Melbourne’s Heritage Buildings – Do You Have a Story About Meeting Under the Clocks at Flinders Street?

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Flinders Street Station June 2019

The other day I got a call from a writer friend who suggested it was the time to keep a long-promised date to have lunch at Pellegrini’s.

We met when we were both involved as volunteers in an Intergenerational Project for the City of Kingston and had talked about this outing just before the dreadful attack of terror last year and the murder of Sisto Malaspina, a co-owner of a place regarded as one of Melbourne’s must-experience institutions.

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Lee had written about her childhood half a century ago, the friendship with the owners and staff at Pellegrini’s, memories of being a migrant in Melbourne, and of her mother taking her regularly to this Italian restaurant for pasta and other familiar delicacies reminiscent of a Europe they’d left behind.

Our lunch date would begin by meeting ‘under the clocks at Flinders Street Station,’  a place, where I’m sure almost every Melburnian this century and most of last century, has used as a meeting place at one time or other.

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one group of clocks

Flinders Street Station, an iconic building holding many stories within its walls and parts of the interior, especially the upper floor Ballroom – a place everyone wanted to see when I first volunteered for Open House Melbourne a decade ago because like other sites during the last weekend in July, the public rarely have access.

My lunch date story a salutary lesson to not delay plans because we never know what is around the corner and often don’t appreciate a person or place until they’re gone, which is a nice segue into a story about the heritage restoration of Flinders Street Station…

Alas, as mentioned, parts have been closed off to the public for many years because lack of proper maintenance made some of the building unsafe and until final restoration work is done (an expensive, time-consuming process) it may be many more years before the whole building is restored to its original glory.

 

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The Restoration of Flinders Street Station

On May 29, I attended a free seminar in the Victorian Parliamentary Library by heritage architecture expert, Peter Lovell, on the Restoration of Flinders Street Station. Peter’s talk and the venue fascinating.

Access to the parliamentary South Library was appreciated, a place I’d only seen in passing, while on a quick tour of Parliament House, during the Centenary of the Women’s Petition for the vote.

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talk over and chairs being stacked

The Victorian Parliament Building also a Melbourne icon and although it has received more maintenance attention than Flinders Street Station, the restoration process is drawn out for this building too.

The day of Peter’s talk wintry with intermittent heavy showers and a biting wind, which probably explains why not all those who booked turned up, despite repeated emails to advise if ‘no show’ because there was a ‘waiting list’.

Peter also advised to allow twenty minutes to ‘go through security at the front entrance’ but there would be ‘a welcome desk in the vestibule’.

I arrived five not twenty minutes early because of unavoidable delays on the Frankston Train Line. (ah, the irony!)

My demeanour must have registered panic because the young woman on security duty said, ‘Take your time, calm down,’ as I fumbled to show the email with the details of the event, and get out my mobile phone and perfume – two items on a ‘must show’ list.

The security process reminiscent of airport security and sadly a sign of the times and upgrading the old building to accommodate new security technology a priority. How you do that in keeping with nineteenth-century architecture and expectations of access from the general public, no easy task.

Hurrying, and feeling guilty about being late I dropped my handbag, partially spilt the contents on the ground and held up a queue of others also wanting to enter via the public entrance of Parliament House. (Murphy’s Law obviously working and I could hear my wee Irish Mum’s voice, ‘more haste less speed’…)

Not a great start to the event!

Fortunately, the promised Welcome Desk was indeed welcoming and despite the tone of the emails suggesting non-negotiable punctuality, a friendly, and chatty attendant escorted me to the Library where I had a good fifteen minutes to feast on my surroundings and relax by eyeing off the floor to ceiling shelves!

The books eleven shelves high above a bench with two shelves below, so no wonder there was a ladder leaning against the wall and the top two shelves empty.

My imagination kicked in, reminding me of that scene in The Mummy with a chain reaction of crashing shelves in the Cairo Library because the librarian over-reaches,  wobbles on the ladder and the shelves of books fall like dominoes.

