On Sunday, I took part in Open House Melbourne again – another year of memorable experiences. The weekend the showcase event of an organisation committed to ensuring cities remain sustainable and livable, that people care about architecture, design, historical significance, and community values and stay engaged with their environment.
Each time I learn a little more about the history of this wonderful city as well as making the acquaintance of many delightful people. In the past, volunteers identified by a brightly coloured scarf and badge but this year we went for a ‘faux tradie'(?) look – a one size fits all fluoro pink vest!
The day always wonderful but the weather not always so…
July-August still winter and this year mercurial Melbourne let us know it.
Sunday, a particularly bone-chilling cold day with a consistent arctic wind from Hobson’s Bay visiting as intermittent squalls in the afternoon to remind us what season it is!
I was a building volunteer at The Esplanade Vaults in beachside St Kilda and although I’ve walked past this historical treasure many times (especially on Sunday when I got hopelessly lost and disoriented because I got off the tram one stop too early!) I never knew the vaults existed, or their significance before I was rostered on duty.
Apologies for my ignorance to all those who lived in, or frequented the popular tourist destination of St Kilda, and perhaps loved the shops ‘among the arches.’
They existed for a good part of a century before they were bricked up in the 70s because road widening narrowed the footpath and made access a hazard.
Almost 900 people visited ‘the vaults’ over Open House weekend, with almost half of them on Sunday – many blown in and appreciative of the dryness inside, if not the lack of heating and other creature comforts.
What remains is but a hollow shadow of the popular shops many remember but interesting to see inside because of their history.
The vaults date back to 1891 when public transport on the Upper Esplanade, St Kilda was upgraded to a new cable tramway replacing the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Company’s horse-drawn omnibus.
The roadway widened to accommodate tram tracks and included in the design was the ‘provision for ten shops with arched ceilings, the walls raised to hold the road above.’
The shops had verandahs and faced the St Kilda Baths on the Lower Esplanade. The St Kilda City Baths still there and I can recommend their friendly staff and coffee and cake. The older photo below of the Baths circa 1933.
The shops among the arches sold a range of merchandise suited to the location including ice cream, nuts, confectionery, haberdashery, and fish and chips. The walls are hollow and thick and it’s amazing how the noise is deadened. Nowadays trams and other traffic are constant above the shops and the road outside but are muffled to be almost unheard in the vaults.
The doors have wooden lintels and you can see the thickness of the walls. It is obvious what parts of the vaults are the original 1890s bricks and the more modern bricks used to seal them.
One of the visitors to the site on Sunday who looked about my age, perhaps older, told me a story about his childhood:
‘You know one of those shops just around the corner used to be a fish and chip shop. I’d ride my bike down here and buy some fish and chips, then leaving my bike leaning against the shop wall I’d cross the road and spend several hours on the beach. Didn’t matter when I came back my bike was still there.’
His nostalgic story ended on a wistful note, ‘No need for locks in those days…’
The City of Port Phillip Values Its Heritage
Only some of the original shops can be accessed and 2016 was the last time the Council opened them to the public. Sandra, a representative from Port Phillip Council’s Heritage Centre had set up a table to promote their local history and heritage program. It was an added bonus to have people knowledgeable about the city on hand.
My daughter lives in East St Kilda and I’m looking forward to warmer weather to follow detailed guides to five interesting walks:
- Immigrants Trail (4 kilometres – 70-90 minutes)
- Foreshore Trail ( 11 kilometres – 3 hours)
- To Market To Market (1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
- Around The Hill ((1 kilometre – 30 minutes)
- Solar System Trail (5.9 kilometres – 90 minutes)
This last walk intriguing and the result of a 2008 project with the Astronomical Society of Victoria, Lonely Planet Foundation, City of Port Phillip, Monash University, artist Cameron Robbins and Scienceworks!
St Kilda’s Built Heritage
The shop verandahs were removed in the 1950s but it wasn’t until the 1970s they were bricked up because of the widening of Jacka Boulevard.
Inside the vaults, on Sunday, there was a slideshow of historical pictures on a loop. Various views of St Kilda lit up one wall and old photos were fixed on the walls in another room. Sandra lamented there were no pictures of the shop interiors, or indeed close-ups of the shop fronts when they were thriving.
