2017 is my seventh year volunteering for Open House Melbourne weekend, an experience I love. I’m so glad to be back from an overseas trip for the event, especially since this year is a significant tenth anniversary.
10 Years of Inspiring Architecture
Emma Telfer, the new Executive Director of the Open House Melbourne Program is
“incredibly proud to lead an organisation that’s committed to empowering citizens to be active participants in the building of our city.
Open House Melbourne now represents an annual program of talks, tours, workshops and interviews that explore the issues, challenges and success stories of Melbourne’s built environment.
At the heart of our program is the much-loved Open House Weekend… where 200 buildings are opening their doors so you can learn how the built environment and urban-planning initiatives influence our culture and shape our future.
Nicholas Building, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne
I was assigned Folk Architects, a studio on the eighth floor,
“longstanding tenants who are capturing the spirit of the place through a publication that aims to uncover the Building’s architectural, social and cultural histories.”
The building itself was built in 1926 and the architect was Harry A Norris. It was an investment by the Nicholas family who made their fortune from Aspro.
From 1926 to 1967 a Coles department store occupied the basement and part of the ground floor. The building was home to businesses associated with the Flinders Lane garment trade, commercial artists, medical practitioners and architects. By the 2010’s the small rooms and relatively cheap rent attracted creative industry practitioners and specialist retailers, some of whom still serve the fashion industry, and it became renowned as one of Melbourne’s ‘vertical lanes’.
The novel Shantaram, written by one of Australia’s most wanted fugitives Gregory David Roberts, was written in the building. In 2003, it is believed a stencil by UK artist Banksy was painted on the building at the corner of Swanston St and Flinders Lane; a piece of plastic was put up over the piece to protect it from the elements but was later painted over by vandals causing a disturbance in the art community.
It is listed by the National Trust and is also listed by Heritage Victoria.
The National Trust of Australia highlights the architectural value of the Nicholas Building’s Cathedral Arcade on the ground floor, connecting Swanston Street to Flinders Lane; the Wunderlich terracotta cladding and thirdly, the unique condition of the building with very few alterations from its original design…
from 10 Years of Inspiring Architecture, Open House Melbourne 2017
When I turned up for duty, it is the amazing leadlight ceiling in the Cathedral Arcade and how the stained and etched glass has been incorporated in shop fronts that set the building apart from many of the new shopping malls and high-rise buildings.
There is also a patterned and ceramic tiled floor adding to the heritage signature. No wonder it rates hundreds of 4-star reviews on Trip Advisor and is described as a photographer’s delight.
This Is Why We Must Look Up and Look Down
For people into art deco, the arcade features beautiful, polished wood panels with many of the original features retained by this “interwar palazzo skyscraper“.
Like many other locals, I’ve hurried up Swanston Street or visited one of the many tenants in the Nicholas Building without fully appreciating how stunning the entrance and walkway is – the motif in the domed entrance triggers thoughts of Aladdin and his lamp – a great thought because the design is magical!
The name of the arcade apt too because just across the way is St Paul’s Cathedral, another favourite to visit during Open House, Melbourne.
The blurb for Open House Weekend describes how the building “continues to host a burgeoning creative community that is a catalyst for ongoing renewal. The relationship between the Nicholas Building and its inhabitants is inseparable as the building enriches the lives of its occupants.”
As I stood at the entrance to the lifts to guide the 400 plus people who visited Folk Architects on the eighth floor I saw plenty of examples supporting their view that:
“Given that there isn’t a single signature building that defines Melbourne – the Nicholas Building represents the city in many ways as it is unassuming, diverse, culturally rich yet not ostentatious. It is a series of small and diverse tenancies, sublets with folk that are curiously interconnected. The building is also a microcosm of its surrounding laneway networks… it has the capacity to provide something for everybody – however, you might have to look beyond the surface to find the magic!”
Christie Petsinis – Folk Architects
An interesting snippet is that the Nicholas Building was home to the last manually operated elevator in Melbourne.
I worked for the Victorian Branch of the Federated Miscellaneous Workers’ Union in the 1980s and can remember printing off the Lift Attendants’ Award. I can also remember that many buildings in Melbourne employed people to operate the lifts, which before modernisation had two doors and manual controls.
This Is Why I Volunteer
Part of the enjoyment of volunteering for Open House Weekend is the interaction with the people you meet as well as enjoying a different perspective of the building. I’ve been lucky over the years with those I’ve worked with but also with the buildings allocated.
