Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Jeff Kennett Gargoyle

Along the southern wall of Saint Patrick's Cathedral, flanked by statues of St Francis of Assisi and St Catheine of Siena, is a most unusual reminder of Victoria's former premier Jeff Kennett. One of the gargoyles that dot the bluestone walls of the Cathedral at regular intervals has been carved in his likeness.

Local stonemason Tom Carson is responsible .He did some work on the Cathedral during remodelling in 1992 and decided to include Kennett as a 'whim.' In 2002 he told The Age newspaper:

'When they (the church) first began doing Gothic buildings in the 12th century, the stonemasons were like cartoonists, so they did all these funny animals and they'd get the local mayor or the dean of the cathedral and make him look like a monster. It was the master masons way of making fun of local dignitaries, or perhaps settling a score. I was very lucky to get away with doing something a bit different.'

Kennett himself claims not to have seen the gargoyle, but is pleased by it nonetheless.

'I did hear rumours about the gargoyle but have tried not to locate it. Not being of the Catholic faith but sympathetic to it, I think it's highly appropriate.'

Undoubtedly many Victorians, not necessarily Kennett supporters, would feel the same way.

The cathedral is one of the largest Gothic churches in the world and a key tourist stop for visitors to Melbourne. You wonder how many of them look at their photos of it later and wonder if there isn't something odd about one of the sculptures...

Cliveden: Melbourne's Largest House

Standing on the corner of Clarendon Street and Wellington Parade, overlooking both the MCG and Fitzroy Gardens, is the Hilton Hotel, one of Melbourne's most well known buildings.

For the last two generations of sports fans in Melbourne, the Hilton has provided a comfortable backdrop to the walk to and from the 'G; younger attendees perhaps scoffing at the building's now outdated design, older heads perhaps remembering when they used to meet friends in the Sportmans Bar for a pre-game drink.

But while the Hilton on the Park has become a familiar part of everyday life in Melbourne, less familiar is what stood on the same spot prior to the hotel's construction in 1970. For at one time, this prime piece of parkside real estate was the location of Melbourne's largest house.

William Clarke was the first born son of a migrant English family who had come to Australia in the 1830's to find their fortune. William's father, William senior, settled in Van Dieman's Land  initially, but soon joined the influx of 'squatters' headed for Victoria, once the Colonial Government began to offer land to anyone, effectively for nothing, willing to settle on it. The Clarke's secured themselves large tracts of premium farmland and were soon established as one of Victoria's wealthiest families. When William junior finished his schooling in 1850, he went to work for his father, and assumed control of their business operations in 1860. When his father died in 1874, William Clarke became the largest landholder in Australia.

William Clarke

An enterprising and industrious man with wide interests, in middle age William Clarke would oversee not only the family land holdings but also invest heavily in scientific research, sit in State Parliament, give generously to charity and be elected president of both the Melbourne Cricket Club and the Victorian Football Association. In 1882 he became Australia's first baronet, in recognition of his philanthropy.

In 1887 he decided to build a new house in Melbourne, his family having been previously based on a large estate near Sunbury. Reflective of his wealth and stature, the new residence was to be built on a grand scale, on the large plot of land in East Melbourne that would one day house the Hilton.

William Clarke's grand East Melbourne residence, shortly after construction.

Dubbed 'Cliveden,' after the famous country estate of the Astor family in Buckinghamshire, the palatial Italian Renaissance style house became Melbourne's largest residence. No expense was spared in either the construction or the embellishment of the building; oak paneling was shipped from England, stained glass from Italy and a team of craftsman arrived from Florence to work on the fittings. There were 28 bedrooms, five bathrooms, 17 individual servants quarters and three oversize marble fireplaces in the dining room alone. The entire dwelling cost the then staggering sum of 182 000 pounds.

The Clarke's moved to Cliveden in 1888 and the house soon became the centre of Melbourne's elite social scene. William Clarke was a generous man and he entertained lavishly and often. And the house itself was considered one of the city's undoubted showpieces; famous for its size, setting and views.

The view from the upper story. Note the MCG to the left of image,

As seen from Fitzroy Gardens.