The sign for the seminar read Foundations – Architecture with influence – Flinders Street Restoration Project and then my eyes wandered to a variety of books, their titles almost jumping out at me:

  • A coffee table-sized, Unemployable
  • Blair – a thick hardback
  • A big blue tome titled, Australian Poetry
  • Another hardback, Paul Kelly
  • A hardback book of Cycling on an easily accessible bottom shelf…

Brought back to reality the guest speaker was introduced by Caroline, the Parliamentary Librarian…

Restoring Heritage Buildings A Specialist Field

I sat in the front row ‘all the better to hear’ the talk by the chief architect of the firm responsible for restoring the outside of iconic Flinders Street Railway Station. The seminar was the third of a three-part series on Architecture Restoration of Significance, the analysis and reuse of older buildings.

Peter’s firm specialising in Heritage – he surveyed Parliament House – furniture, fittings and the building – ascertained its conservation status and how to retain the important historical aspects and ensure it can function in the modern era before major renovations occurred.

His resume is impressive: recently the Windsor Hotel, Princess Theatre, Palais St Kilda and the State Library; also the Essendon Airport Control Tower, Wilson Hall Melbourne University, Melbourne Laneways, Sidney Myer Music Bowl and now Flinders Street Station.

Many important landmarks since European settlement that are valued by the public have received Peter’s attention to detail and extensive research to ensure what can be restored is done so to enrich our history and heritage.

All good presenters put their audience at ease and Peter was no exception, jokingly referring to the current series on SBS Great British Railway Journeys introduced by ex-Tory politician Michael Portillo. 

Peter apologised for the absence of a bright jacket to show off his knowledge of railway history! (Portillo’s signature dress code is an outlandish colourful blazer and each series he works his way through the colours of the rainbow.)

This led Peter into a segue on the various colours of the paintwork of Flinders Street Station. The paintwork appears different during the day and night and over the years.

In the 1980s the paint colour used for Flinders Street was investigated and fashion consultants of the day said the colour chosen was ‘awful‘.

Now, 30 years since that paint exploration, the current restoration began and the paint colour harks back to the original colour scheme.

The initial investigation revealed a failure of the fabric externally with extensive structural cracking. When the project began, the Christchurch earthquake had just happened therefore the Government’s main concern was the stability of the building.

There was an update of the Conservation Management Plan and the significance of this was what could or could not be changed.

The track level and platforms and range of shops along Flinders Street – all spaces were analysed. The ceilings contained the largest collection of press metal work in Australia.

Flinders Street Station

… is of National social, architectural, aesthetic and technical significance as one of the landmark buildings of Melbourne…possibly the most well known and heavily used public building in Melbourne…providing an imposing entry and exit point for thousands of travellers every day of the year…

The platforms, the ramps, stairs, subways and concourse, have been used by millions of commuters since 1910. Except for unsympathetic alterations to the ramps up to Swanston Street made in 1983, all these elements are intact and considered an integral part of Melbourne’s historic character. Even minor details, such as the ‘do not spit’ signs, the large mirror on the ladies toilets off the Elizabeth Street subway and the original timber signboards, are widely known and enjoyed.

The steps of the main arch facing into the city became a convenient and popular meeting point known as “under the clocks” and is still popular today. While the opening of the city loop in 1980 has reduced the dominant role of the station, it is still an important destination and meeting point.

As a large and imposing public building located at the major symbolic gateway into the city, on one of the most important intersections, it is a familiar and well loved landmark, and the view of the building from Flinders Street has become one of the most photographed and instantly recognisable images of Melbourne.

Heritage Council, Victoria, 2008

In 2017, while volunteering for Open House Melbourne at the Nicholson Building, I got a great bird’s eye view of the preparations to paint and restore Flinder Street Station.

Who designed Flinders Street?

The railway architect, Mr James Fawcett, and railway engineer, HP Ashworth won a competition to design a railway station for Melbourne. Fawcett, according to Peter was a ‘one horse wonder’ because he doesn’t design anything else major as an architect. Flinders Street Station is broadly Edwardian Free Style, the main building is strongly influenced by French public architecture of the 1900s, and is the only such example in Melbourne.

Fawcett was a watercolour painter of some renown – check out the Fawcett Collection at the State Library. He also designed Woodlands Homestead, a prefabricated house and was ‘a run-of-the-mill domestic architect of conventional Edwardian bungalows‘.

