What’s to become of The White Dog?

The White Dog Hotel in October 2019, covered in graffiti. Picture: ROB CAREW. 198600_02

It has stood as a pillar of community and history for nearly 160 years.

And even though many changes have been made throughout its long life, one thing has stayed the same – its white facade.

The White Dog Hotel, as it is commonly referred to, was once just a sparse block of land in a town named Lilydale.

The land was purchased in May 1860 by James Balchin for an astounding nine pounds.

By June 1862 he had built the Hazard’s Hotel, advertised as good accommodation for travellers and with a store to suit everyone’s needs, at the lowest prices.

But Mr Balchin’s ownership didn’t last long, by 2 May 1863 he had placed an advertisement in The Argus newspaper looking for interested buyers.

On 1 July 1864, David Lithgow attended a special licensing meeting at Anderson’s Creek, where he applied for a publican licence for the Lillydale Hotel.

Much to his dismay, Mr Balchin also applied for a licence but for a new hotel that later became the Commercial and Temperance Hotel on the site that is now the post office.

Originally built as a single storey weatherboard building, by 1879 the building was half and half – double storey brick and single storey weatherboard.

Mr Lithgow operated the Lillydale Hotel until 1886 before he sold it to George Hodson, who finished the renovations to make The White Dog Hotel the two storey brick building as it appears today.

Many of the licensees only stayed for short periods and Mr Hodson was no different.

After two years, he had moved on and a man named Mr Kincade took ownership of the hotel.

Shortly after in 1902, fire gutted the hotel with damage to the passageway, staircase and some of the bedrooms on the second floor.

Mr Kincade and some other occupiers were trapped by fire on the second floor and had to scale down the balcony balustrades.

But no family made more of an impact on the hotel than the Connellys and Bramichs, owning it for nearly 70 years between them.

Friends of the White Dog Facebook group administrator and the man behind much of the advocacy for getting The White Dog Hotel up and running again, Rob Hall said the history is really important for people to know.

“I think it would be a great draw card. In fact I don’t think the whole area celebrates its history anywhere near enough,” he said.

“In my journey with The White Dog, I’ve learnt a lot about the history and you just go ‘where is it?’ It’s not really celebrated publicly in our area or in Lilydale I should say.”

With three pubs still existing on original land, Lilydale and District Historical Society president Sue Thompson said Lilydale is one of a kind.

“This place is very special in terms of its hotels. It’s really a special feature of this town,” she said.

“[The White Dog Hotel] was such a proud place.”

Ms Thompson, like many other residents in Lilydale, is disappointed by the state of the current building.

Mr Hall said he remembers a post on one of the social media noticeboards about The White Dog and it received an overwhelming response of outrage and questions.

“Next thing I know the noticeboard blows up with the amount of people that the moderators closed the discussion twice and I just went wow, this is a sore point in our community,” he said.

Taking the community response and wanting to see how much The White Dog meant to people, Mr Hall decided to look into how he could engage people and try to create change.

“I organised an online petition because I really didn’t know how to do a petition, one that council would actually accept and basically it gained just under 2000 signatures.

“A part of that petition was ‘why did you actually sign the petition’ and it’s got lots and lots of people and the reason they signed it.”

With a heritage listed facade, The White Dog is protected to some extent, but issues with enforcing those laws on private property is very difficult.

The Yarra Ranges Council has in place the Neighbourhood Amenity Local Law and under section 12.7, dilapidated buildings on a private premise are mentioned.

A building is regarded as dilapidated if the exterior of the building is in a state of disrepair, has been damaged or defaced to the point of affecting the visual amenity of the land, does not conform with the general standard of appearance with other buildings and architectural features are not properly maintained.

The maximum penalty units for a dilapidated building is 20 which can equate to around $3000 a month.

Having contacted both Bendigo and Geelong councils, Mr Hall understands this to be common practice.

“Other places have actually had problems with demolishing that shouldn’t have actually happened and other places have just been left to rot,” Mr Hall said.

“So I emailed them and they just came back and said ‘well we haven’t had to do it because we enforce our law that we’ve currently got’. Per month they enforce the 20 point penalty units.”

Yarra Ranges Council maintains it would like to see The White Dog Hotel utilised once more.

“Depending on the wishes of the landowner, the site could accommodate a number of different uses,” Director Planning, Design & Development, Kath McClusky said.

“We’d like to see the building and site being physically restored in a way that ensures it will be well-used by the community.

“In relation to owner’s rights when it comes to heritage buildings, it is their right to use and develop the property, consistent with all necessary planning and other approvals.”

Mr Hall has thought about getting The White Dog Hotel state heritage listed but the process is difficult.

“If it protects the hotel more than what is currently happening, then yes [I would get it heritage listed] but my ability to actually sign and read forms that’s really hampering the process so much that it’s kind of just not happening,” he said.

“I did actually have an offer from the council, they were going to look into assisting in that area but once coronavirus hit and the council elections hit, it all sort of died.”

Giving The White Dog Hotel back to the community is what Mr Hall is aiming to do but unfortunately it isn’t up to him.

“I’ve had people approach me, offering me their services to fix it up, not just with a paint brush but engineers, architects and they are willing to do it for free just to see this building that is part of our community back to being open.

“Most people would actually just like to see it open and used for something, whether it’s community housing, whether it’s for a community drop in centre, a domestic violence secure centre, pretty much anything.

“There’s a small part of our community that go ‘we’d like to see our pub back’ but I personally would just like to see it open.”

In an attempt to keep the building looking respectable, members of the Lilydale Main Street Beautification Committee, help from the council and people from the Friends of the White Dog group came together to clean up the graffiti left all over the facade.

Lilydale’s Stockdale and Leggo owners Max and Sharyn Manning, who are also part of the beautification committee, said this was the only way they could improve the appearance of the town’s icon.

“I think it was an eyesore for traffic coming through Lilydale and it showed how dilapidated the area is becoming and bearing in mind it represents a large part of the town the age of the property as well,” Mr Manning said.

Although Friends of the White Dog helped clean the facade, Mr Hall said they didn’t necessarily support the idea.

“It looks really good I have to say when it was finished but it literally did not address the issue of the actual current state. ‘Oh yeah this looks great’ but it’s still rotting inside,” he said.

“I think [the community] were hopeful that something was actually being done about it but I’m sorry to say, no.”

Being so central to the main township of Lilydale, The White Dog Hotel is a feature of history and community spirit.

“It has been described as the gateway to the Yarra Valley and I think it really could be,” Mr Hall said.

Coming from an artistic background, Mr Hall said he would love to see the hotel turned into an art gallery, with a local produce store which could showcase the Yarra Valley.

But for now all that is left to do is remember what it once was and hope that someday The White Dog Hotel will be restored in all its glory, in whatever form it takes.

“I actually had a few work lunches there [when it was open] with the beer garden out the back,” Mr Hall said.

“I wasn’t a regular or anything like that, I think there’s actually a lot more people that have fond memories than I do.”

Send us some of your favourite memories from being at The White Dog Hotel to mikayla.vanloon@starnewsgroup.com.au

Star Mail contacted the owner of the hotel for comment but did not receive a response.