FREMANTLE SOCIETY founder and former councillor Les Lauder is saying farewell to the port city and moving lock, stock and antique barrel to Tasmania.
Credited with saving dozens of Fremantle buildings from destruction during WA’s 1970s development rush, the antique dealer was awarded an Order of Australia in June for his services to heritage.
But he told the Herald this week the state’s sluggish economy had seen local sales dropping off, while they’re going gangbusters in the eastern states and internationally — particularly the United States. With he and partner Mark Howard already falling in love with Hobart because of its vibrant arts scene, now seemed the right time to make the move.
“It’s not without some anguish, though, because we have a lot of good clients and friends over here,” Mr Lauder said. “But a lot of them have said ‘this gives us another reason to visit Hobart’.”
The pair have a lot to reflect on after 38 years in business, and a lot ahead of them trying to empty out their showroom and factory.
“It’s the equivalent of moving 40 households,” Mr Lauder said in between fielding a dozen inquiries from packers, tradies and customers.
There’ll be seven 40-foot sea containers heading to Tasmania, while McKenzies auctioneers will be putting the rest to the gavel on Tuesday November 21 at 6pm at Lauder and Howard on Blinco Street.
Up for grabs at the auction is a Louis XV painted armoire with two panels signed by J Godon 1883, which is expected to fetch between $18,000 and $24,000, while a c1710 Louis XIV serpentine commode could get up to $12,000.
They’d started as a pop-up shop on Cliff Street in 1979, but wanted to forge their own identity so steered clear of Victorian antiques and focused on Georgian and country pieces.
“Then in 1988 we did a major exhibition of colonial WA furniture, which had not been seen before,” Mr Howard said.
“It put us on the map because at the same time we published an introduction to colonial WA antiques, and at that time even the museum didn’t have one; they were – and are – still very rare.”
“To show how rare they really are, it took us another 25 years before we could put on another exhibition.”
And while the old furniture and nicknacks were moving out, Mr Lauder was making sure Fremantle’s precious heritage buildings stayed put.
“I am really pleased that when I first formed the Fremantle Society, the future of Fremantle was going to be a real industrial area,” he says.
He’d moved south of the river after being appalled by the destruction of Perth’s old buildings, but says he got a great shock when he arrived.
“I found only a couple of buildings were to be preserved as a token, and it was to become an industrial slum.”
But Mr Lauder says it was clear the community was against the plans, so he decided to form the Fremantle Society, but only after getting former mayor Bill McKenzie on side.
He paid tribute to the former son of the local milkman, saying he was an inspirational mayor who’s casting vote was responsible for saving dozens of buildings. Mr Lauder recalls McKenzie saying he was puzzled about this strange love for old buildings, but knew that saving them was the right thing to do.
The battle took its toll on both and at one point McKenzie resigned. Mr Lauder lobbied the city’s business community who chipped in for a full-page advertisement begging McKenzie to stay.
“On the day it came out, there was a phone call and it was Bill saying ‘I want to talk to you, you little bastard’ and he said ‘I can’t resign now’,” Mr Lauder said.
The resignation had already been processed, but come election time McKenzie’s was the only nomination.
Mr Lauder says he’s proud that his efforts saving Fremantle’s heritage has helped to turn the city’s reputation around; once sneered at as the home of “wharfies, communists and prostitutes”, he says it’s now somewhere anyone in Perth would aspire to live.
by STEVE GRANT