However, a number of suburban and country railway stations were probably also designed by Fawcett & Ashworth, such as Glenferrie, Essendon and Caulfield because they were built between 1900 and early 1920s and employ a similar, but far less elaborate, architectural style.

Peter showed slides of some old paintings of Flinders Street as a tiny train station in early Melbourne.  Other paintings showed the historical development and the station growing to have original platforms and the Degraves Street stop.

In 1899, the government held a competition to design Flinders Street and Fawcett, an employee won so there was a suggestion it was ‘an inside job’.

This was the period of the famous Thomas Bent MP, later Premier of Victoria (seen as corrupt in some people’s eyes and referred to as ‘bent by name and bent by nature’…)  Bent was certainly a colourful character and left a much-talked-about legacy especially regarding the railways. There are stories about him in two of Mordialloc Writers’ Group anthologies! (Scandalous Bayside, 2008; Off The Rails, 2012.)

scandalous bayside, anthology 6, 2008anthology 8, off the rails, 2012

Fawcett invested in art architecture, he liked innovation. In the original design, the train halls were supposed to be covered and go East-West like London’s. However, cost-cutting meant covered train halls abandoned and their direction changed to North-South.

A large multiple-arch iron roof over the platforms, with an enormous glass wall facing the river, was never built. This aspect of the design was in the manner of the grand European and English railway stations, except that the arches were to have been across the platforms, rather than along.

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You can just see part of the original covered roof to the left in this photo of the entrance to Flinders Street today

It was a grand design though and the fourth floor was to be commercial offices – and whether these offices should be private businesses or only for government and the railway was a bone of contention. (Nothing new there politicians still argue over commercial versus public use and profit and investment, financial return …)

The station was not completed until 1910 but built for commuters and had shops, canteen for workers, cafes, even a childcare centre… ahead of its time …

The office portion of the station is of social and historical significance for having incorporated extensive and heavily used public facilities. Large and convenient public toilets for women were provided at a time when such facilities were rare.

Apparently, in the 1920s it was the busiest railway station in the world. A claim with no mention of what other stations were considered for that honour and whether it encompassed a Eurocentric world view, Southern Hemisphere or included Asia!

Extensive facilities provided for the Victorian Railways Institute, which catered to the thousands of employees of the railways, as well as their families and friends. Located on the top floor, the Institute’s rooms included a Concert Hall under the main dome, a library, two classrooms and a gymnasium, a billiard room and a lecture hall at the Elizabeth Street end, which was converted to a Ballroom circa 1930.

Many of these facilities were available for hire by outside organisations and by the 1950s Flinders Street Station was home to 120 cultural social and sporting organisations, such as cat lovers, rose devotees, talented debaters and poetry lovers. This function continued until the Institute moved out in 1984.

I can remember attending the first Train Travellers Association meetings on the top floor in the late 1970s. These were the days of the old ‘red rattlers’, the Tait trains with their wooden panelling examples of Fawcett’s design work.

Carriages had leather straps hanging from the ceiling for standing passengers and too few seats catering for the postwar population explosion increasing the number of commuters travelling into the city each day.

Sadly, at the time I didn’t appreciate the heritage aspects of the upper floors!

The Train Travellers Association born out of the frustration and anger of commuters and guest speakers included Jim Fraser, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Railways Union (ARU) and the Shadow Transport Minister Steve Crabb.

They talked about their ideas on how to improve the Railways system, which had been badly neglected by various Liberal Governments who harboured a dream to sell the network off – one finally achieved by Jeff Kennett in 1992.

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There is no doubt that Flinders Street Railway Station was a major, stupendous building on its completion in 1910 and it still looks grand and impressive today.

A drawing of Melbourne in 1838 depicts Elizabeth Street as a creek, this is incorrect but because of the proximity of the River Yarra, Flinders Street Station buildings are on variable foundations and there was a creek flowing into the Yarra River. The proximity of the foundations to water provided challenges!

Flinders Street is basically a brick building but has attached timber elements. The timber wall cantilevered off the brick section. The timber tended to tip from the building. The original construction fraught with delays and difficulties over a decade, and scandals about incompetence led to a Royal Commission.