I’m sure there are snapshots in some family albums and perhaps one day they’ll be donated to a library or museum. Until then, people visiting just have to use their imagination – and everyone agreed the shop owners must have been expert at using space because the vaults are small. No wonder they needed the verandahs and a wide footpath!
There was a volume of a history of St Kilda for sale plus some postcards and I bought these to share with my writing class, especially those who are writing life stories and memoir. Those who write historical fiction will find them a good resource too.
The detail of the fashions on postcards, what people are doing, the landscape or seascape, expressions on faces – all fodder for a writer to mine.
When I went to class on Monday, I showed the postcards to student Heather (90 this year) and lent her the book because I remembered a story she wrote about trips to St Kilda and having pony rides on the beach. The period the book covers, 1930 – 1983.
Heather was thrilled, emailing me Monday night:
Am so enjoying the book. Found the name of our swimming coach, Alex Sauter who ignored me and spent all the lesson on my brother. What a wallow in old memories!
love and thanks Heather
Nothing wrong with wallowing in memories and the indigenous people of St Kilda have stories and legends too which we often forget when discussing the history of places. Stories and buildings from European settlement are only a small part of Australia’s history.
‘St Kilda’s’ Story Thousands Of Years Old…
Open House recognises this by stating:
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF COUNTRY
Our programming exists on what always was and always will be the land of the people of the Kulin nation. We pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging, as well as to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the wider Melbourne community and beyond. Indigenous sovereignty has never been ceded in Australia and we try to be mindful of this in everything we do, given our focus on the modern built environment.
The vaults are what remains of the engineering structure of the 1890s and came about as part of the embankment works and built into the supporting wall for the cable tramway.
However, local historian and conservationist Meyer Eidelson who wrote the guide to some of the walks I’ve mentioned was interviewed about the vaults in 2016.
In 1841, Derimut a leader of the Yalukit Willam who owned the land European settlers claimed as their own was bitterly disappointed by this theft. He cursed the settlement saying one day blood would rain from the sky and all would be swept away.
The shoreline of beach sands and the tea-tree grove is the traditional land of the Yalukit Willam clan of the Boon Wurrung. Legend tells of a grinding site for axes on the foreshore and also that the creator Bunjil who protects the Kulin Nation and travels as an eagle, placed rocks to stop floods and protect the indigenous settlement. Meyer believes the original foundation of the Upper Esplanade could be part of the network of those sacred rocks.
There is also more recent mythology about hauntings, victims, vampires and numerous intriguing ghost stories.
All believable when inside the vaults.
Light from the tiny vents creates shadows that dance across the floor and up the walls. The effects of the changing light from outside, the glow of artificial light inside, and the vibration from above and the steam of cars alongside plus the wind whistling through the arches interesting enough during the day but would be a dramatically different mood and atmosphere in the evening.
On Sunday, as the foreshore and streets filled with families and others enjoying Open House, I recalled how St Kilda’s history is chequered with various murder stories, not to mention periods where almost every story was negative – either about drugs or prostitution.
The year I volunteered and was on duty at nearby Edgewater Towers, many of the stories centred around its suitability to feature in fledgeling Australian TV crime dramas because of the notoriety of some St Kilda residents!
I guess it would not be too difficult to imagine the worst if you were alone in one of the dank vaults. (Although they are surprisingly clean and free from the ‘back-alley/abandoned building’ aromas of rodents, rubbish and rotten food.)
Probably, because they have been sealed. Also with no plumbing connected and extremely thick brick walls, any living creature looking for residence would be birds through the top air vents – and yet there was no evidence inside of them.
However, there was a time when people did squat in the vaults and contrary to the general adverse image of people living rough, whoever claimed these catacombs as home left evidence of trying to decorate and soften the harsh reality of cold, rough bricks and concrete.
On Sunday, I encouraged the children who accompanied their parents, to look for the hidden (and some not so hidden!) objects pushed or stuck into cavities in the walls:
marbles, pieces of crockery, plectrums, mirror tiles, old rusty tin, pencil, CDs… a heart image…
A great place to have a writing workshop – perhaps at night with candles flickering…
- Who put the objects there and why?
- Were they found objects or had more significance?
- How long were the people there?
- Where did they go?
