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Libby Bennett: The Heritage Architect

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5 min read
Libby Bennett, Director of Projects, is an award-winning heritage architect who has worked for the Harbour Trust since the agency’s inception. Over the past two decades, she has guided the delivery of important heritage conservation and restoration works across our network of protected sites on Sydney Harbour...

As an advocate for adaptive reuse, Libby has carved out a career with the Harbour Trust revitalising former defence assets. This has involved delivering works that protect and celebrate the unique character of heritage structures, improve their public amenity, and allow them to be sympathetically repurposed for contemporary uses.

Today, Libby is one of the Harbour Trust’s longest serving employees. In this DigiTalk – written with assistance from our volunteer researcher Michele Harper and released to coincide with Women’s History Month 2022 – we celebrate her contributions. Additionally, Libby reveals how she came to join the Harbour Trust and shares her highlights from the agency’s first 20 years. 

A groundswell of concern

Prior to joining the Harbour Trust, Libby completed her studies at the University of Sydney before serving the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (1987 to 1988) – then known as the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority – and the Department of Defence (1993 to 1999). Reflecting on her final years with the Department of Defence, Libby recalls “increasing murmurs” regarding the sale and redevelopment of Defence sites on Sydney Harbour, including Cockatoo Island / Wareamah.

“At the time, I was the heritage architect for the Department’s Sydney sites, including Middle Head, Woolwich Dock, and North Head,” she explained.

“These sites have unique heritage value and significance. Having dedicated my days to their ongoing restoration and conservation, I was concerned by the prospect that they were to be sold and developed.”

Libby was relieved when Commonwealth Government announced in 1998 that it would return the defence sites, which had been earmarked for sale, to the people of Australia. Further, it was revealed the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust (Harbour Trust) would be established to facilitate this undertaking.

This news had followed a groundswell of community concern punctuated by lobbying from Defenders of Sydney Harbour Foreshore – a coalition of local community groups including Friends of Cockatoo Island, the Headland Preservation Group and Foreshore 2000 Woolwich.

“The rest, as they say, is history”

Following the announcement of the Harbour Trust, Libby was eager to contribute to the fledgling agency’s mission to conserve the former defence sites in its portfolio and maintain them for the public’s benefit.

“I reached out to my contacts in the Department of the Environment, who had been tasked with establishing an Interim Trust, and mentioned I was very interested in being involved,” she explained. “I was fortunate to have had built a strong relationship with the Department, having consulted with them on heritage matters while serving with Defence.”

“Then, in mid-1999, I received a call from the Department and was advised they had selected the candidate for Executive Director. Although they were not yet at liberty to reveal who it was, I was told the candidate had recommended my appointment to the Harbour Trust, then an interim agency. When I learned the candidate was Geoff Bailey, I was flattered as he had previously offered me the job at the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority.

A few months later, with the blessing of the Department of Defence, Libby embarked on what was initially set to be a six-month secondment with the Interim Trust, working out of their newly established office at Chowder Bay. However, things didn’t quite go to plan.

“Well, I’m still with the Harbour Trust today,” Libby explained. “So… the rest, as they say, is history!”

Building trust, dismantling fences

Libby fondly recalls her early interactions with the community groups that had “fought tirelessly” to defend the sites that were now under the protection of the Harbour Trust.

“In the early days of the Interim Trust, we had meetings with community groups at Hunters Hill and Mosman to inform them of our vision,” she said. “These meetings were quite lively, which was understandable given the cloud of uncertainty that had once hung over the sites we were sworn to protect.

“The Trust was still an unknown quantity and we had to really work hard to earn trust. We spent months communicating the intention of the Harbour Trust, including the plans for the lands we’d been entrusted with.

“Fortunately, Geoff had pulled together an amazing, visionary team to guide the creation of our Comprehensive Plan; namely, Bob Clark, Nick Hollo and – externally – Rick Le Plastrier, Rod Simpson and Craig Burton. Gradually, we began to gain public support.”

A milestone moment, for Libby, was in the early 2000s when the Harbour Trust began to dismantle the barbed wire fences that had, for decades, prevented public access to many of Sydney’s most extraordinary sites, including the precincts of Headland Park. 

“When the fences started to come down, it signalled a new era,” Libby explained. “For the first time since their establishment by Defence, all these sites were open to the public.”

