My Culture, My Story – What Makes a Place Special?

History Library Prahran

The Australian Heritage Festival 2018

Heritage –
1. property that descends to an heir, an inheritance
2. something valuable transmitted by or acquired from a predecessor or predecessors; a legacy
3. a country’s history and traditions
4. (used before a noun) relating to or presenting a country’s history and traditions, especially in an attractive and nostalgic way: a heritage centre

The New Penguin Compact English Dictionary, 2001

I have to thank Facebook for reminding this festival was happening and for inundating my newsfeed with events in Victoria they have decided (correctly) I might be interested in – although I have to miss many because of work, finances and/or timing.

The dreadful analytics and profiling we hear about in the news have, as Agent 86, Maxwell Smart used to say, ‘worked for good, not evil’!

And so, on Sunday, April 22, I went on the “Heritage Walk: Department Stores of Chapel Street” meeting at the Victorian History Library in Prahran to follow Steve Stefanopoulos, Mayor of Stonnington and a local historian to explore former department stores, historical sites and heritage buildings along a part of iconic Chapel Street.

 

Dynamic and in love with the history of his city, Steve reminded us to look up and around at the architecture, even when we didn’t stop to hear the history of particular buildings.

He is on the board of Open House Melbourne and as we waited for the tour to start I discovered another lady who, like me, volunteers for Open House. I was in good company.

Chapel Street, Prahran’s Charming Architecture

Before we started the tour, Steve distributed a book written by local historian, Betty Malone, Chapel Street Prahran Part One 1834-1918. This well written, 72-page book absolutely crammed with research and fascinating details and included in the price of the 2-hour tour, which for seniors was $15.00 –  fantastic value for an entertaining Sunday afternoon. (And you can add ‘healthy’ because of Steve’s brisk walking pace!)

history book

Steve walked fast and talked even faster so they were right to advertise that ‘unfortunately, it was not suitable for people with mobility issues‘ but we had traffic lights to let us cross the road and paved footpaths – very different from Betty’s description of the beginning…

In the late 1830s, when Melbourne was still young, Chapel Street was a rough, unnamed bush track leading south from the better known Gardiner’s Creek Road in the direction of the Mornington Peninsula, crossing similar tracks that led east to Dandenong and beyond. Used mainly by horsemen and stock riders with their flocks and herds, it turned and twisted as it wound its way up and down small hills and gullies, avoiding the big red gums, the patches of thick scrub and the numerous waterholes, lagoons, creeks and swampy ground that lay across its path. It must have been a pleasant track to follow in good weather, with its wattles and wildflowers, its birds and small bush creatures, though most of the men who passed along were probably more intent on spurring their animals to reach their destinations than on enjoying the surroundings.

As car horns blared, music blasted from shops, and crockery clattered amidst the chatter from the sidewalk tables outside cafes, it took concentration to listen and imagine what it must have been like last century, and the century before that… yet as our guide pointed out by regulation and effort many of the facades and even some internal features of magnificent buildings have been retained and restored to former glory.

The Osment Buildings

These photographs before (Betty’s book) and after (mine) are of the Osment buildings, built in 1910-11, they housed Osment’s Emporium, one of just a number of similar department stores erected between the late 1890s and the 1930s between Commercial Road and High Street. The decorated pediment contains the name ‘Osment Buildings’ in relief lettering.

Henry Osment once owned the Prahran Telegraph and was a local councillor from 1887 to 1898 and Mayor of Prahran in 1888-89. His descendants built the three-storey emporium.

It has a symmetrical facade of red brick and cement render. Flanking bays contained oriel bay windows with sinuously curved parapets and prominent arches. Steve was annoyed that recent modernisation removed the bay windows.

As mayor, he has worked hard to preserve the heritage uniqueness and stop inappropriate development and/or deliberate ‘vandalism’ aka modernisation destroying irreplaceable features.

A local landmark, Osment Buildings remind us of how grand and elegant early 20th Century shopping was for the well-to-do citizens of Melbourne. It has some beautiful Art Nouveau details especially the small Ionic columns of green faience between each set of windows. The arched openings are accentuated by exaggerated voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones).

An excellent example of the imposing buildings of the Marvellous Melbourne period it is now a mixture of residential flats and small studios, with shops at street level and depending on the time of day the glazing on the columns glitters in the sunlight.

Chapel Street, Still the Place To Be

Nowadays, Chapel Street Prahran has plenty of eateries to cater for the students at Swinburne University’s Prahran Campus including the popular (and cheap) Lucky Coq. But the buildings we were interested in hearing about were the emporiums, such as Moore’s and The Big Store, which used an Edwardian Free Style.

They sometimes added American Romanesque influence, such as on the Love and Lewis building.

The Big Store

The Big Store is now a Coles’ supermarket but was a business set up by William Gibson who emigrated from Glasgow in 1882. He first opened a shop in Collingwood as a partner of Francis Foy and continued to trade as sole proprietor when the partnership dissolved.

An astute businessman he survived the 1890s depression and even expanded his interests into a hosiery in Perth and woollen mills.