Last year it was Abbotsford Convent in Collingwood, the year before it was Edgewater Towers, St Kilda. I’ve been on duty at Como House, Fitzroy High School and the Women’s Centre in Lonsdale Street where the Jessie Mac hospital used to be. Different buildings and settings encapsulating the diversity of Melbourne’s architecture and design.
Yesterday Vincent my co-volunteer who works at Crown Casino and another gaming establishment volunteered “to stay connected and give back to the community“. Gabrielle, the Precinct Manager is in her seventh-year too and loves the possibilities of learning and appreciating Melbourne by visiting lots of buildings over the weekend. She was excited that her children now participate.
I love the sharing of stories that begins even before the weekend starts. When I mentioned to a friend where I was on duty she reminisced about her hairdressing days decades ago when she was employed in a salon in the Nicholas Building. An author now she reminded me that The Wheeler Centre used to be in the Nicholas Building and I recalled attending events there.
There is still a bookshop on the first floor which hosts author events – the owner forthright about being captive in a much-photographed building!
There were several women who had come for a special presentation in The Kimono House on the second floor. The demonstration of various ways to don a kimono and explanation of the textile, design and various garment parts was a booked-out event.
I convinced the attendees who had some time to spare to take the lift up to the eighth floor and take advantage of Open House or call in when their event was finished.
Many of those who were visiting other floors were happy to join in Open House once I explained the aim of the weekend. Thank goodness the organisers give volunteers the identifying scarf and badge, but more importantly the book with information on the buildings open.
It was satisfying to direct people to nearby open buildings, especially those who were tourists and had only a few hours in the city.
This year the theme colour of black and white may have been popular with Collingwood supporters, however for members of the public, the scarves were drab and hard to spot. In the words of one lady, “You blended into the walls, I didn’t see you there!”
Not exactly a self-esteem boost but accurate nonetheless. Signage and identifying colours important, especially for those people racing from one building to the other and not taking the time to research the exact location or opening times.
On the train into the city, I sat beside Yvonne who used to own The Cowboys, a retail outlet in Mordialloc. The place a legend when my daughters were growing up – reinventing itself from bric-a-brac and second-hand goods to antiques. She owned the shop with her first husband, Graham.
With her new partner, John, she heading into Melbourne to enjoy Open House, “a weekend not to be missed.”
My badge a conversation starter. Yvonne loved attending Open House and she and John had a list of places to see. They booked into a hotel overnight to make attending some of the popular places easier. A great idea.
We shared stories of Mordialloc and mutual acquaintances – it is indeed a small world!
As I stood at the entrance to the lifts I reflected on how life is never boring. One lady remembered attending ‘a school for young ladies‘ in the building and learning commercial subjects. At the same time, she recalled there was a ‘film studio’ on another floor where “those kinds of films” were made with “not so nice young ladies“.
A book on past tenants is bound to be a best seller!
Ten Stunning Photos From the Nicholas Building
Before I took up duty on the Ground Floor, I spent some time appreciating Folk Architects – especially the view from Room 815!
I asked Tim how he remained focused on work. I’d be tempted to stare out of the window.
He agreed it was difficult some days and said how privileged he was particularly seeing the change of seasons on the swathe of trees lining St Kilda Road and surrounding parkland.
However, when it is an everyday availability, human nature kicks in and despite the distraction, familiarity lets you concentrate on work at hand.
And what amazing work Tim and his partner showcased.
Visitors heard or saw evidence of the various briefs completed and works in progress. Their fresh, innovative and sustainable approach evident in the pictures on the wall, objects in the room and awards and plans on display.
Most of the work for suburban or outer suburban landscapes but Tim’s design also used at Abbotsford Convent.
Visitors could see examples of materials and quirky as well as practical design. One woman attempted to sit on a chair made from a bicycle seat but thankfully changed her mind. I know basic first aid but wouldn’t consider myself an expert!
Folk Architects was open from 10.00am to 1.00pm but before leaving the Nicholas Building I had a last look at some of the other floors.
The stairwells and shop fronts also attractive to photographers I’m sure.
The steady stream of people using the lifts included tenants and workers. I saw several men wheeling trollies with laundry and toilet supplies as well as artists turning up for work in their studios clutching the obligatory cup of coffee heart starter.
However, I’m glad there were over 400 extra visitors -including me – to appreciate one of the city’s architectural gems!
I wonder what building I’ll be assigned next year.