I am back home in Australia with my wife, and we were recently on a road trip with my parents. We passed through Sovereign Hill, an 1850's themed town - technically a living museum of life in Ballarat, Victoria during the Victorian gold rush. I found Sovereign Hill fascinating, because it gives an insight into 19th century Australian life, and I'm sharing it here because it shares a lot of similarity with 19th century American life; we were both countries pushing to settle the frontier, made up of mostly immigrants looking for a better life in the new world. Sovereign Hill, as well as much of Australia during that period, feels very similar to the American Old West.
What I really loved about Sovereign Hill is that it felt alive. The buildings felt functional - they were not mere facades. If there was a building or a workshop, you could enter it and watch the townsfolk work.
I think Sovereign Hill is interesting from an urbanist perspective because it gives an interesting insight into what our towns we live in today evolved from. Just from walking around, it felt like all of the pieces of a fully functioning town were there.
Today, we like to separate manufacturing from our cities - placing manufacturing in dedicated industrial zones, isolated from the rest of town. However, walking around Sovereign Hill, it was easy to notice that most of the buildings were workshops - it is hard to imagine the town being only retail and residential. Where would the people work?
No town is complete without homes.
Not everyone was privileged to a house. Many of the immigrants early on were poor and lived in camp sites near the gold mines.
It is interesting to see how the early streets were configured. Because they did not have cars in the 1850s, the town was built for walking. Sidewalks and curbs serve a different purpose here than we see in contemporary towns.
Visiting Sovereign Hill was a really fun experience. Not only can you be mesmerized by workers going about their crafts in their workshops, go down into a real gold mine, and learn about the history of the region, but you also get a glimpse of life and how our towns were like a century and a half ago.