Historic Architecture in Melbourne

Melbourne is an eclectic mix of Architecture and architectural styles.

Many of its buildings have significant historical value and were fortunate to have withstood the wholesale destruction of so many iconic buildings and locations during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s when the then State Government under the tutelage of Sir Henry Bolte, the Premiere set about a major renewal of inner Melbourne, at great cost to our heritage and the beauty of our city. The most famous sign in those days was ‘Whelan the Wrecker is Here’.

The Athenaeum Theatre was at times under threat as was the beautiful Capitol Theatre across the road in Collins St, just short of the town Hall on the corner of Swanston St.

The Athenaeum Theatre is in fact Melbourne’s oldest cultural institution. It was originally Melbourne’s first Mechanics Institute, established in 1839. The Melbourne City Council met there until 1852, the year the Melbourne Town Hall was completed.

Cook’s Cottage, located in the Fitzroy Gardens on Wellington Pde East Melbourne is in fact the oldest building in Australia. Originally built in England in 1755, the whole residence was transported to Melbourne and faithfully restored in precise detail. The Fitzroy Gardens are heritage listed and the cottage includes an authentic Kitchen garden. The rooms, the doorways, the windows all give an insight into a time when people were somewhat smaller and lived simpler lives.

Melbourne was growing and part of its character was to initiate, construct and maintain somewhat grand buildings in ornate Victorian era style. At 673 Bourke St Melbourne stands what is known as ‘Donkey Wheel House’. It was purpose built in 1891 for the Melbourne Tramways and Omnibus Company. It is a superb example of High Victorian Venetian Gothic Architecture.

The Melbourne Town Hall, as mentioned, was completed in 1870. A mix of bluestone and Tasmanian freestone, a classically designed building, it features a clocktower and fine masonry, standing on the north east corner of Swanston and Collins St.

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories surrounds the Old Treasury Building, located in Spring St adjacent to Collins St. The Treasury building was originally constructed to hold the gold bullion discovered in the 1850s Gold Rush. Its designer was a 19 year old Architect JJ Clarke. It’s worth a visit and is now open to the public. A grand palazzo style building the Colony’s leaders continued to work from it’s offices until the 1870s.

Further up Spring St on the other side of the road past Bourke St is the flamboyantly designed Princess Theatre. The Theatre was first opened in 1857 and again remodelled in 1886. A working Theatre, the Princess is still being used today.

St Patrick’s, the Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in stages from 1858 right through until 1940 and is a fine example of Gothic Revival Architecture from the period.

St Paul’s Cathedral, the Church of England Cathedral was constructed between 1880 and 1931. It is Neo-Gothic in style.

In Lygon St, Carlton stands the Trades Hall. It was first erected as a timber structure in 1859 following the successful Eight Hour Day campaign of 1856. Between 1875 and 1925 the building was transformed into the outstanding, imposing edifice it is today. It remains Australia’s oldest surviving Trades Hall and it is still used by the Union movement for its original purpose.

These wonderful buildings, classically executed in the style of the day remain sound and still useful after over 100 years. Next week we will look at some of the buildings and unique vistas our founding fathers provided that have disappeared. And we will appraise the replacements, their longevity and the changing visions of both architects and the Melbourne’s they have created. A city is a living thing, an entity in its own right, and Melbourne is most definitely that.


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