After William’s death in 1918,  John Maclellan, a partner merged the company with Foy’s and they remained trading as The Big Store until 1967. The furniture store had become a cigarette factory (Capstan and Black Cat brands).

Maclellan is remembered as being civic-minded and a progressive employer who provided sporting facilities for his staff and provided a lavish Christmas party for employees and their families.

…one feature that delighted children in the toy department especially at Christmas. The youngsters could travel the ups and downs of a switchback installed in one corner, the means of conveyance being a wicker basket.

 

Love And Lewis

The firm of drapers, Love and Lewis, first occupied premises in Prahran in 1897, and in 1913 replaced their original three-storey premises with a larger five-storey building. Distinctive lettering appears in the spandrels, which alternate with strips of windows and provide the horizontal emphasis to the building.

Offsetting this are vertical piers, emphasised by red and cream striped brickwork and crowned with exaggerated pairs of consoles. The top floor of the building features arched window openings with terracotta patterned panels to the spandrels.

It sold drapery of all kinds but specialised in cheaper lines of goods. Mr Lewis was the best known in Chapel Street, and people speak of him as interesting or as an eccentric… The business was moved to the city in Bourke Street.

Adelaide businessman Charles Moore built his five-storey store, the most dominant of the large emporia along Chapel Street, at the corner of Commercial Road in 1914. The design by the architects Sydney Smith and Ogg was never fully completed.

The building has two circular corner bays capped by domes that stand on elaborate drums. The main facade (only partially completed along Chapel Street) has massive Corinthian columns supported by pedestals, and banded piers at the corners, which support a heavy cornice and a balustraded parapet.

Large areas of glass light the interiors. There are huge oval windows on the first floor and an arched opening over the main Commercial Road entrance. The twin domes are especially prominent elements. The intact verandah is particularly ornate and notable and the building tastefully renovated inside.

corner bldg.jpg

The section of Chapel Street we walked had several commercial buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Above the ground floor, the majority of the facades have retained their original decorative features.

In some cases, Victorian facades have been ‘modernised’ during the last few decades by stripping them of their nineteenth-century decorative elements. Most of the ground floor shops-fronts have been modernised, but some were updated in the early twentieth century, and have preserved the lead-lighted shop-fronts from earlier times.

Some were rebuilt after devastating fires in the early part of the twentieth century. Reminders of earlier eras remain and for anyone interested in history or writers looking for authenticity of setting, a walk along Chapel Street is worthwhile.

As Steve said, ‘If the door is open, be respectful and go inside. Look at what original architectural features are left. Many have beautiful ceilings, cornices, mosaic floors and even pillars and statues.

A woman in our small group said she had worked in one of the big stores. It was her first job leaving school at fourteen.

‘Which counter?’ asked Steve.

‘Cosmetics.’

‘Of course,’ said the mayor and we smiled. In the era, this lady started work it would have been regarded as one of the few jobs available to females.

Several others on the tour revisited their childhood as we walked. For some, it was first jobs or where they used to shop regularly with their parents, for others they used to come to Chapel Street for a special reason or a treat.

 

newspaper adverts 1909.jpg
Newspaper adverts 1909

 

… haberdashery shops, milliners, dressmakers, tailors, mercery, women and children’s wear, boots and shoe stores…

Furniture shops proliferated to meet the demand of a growing district’s population. Local goods made in Melbourne’s factories were taking their place beside imported manufactures, and Prahran gained a number of watchmakers, clockmakers and jewellers from Germany and Switzerland…

The Conway Buildings

The best surviving shopfronts are in the section of Chapel Street south of High Street. Most of the original verandahs have been replaced with cantilevered awnings. However, the eight shops of Conway’s Buildings, (1890), have retained their original elaborate stonework and columns.

Some people have bought buildings and been true to heritage guidelines and restored facades beautifully but restoration is not cheap and some owners have buildings in serious disrepair.

The hotel above JB Hi-Fi is a case in point – the owner has already spent $150,000 – 200,000 just on the street entrance attempting to restore the hotel’s original features. Whereas the owner of another building is only using the street level retail area and may be waiting for the upper storeys to deteriorate beyond restoration.

facades worth keeping.jpg

The Australian Heritage Festival is Australia’s biggest annual community-driven heritage festival. It promotes greater awareness, knowledge and understanding of our national heritage, focusing on what makes a place special, encouraging us all to embrace the future by sharing the strengths of our cultural identities.

  • An opportunity to reflect on the places where we live, work, and travel.
  • Why are they special?
  • An opportunity to celebrate our many diverse and distinctive cultures.

I hope to participate in other events before the festival is over but I chose the Chapel Street tour for personal reasons – I used to live on the corner of Alfred and Greville Streets and nostalgia is a powerful emotion and drawcard.

I love history and admire the architectural features of many old buildings but I was curious about my old flat and the area where I spent 4 years in the early 1980s.

As a teacher of Life Stories and Legacies, I’d be remiss not to take advantage of a walk down memory lane!

greville street entrance

Greville Street

I wandered down Greville Street – a tourist precinct now and upmarket! There is a lovely park, buildings have been renovated and restored, shop fronts spruced up. A vibrancy replaces grunge and the whole area has changed with vehicle access limited.