The base built of basalt and granite and the timber lining supported by load-bearing brick. It should have been a brick and sandstone exterior but the cost meant that was abandoned for bricked stucco.

A survey in 2015, despite budget constraints, demanded urgent repair work. There was major cracking on the roof and in some walls, people could be killed below if bricks dislodged. An inspection revealed the major culprit – blocked downpipes and a roof that had leaked for 30 years!

If only proper maintenance had been carried out at the time… I heard my Mum’s voice again, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.

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Modern train carriages consider all commuters – design requirements very different from Fawcett’s imagination

Restoration Complex and Costly

The roof was intricate, a mixture of concrete, copper, corrugated iron – there were leaks everywhere, flashings buckled. Water damaged interiors could have been avoided and the cost of restoration halved if drains had been cleaned!

Internal work still has to be done and the slides Peter showed of the horrendous damage to the Ballroom/gymnasium, which had been used into the 1970s drew a collective gasp of horror from the audience. Timber rotted from neglect, decorative plaster ruined.

However, often it is not easy for any authority to argue for money for renovations if the public or even a small group with loud voices or influence consider it ‘a waste of time’ or ‘money is needed elsewhere’… but as every homeowner knows, you must look after your assets and budget for maintenance!

A scaffolding survey documented the process needed to restore the building and this was at ground level first so the estimate was $23 million. However, this cost blew out to $70 million when they discovered the damage to the roof and upper floors and walls.

The use of pressed metal, which includes ceilings in most office areas (in a huge variety of designs) as well as dados and friezes in some, is the most extensive in Victoria and the red painted, block fronted wall facing the platforms is the largest example of zinc cladding known in Australia.

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refurbished entrance at Flinders Street

After Christchurch, governments accept the earthquake threat is real and any major renovations or new buildings must acknowledge this threat. Initially, at Flinders Street, they planned to anchor the tower with tensile rods but it was not feasible to drill into the brickwork to anchor the building – this was deemed too disruptive and invasive. And not doable because of cavities in the brickwork.

Ingenuity and good tradespeople meant they found a way of reinforcing the roof structure. There were concrete slabs relied upon to hold the building together. The water damage and corrosion needed a new structural slab and waterproofing.

Before removal of the concrete slab, they built a bracing system to earthquake-proof the building. Seismic issues for old buildings are massive. All chimneys had to be braced – it doesn’t look elegant but the area is not accessible to the public and safety trumps elegance!

How to deal and manage risks without disrupting the running of the railways or putting commuters and the general public in danger?

A lot of the work was carried out at night where there was a three-hour opening of no train traffic! There were thousands of people involved in the project yet it was completed while the railways still operated.

The rail corridor a busy place and if a train stopped on the system it costs $50,000 an hour, therefore, they couldn’t afford to stop trains running.

Restoring the Clock Tower

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Taken 2014

The clock tower and the front steps are probably the most photographed parts of Flinders Street Station. Many of the marriages at St Paul’s on the diagonal corner make sure the station is in the background, the time of their wedding visible on the clock!

Restoring the clock tower the most challenging, requiring enormous anchoring and bracing. They used metal braces but kept the clock structure by inserting a concrete base/brace to anchor the tower. An extraordinary feat of engineering and architectural knitting of braces to the building.

The clock face had putty containing asbestos and they couldn’t salvage or reuse the glass. However, they sourced oval glass from Mexico after a worldwide search. The face is all laminated so it will not fall into the street.

Removing all the asbestos was a major challenge.

The zinc used in the pressed metal work was in good condition but it was a major campaign to restore where water had caused deformities. The repairs to the wall will now last for another 100 years.

Repointing the brickwork an exercise in patience and craftsmanship.

The use of red brick contrasted with coloured cement render, the use of banking (especially in the tower), and the grouping of windows vertically under tall arches shows the influence of American Romanesque Revival.

Salt coming through the brickwork ignored for too long and you can see the white stains. Despite several efforts, they still can’t remove the marks without major damage to bricks so abandoned the idea.

There was lots of exploration about various methods of repair, plenty of trial and error because it was heritage restoration and they were not replacing everything. the brief is to keep as much of the original as possible!

During the restoration they unravelled issues, in many cases, it was a discovery process but there was a great team of builders, engineers and tradespeople.

