they rejected and that land-banking was prevalent in the area. She claimed that one developer owns the strip of shops to the south.

“We call ourselves sentimental,” she said. “But people don’t care. It’s really sad. In Paris they don’t let you pull down old buildings.” 

Debra had tears in her eyes when she spoke to CBD News about her times with Lola and George.

She went down to the council with George when a passer-by complained about cracks in the wall. That’s when she organised a consortium prepared to spend $600,000 on the repairs. They were already at the stage of taking the bricks to Adelaide for assessment. 

Then George went into hospital. She sat by his bed and didn’t want him to go. “He was 93 when he died and he was still writing his play.” 

That was two years ago but she hasn’t forgotten her friends. “I was gutted when I read the article [in The Age]. The only memories now will be photos.”

She said she was selling her apartment and felt despondent about the future of the city’s heritage •

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