Friday, 26 April 2019

Melbourne Secrets

This is an update of one of the very first articles I wrote about my beloved Melbourne, back when I was fresh to being a freelance writer and still discovering new things about my adopted city. It ran in a local newspaper but never went online. Enjoy!

In the shadow of the great public buildings of Melbourne lie many treasures. Some are historical curiosities, others the forgotten debris of the past.

These overlooked places are reminders of the way Melbourne piles up new examples of the present without ever quite clearing away its history. Here are ten places to get you looking at the city in a different light.


Block Court. This was once an arcade linking Collins Street to the famous Block Arcade. It was built in 1929 on a design by Harry Norris, the architect responsible for a number of notable buildings, including Majorca House in Flinders Lane. It’s little noticed now, because at one point the arcade was walled off and a shop (now a bank) was inserted in the reclaimed space.

If you walk around to the Block Arcade and look along the passage running next to the entry of the Charles Dickens pub, you’ll see the matching fa├žade to its Collins Street entrance. Also check out the striking art deco features in the remaining length of the arcade.


Elizabeth Street Cat. Walk north along Elizabeth Street from Flinders Street Station. On the east side, you’ll pass a simple grey building at 92 Elizabeth Street. Keep walking toward Bourke St, then look back at the side of the building.

On the wall is a large cartoon head of a cat. The image is faded, but its green eyes and gold background stand out clearly in contrast with the battleship grey of the walls. Rumour has it that this cat was once part of a light bulb advertisement. For whatever reason, it’s withstood the ravages of time, even surviving a repaint of the building.

Athenaeum Library. When passing the Athenaeum Theatre during the day, take a peek into the private lending library on the top floor. Though the Melbourne City Council has its own lending library in the CAE building on Flinders Lane, this private edition dates from the earliest years of the city.

Founded in the 1840s, it’s served Melburnians’ reading needs for a very long time indeed. The current fit-out is a survivor of the 1920s. You suspect Agatha Christie would have felt at home there.


Capitol Theatre. The extraordinary ceiling of the Capitol Theatre was designed by architect Walter Burley Griffin in 1924. However, there's more here than meets the eye. When the building was remodelled in the 1960s to include a shopping arcade below the auditorium, public access to areas such as lounges, galleries and foyers was lost.

Now, under the custodianship of RMIT University, the cinema is being restored. This year the Capitol will reopen and present movie festivals under the direction of ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), thus bringing its story full circle.


Turning Basin. The north bank of the Yarra is much neglected in favour of its showy southern side. However, the area just below Queen Street was the location of the city’s first port. In colonial days, this area was bustling with sailors, merchants and passengers, including those bound for the goldfields.

It was so congested, the port was eventually replaced by facilities further down river, and at Port Melbourne. Today, all that remains of the port is a recreation area at the Turning Basin, where ships would turn to resume their journey out to sea. Completed in 1997, the project’s chief feature is a set of figureheads rising from a wooden dock.


Melba’s Birthplace. From Bridge Road in Richmond, walk north along Burnley Street toward Victoria Gardens shopping centre. About halfway there, on the east side, is a plaque on the side of a nondescript brick building, home to a furniture outlet.

This marks the birthplace of Dame Nellie Melba, the city’s famous opera star of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The building on the site in 1861 was known as “Doonside”, and the new baby as Helen Porter Mitchell. “Melba” was a shortened version of the city’s name.

North Carlton Railway Station. The Inner Circle railway once ran from Melbourne Zoo across North Carlton and North Fitzroy, linking up with the line at Clifton Hill. The track was removed in the early 1980s, and the former railway reserve now features a long narrow recreation reserve known as Linear Park.

Halfway along this park stands the North Carlton Railway Station, now the home of a neighbourhood centre. Though lacking a railway, the building is recognisably a former station, with its distinctive red brick structure.


Edith Cavell’s Memorial. King’s Domain is littered with monuments to notable people from the past. Some are still well known: monarchs like Edward VII, war leaders like Thomas Blamey. But among these towering monuments sits a memorial to a British nurse from the First World War.

Edith Cavell was head of a medical training school in the suburbs of Brussels when the conflict broke out. Although British nurses were evacuated, she somehow remained at her post and assisted stranded British soldiers to escape. Eventually found out by the German army, she was executed by firing squad in 1915. Her famous last words outlived her: “I know now that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred and no bitterness towards anyone.”

Flagstaff Gardens. This public space looks like the humble cousin of its glamorous counterparts such as the Carlton and Fitzroy Gardens. It’s actually a place of great interest in Melbourne’s history. It began its colonial life as the city’s first cemetery, and in 1851 hosted a huge bonfire to celebrate Victoria’s separation from New South Wales.

A large flagstaff at the park’s highest point was used to signal ships and relay messages, before the invention of the telegraph rendered it redundant. Various memorials and plaques dot the hilltop, a reminder of the days when the location was an important part of the city’s life.


Kennett Gargoyle. On the eastern transept of St Patrick’s Cathedral is a rather unusual gargoyle. Or perhaps not that unusual. In medieval times, it was common practice for stonemasons to base these stone creatures on the faces of local dignitaries. In a sense, they were stone cartoons.

In 1992, stonemason Tom Carson carved a likeness of then-Premier Jeff Kennett when creating two new gargoyles for the place of worship. It’s an unmistakeable take on the unforgettable politician, with its long face and distinctive hair. And yet another example of how the city effortlessly blends the old and the new.

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