The block of flats on the corner of Alfred Street is still there, although the shrubs and small trees from 35 years ago now reach the second-floor windows of my old flat.

My local pub, The College Lawn has had a makeover, as has the little park opposite the flats. The one unimaginative swing and sad roundabout, replaced by new play equipment and seats for carers and guardians to enjoy. Trees almost block out the sprawling conglomerate of Wesley College in the background.

Some tiny Victorian homes are either gone or have been renovated with the latter now worth an absolute fortune.

I remember walking up to the Prahran Railway Station or Chapel Street and seeing Leunig working in a studio – the barest of rooms in the drabbest of buildings.

There are no bare shopfronts now and I can only guess the rents too high for a struggling artist!

I remember Checkpoint Charlie, the nickname John gave the Caretaker of our block of flats. The elderly bloke lived in the bottom flat with his wife and either got the flat rent free or was paid to keep the stairwell, foyer, gardens and carpark clean and tidy. He never missed a trick and stood at the window watching everyone coming and going. His portly, grey-haired figure often seen twitching the lace curtains.

When I lived in the flat I had a porcelain doll of Charlie Chaplin. My three-year-old nephew loved playing with Charlie’s cane and bowler hat and chatted away to the doll. He overheard us refer to Checkpoint Charlie and I guess the two Charlies were confusing because he ended up calling them both ‘Charlie Checklin’ and thought the doll sometimes lived downstairs.

Molly Meldrum lived further along Alfred Street. The border of Prahran and South Yarra very close. The South Yarra postcode much more desirable as a friend who lived in a flat near the border never tired of emphasising. However, Molly didn’t exhibit petty snobbishness and twice when I walked by I was invited to a party. There was always music coming from his house and he loved his parties and usually invited all the neighbours to minimise complaints!

I remember going to night school at the old Prahran College of Advanced Education and studying creative writing with Gerald Murnane and John Powers and treasure their feedback on the first short story I submitted and the first play.

I received my Australian Citizenship certificate at a ceremony in the Town Hall in 1981. The event sticks in my mind because Clyde Holding MP, the leader of the Opposition at the time sat on stage with his fly undone. John whispered this fact to me and when it was my turn to go up and shake hands I struggled to suppress a giggle.

I don’t know if others noticed but someone must have given him a hint by the time it came to mingling with us ‘new Australians’ afterwards.

It’s funny what memories are triggered and as I stared at my old home I thought of a writing exercise I gave my students this week, ostensibly to tap into a childhood memory to create a poem.

The Structure of “I Remember”

I remember the echo of footsteps in concrete stairwell, the squeak of rubber soles, the click of high heels, the heavy tread of work boots

I remember the singsong voices of children in the park and rumble of roller blades on pavement and road

I remember the drone of distant traffic on Punt Road, the electric trains blowing their horns and the school siren controlling the day at Wesley College

But mostly I remember the gentle tones of Simon and Garfunkel and Deanna Durbin as I relaxed in my one-bedroom sanctuary from the busyness of the working day.

One of the ways I picture memory is to see it weaving a kind of continuous spider’s web that’s laid down all the time we occupy. This invisible net allows most things to pass through it. But some are trapped, sometimes for years, sometimes only briefly. Memory’s web-net acts like a kind of border crossing. Each today must pass through it on its journey towards tomorrow and becoming another yesterday. These border crossings between our days are patrolled by the not-always-vigilant guards of remembering. Their decisions about which moments to wave through, and which to detain, veer wildly between what’s reasonable and what seems utterly capricious.

Chris Arthur, Prisoners of Memory, an essay.

 

2 thoughts on “My Culture, My Story – What Makes a Place Special?

  1. This is a part of Melbourne I barely know, though my kids as teenagers would often make their way there to hang out (Son was at Melb High, for a while). I think the big attraction was the Jam Factory but I’m glad some facades/buildings are being preserved.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reading Bill – I think your children may be in the same age bracket as mine although the Jam Factory has lost its sparkle I think and is mainly a cinema complex. Nightclubs seem to be the go down that end of Chapel Street now and I’m sure it was the clubs that attracted my girls. Interestingly, one of the restored buildings hosts Revolver nightclub and our guide suggested we go in when it’s open and check out the staircase and ceiling. (Somehow I think the beauty of those features will be lost on the patrons who go there to party!) When I lived Inthe area, clothing manufacturers still existed here and designers like Trent Nathan had shop fronts where you could buy designs cheaper than in the big retail outlets. My oldest daughter snaffled my Trent Nathan jacket because it is one of those classic styles that never go out of fashion! I loved the Prahran Market and on Saturday mornings especially loved chatting with Jim Cairns who was always there selling his books but mainly talking to people and encouraging them to think about what kind of country we wanted. I was in my 20s and I guess I took the old buildings for granted but I’m very glad effort is being made to keep some of them – tourists travel overseas to take pictures of lovely old buildings and so it’s nice we value our own too!

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