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plaster ceilings restored

They didn’t put graffiti coating on the paintwork because it would be too costly to keep replacing. The building has had eight or nine paintings over the years but original paint not good and streaked within seven years.

The building has always been painted the same combination of colours – creamy yellow, red south walls, green for windows.

Lead paint was an issue too. It had to be stripped off in a controlled environment or the decision made to leave as is and paint over.

South wall the best in the whole building.

There was a beautifully designed heating system, hydronic radiators but all pipes were covered in asbestos. They couldn’t risk removal or repair so cut off the radiators and sealed them to avoid asbestos drifting into Flinders Street and the Station via the vents.

The dangers of asbestos and working how to remove it safely is an issue for whoever renovates the interior.

Lighting improved colours – the interior of the dome was beautiful when cleaned. In the Ballroom, they stripped off the plasterwork and discovered pressed metal ceiling. They inserted a steel structure to seismic-proof the building but little interior work completed – that’s for the next stage of the project.

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cards made by mattirwin.com and sold at Parliament House – Flinders Street a tourist drawcard

Cracked balusters a badly seismic issue for tipping – rubber mouldy and new balusters made and pinned. Water penetrated through massive cornices.

They put in lead capping to conserve it although not these originally but had to rebuild moulding.

The stained glass magnificent designed by Fawcett because he was interested in art nouveau. Only modest replacements and it is hard to pick new panels, the rest were basically cleaned and conserved.

Refreshment rooms have glorious windows which needed epoxy repairs only  – on the first floor – not accessible yet.

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They were conscious that restoring the outside is only stage one and so they needed a storeroom because nothing that was removed was thrown out.

They even kept items left behind by workers over the years: 1950s watches, hats and other curios.  These are stored alongside ornamental plasterwork from the Ballroom. Each item labelled and stored.

Caroline gave me a special tour of the library at the end of Peter’s talk when I said it was my first visit. I loved the spiral staircase, the polished wooden doors, the magnificent ceiling and chandelier and ornamental work on columns and cornices –

Caroline answered my many questions and showed me the Reading Room, explained how one of the columns cleverly disguised the chimney for the fireplace and told me the pet name (which I have forgotten) they use for the plaster lion saved from a previous renovation.

 

It was an informative and friendly afternoon. History and heritage two of my loves and Caroline invited me back – an offer I hope to take up sooner rather than later!

On the way out, I passed students in the hall and thought how lucky they were to have a tour – I was an adult before I ventured inside the parliament building and have spent more time on the steps demonstrating than wandering inside!

But as I walked past the portraits of premiers I stopped beside my favourite – Joan Kirner – the artist has caught her twinkling eyes and her over-riding quality of kindness.

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Six Degrees of Separation

Joan was a trailblazer for women’s rights and started her public life as an activist in the Croydon area in the 60s.  I attended Croydon High and my mother admired Joan, greatly. Joan later became President of the Victorian Federation of State School Parents Clubs and later still the first female Premier of Victoria!

As I wandered into the foyer still reminiscing, I bumped into two other activist friends for women’s rights. Both were past speakers for the Union of Australian Women’s Southern Branch: Fiona McCormack then CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria but now the new Victims of Crime Commissioner for Victoria and Robyn Dale, Office Manager for Nick Staikos, MP for Bentleigh.

Fiona is the daughter-in-law of a longtime, dear friend; Robyn’s son, Tim went to school with my daughter, Anne and Robyn’s boss, Nick Staiko is also President of Godfrey Street Community House where I taught creative writing for seven years!

Another first added when I visited the Dining Room in Parliament House and shared a cuppa! Of course, we talked about politics and women’s rights…

Mum and Joan would approve!

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2 thoughts on “Melbourne’s Heritage Buildings – Do You Have a Story About Meeting Under the Clocks at Flinders Street?

  1. I’m a proud Melburnian and I of course love Flinders Street Station, but when my father and I met after a long estrangement I chose not ‘under the clocks’ but across the road, with Chloe. Just an aside, in 1972 my then wife was working in a bank opposite the station – the Tattersalls branch of the Commercial Bank of Aust – and I would pull up outside in my semi trailer and wander in for a chat.

    Liked by 1 person

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