When I finished my shift for the day I was faced with the reality of watching a man settle himself on a bench for the night next to the vaults, his bright orange checked blanket belying the misery of his homelessness. The view of the foreshore and bay more a curse than a joy as a promised storm rolled in on the bruised clouds and I couldn’t imagine how cold his night was going to be.
I was reminded of two other issues in the public arena during the afternoon:
Outside the baths, a timely reminder to ‘ditch plastic bags’ while sharing information about how traditional owners used plants.
Also, on duty at the vaults was Armah, a security guard originally from Ghana. We had a wonderful discussion about the fact Africa is a continent, not a country and how he has lived in Melbourne 21 years and never been in a gang!
I showed Armah a funny clip of the Ghanaian parliament which is doing the rounds of Facebook and he couldn’t wait to get home to tell his family and share it.
Armah has been back to Ghana a couple of times to visit family but like most migrants happy here, he considers that Australia is home.
I wish Dutton, Turnbull, Bolt, Guy et al – the pathetic politicians who dog whistle and use racist slurs to get votes could have chatted with Armah and hear the damage such targeted remarks do to communities.
Cold and tired, I caught up with my daughters for a cup of tea and a chat, sharing the memories triggered by my few hours in St Kilda.
- I learnt to ice skate at the famous St Moritz rink along with thousands of other Melburnians in my age bracket.
- I attended dances and functions at the St Kilda Town Hall.
- Mordialloc Writers read at one of the first St Kilda Writers’ Festivals
- I’ve visited numerous friends who live in different parts of the suburb
- I still recall with fear my first visit to Luna Park and the terror of the scenic railway ride!
As I replied to Heather – there’s nothing wrong with wallowing in memories!
There is another post doing the rounds of Facebook –
The someplace may even be close to home. I wonder what building I’ll be allocated next year…
Who will I meet? What will I learn? What will I remember?
How many degrees of separation will there be… and will the weather be kinder!?
8 thoughts on “The Esplanade Vaults – An Historical Treasure Rarely Opened”
Great story Mairi, I remember when St Kilda was unloved and all those big houses facing the bay had sleep-outs on their front verandahs to maximise the number of rooms to let. I went to Luna Park the first time when I came up from the bush for the Dandenong Jamboree in 1964. Went through the Tunnel of Love with girls! My kids enjoyed Luna Park of course but were most impressed by the grungey bars and cafes of Fitzroy St. Oldest daughter had her 16th at Jean-Jaques by the sea, we sat by the window in an absolute storm, particularly remember squid in ink. Youngest daughter and all her year just had to go to St Kilda pier after their school formal. Poor old dad sat in the dark for hours. And one last memory, ex-Mrs Legend going with her special friend to the Espy but then ringing me to come in for drinks and to take her home. Now I’m a West Australian Freo’s great, but it’s not St Kilda.
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What great memories Bill! My daughters loved The Espy too and in fact, Anne’s first student film was a promotional video clip for one of the bands playing there – the lead singer/guitarist a grandson of one of my writing students – it’s who you know:) When we came to Australia and lived in Croydon, considered ‘the bush’ then, St Kilda was the exciting destination to head for and I still love visiting there and all credit to the council and local community groups for the amazing work they have done to make it appealing.
Yes, I feel a little wistful for those days too. I think I’ve said before that I had a dear friend who lived on The Esplanade and St Kilda and its beach was our playground in the middle to late 1960s. The idea that two teenage girls could wander round unmolested today is bizarre, but for us it was the community she lived in and was as safe as houses…
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Yes, times have changed in so many ways and unfortunately, we seem to have lost some important values along the way as lifestyles changed.
Yes, that book I just read, 1939 The Last Season, while a very silly book in many ways, did make me sit up when she wrote that there was much less violence in those days. That’s how I remember it too… of course I don’t remember 1939, but in my younger days I don’t remember anything like the levels of violence there are now.
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I’m probably going to sound like a grumpy old wowser now but when we were younger we had a limit to the amount of alcohol we drank and how often because we didn’t have credit cards or the amount of disposable cash some young people seem to have today – I believe there is a big link between alcohol and violence. There weren’t as many places selling or serving alcohol either. When you add some of the other horrible drugs like ICE that change people’s personality or limit their ability to control themselves, it is a heady mix.
Yes, grumpy or not, I think you have a point. It’s only a minority of course, but they certainly can cause havoc.
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