Cockatoo Island’s Convict Site

A highlight of Libby’s career with the Harbour Trust has been the heritage conservation works she has overseen at Cockatoo Island / Wareamah with respect to the remnant convict structures. In addition to working on the Guardhouse, Mess Hall, Courtyard and Barracks, she managed extensive repairs to the Convict Workshops and the former Superintendent’s Residence. Libby’s work on the Residence, colloquially known as Biloela House, helped earn the Harbour Trust a Greenway Award for Conservation.

Notably, Libby played a major role in what is arguably the Harbour Trust’s most significant archaeological find; namely, the long-lost Solitary Confinement Cells, originally built in 1841. The cells had been covered up prior to 1898 and, during the 20th century, were all but forgotten. In 2009, captivated by persistent rumours of the cells, Libby examined early drawings of the site, and realised they were concealed beneath the Convict Cookhouse.

This discovery contributed to Cockatoo Island’s remnant convict era structures – known as the Cockatoo Island Convict Site – being inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List with 10 other convict sites nationwide in 2010. Collectively known as the Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Property, these sites feature significant examples of convict era structures. Further, they offer insights into the conditions endured by convicts who were exiled to Australia and put to work on the colony’s ambitious building projects.

“Two, interconnected career highlights have been rediscovering the Solitary Cells and subsequently being part of the World Heritage nomination with Bob Clark,” Libby said.

“I remember the UNESCO assessor, who was an archaeologist, being completely thrilled by the discovery and excited at the prospect of assessing the cells in-person. After the assessor left, Geoff and I were very confident Cockatoo Island would meet the listing criteria.”

Libby’s subsequent work to excavate, conserve, reconstruct and interpret the Solitary Confinement Cells earned her a Cathy Donnelly Memorial Award at the 2014 National Trust NSW Heritage Festival Awards. This accolade recognises female professionals who have made an outstanding contribution to the conservation of built heritage.

Volunteers have been invaluable

Libby’s conservation work has extended to most of the other lands protected by the Harbour Trust. 

At Sub Base Platypus, Libby collaborated closely with Lahznimmo architects and ASPECT Studios to adaptively reuse significant heritage structures and transform the urban design of the site, which was formerly a submarine base, torpedo factory and gasworks. As a result of the renewal works, Sub Base Platypus – which was opened to the public in May 2018 – has been the subject of numerous industry accolades

Meanwhile, at Headland Park, Libby has worked to conserve the Submarine Miners Depot, Blacksmith’s Shop, and the Mines Closing Shed at Chowder Bay. She also oversaw conservation and restoration works to key landmarks at Georges Heights including the World War 1 era hospital. Colloquially known as the ‘Hospital on the Hill’, it is now the Harbour Trust head office. Libby’s conservation work on the Submarine Miners Depot, which today houses Ripples Chowder Bay, earned the Harbour Trust a Greenway Award for Conservation in 2003.

At the North Head Sanctuary, Libby oversaw the restoration of the North Fort Plotting Room. Located eight metres underground, this bomb-proof facility was vital to Sydney’s coastal defences during World War II. Its personnel received enemy vessel intel from – and sent it to – artillery batteries located along a 300km stretch of coastline. Between 2019 and 2020, Libby collaborated with a specialist team of 12 Harbour Trust volunteers to faithfully restore the Plotting Room, which had been inactive for several decades.

Libby has also had success collaborating with specialist Harbour Trust heritage restoration volunteers on the maritime-themed playground at Oberon Park, Sub Base Platypus and the restoration of a pair of heritage cranes at Cockatoo Island. In fact, the No. 2 Travelling Steam Crane and Mort’s Dock Steam Crane have been restored to their former, steam-powered glory this work received a National Trust award. 

“The work of our heritage restoration volunteers, including the skills and passion they share with us, has been invaluable,” Libby explained. “They have enabled significant heritage infrastructure, such as cranes and fortifications, to be conserved.”

The future looks bright

In June 2021, the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust Amendment Act 2021 (Cth) passed through Parliament. Critically, the Act satisfied a key recommendation of 2019-20 Independent Review of the Harbour Trust. Namely, it established the Harbour Trust as a permanent entity, empowered to protect its network of heritage sites in perpetuity for all Australians. This development has left Libby optimistic about the future of the Harbour Trust and the places it protects.

“Now that the life of the Harbour Trust is secured, our significant sites will be protected for future generations,” she said.

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Now that the life of the Harbour Trust is secured, our significant sites will be protected for future generations.

 

– Libby

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