But the economic boom that had driven Melbourne's expansion in the 1880's, gave way to a sharp economic downturn in the following decade. William Clarke, director of the Colonial Bank, lost a large sum of money when the bank foundered in 1893. In what was said to be typical of the man, Clarke paid depositors who had lost their investments back out of his own pocket. The strain of this large, public failure apparently told on him though. Clarke's health suffered after the bank's collapse, and he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1897.

The fabulous Cliveden passed to Clarke's wife Janet, and she continued to live in the premises for another decade, until her death in 1909. Cliveden was then sold to the Baillieu family, at 44 000 pounds they paid a fraction of the original cost, who converted the house into 48 luxury apartments.

An aerial view of Clivden and its surrounds, circa 1924.

Opulent apartment living was a novel idea in Australia at the time and this, combined with the former prestige of the building, made 'Cliveden Mansions' (as they were now renamed) a highly desirable address.

The living room of one of the new apartments.

An advert spruiking the apartments in the 1930s. Note the
similarity of the advertising syntax to the present day.

But after the second World War, the mansions began to lose their lustre. Features of the building such as the communal dining room that tenants shared were now viewed as old fashioned, rather than desirable. Cliveden came to be viewed as out of place with its surroundings, rather than enhancing them. The mansions steadily lost patronage over the next two decades and by the 1960s were a broken down, neglected shell.

The Mansions in 1968, looking very tired.

The property was sold and demolished in 1968. Local wrecking firm 'Whelan's' removed the valuable fixturing and then flattened the building with a wrecking ball. Most of what was saved was sold at auction, which ran to 2500 lots and so gave some idea of the scale of the building, and some was set aside, specifically for one of the new Hilton's dining rooms.

This new dining room was to be called, The Cliveden Room. A small tribute, for one of the grandest houses ever built in Australia.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Little Audrey

Five hundred meters east of my house stands one of Melbourne's most well known icons:

The Skipping Girl Vinegar sign, also known as Little Audrey, is popular enough that it has found its way onto souvenirs, artwork, clothing and was even taken by a local band for their name:

While Little Audrey has become a well known and well loved part of contemporary Melbourne, the sign has a story that stretches back to 1936 and features many ups and downs. Audrey was not always held in the same high regard as she is now.

Today the sign stands atop a smart looking brick building on Victoria Street in Abbotsford, which is used for professional offices and high end flats. This is in keeping with the area itself, which has become a fashionable place to live and work.

But this wasn't always the case. The Abbotsford of 1936 was a gruff  industrial district, home to factories, warehouses and small worker's cottages. One of the many manufacturers based in the area at this time was the Nycander Company, who produced a locally made malt vinegar called 'Skipping Girl Vinegar.'

The 'Skipping Girl' brand first appeared around the turn of the 20th century and quickly became popular. It is thought Nycander chose the name based on a children's skipping rhyme, popular at the time. One variant of the rhyme ran:

Salt, vinegar, mustard, pepper, If I dare, I can do better...

Which suggested a fun little connection between vinegar and skipping that the company could employ to its advantage. The origin of the logo itself is something of a mystery.

According to the National Trust, Nycander held a competition in the 1910's asking people to submit a design for a new logo for the vinegar. The winner was either a sketch of a local schoolgirl named Alma Burns, or another local school girl whose identity was kept secret because...

In any case, a skipping cartoon girl was adopted to represent the vinegar. In 1936 Nycander moved their operation to a factory at 627 Victoria Street, Abbotsford. The company was doing well enough that they wanted an ostentatious symbol to promote their signature product.

A pioneering local advertising firm, Neon Signs, designed and produced a large scale neon sign for the roof of the factory based on the vinegar brand's logo. Neon Signs were so proud of their creation that they did not want to sell the sign and so Nycander had to rent it form them, paying 8 pound a month for the privilege.

After installation, the nine metre high sign quickly became a Melbourne institution.

The sign on top of the factory, shortly after installation.

Looking at the image above, you can see that the sign does not match the logo for the vinegar shown on the side of the building. The story goes that the Nycander manager responsible for the sign based his design not on the vinegar bottle, but on the daughter of the man who ran his local milk bar, where he bought his cigarettes.

The Skipping Girl sign was Australia's first animated neon sign and one of the first in the world. Its novelty caused it to became quite a local attraction, with people from across Melbourne coming to Abbotsford to see it. And it was more widely visible across the city at that time than it is currently, as the city skyline was kept low by a Melbourne City Council height restriction.

Many children of the time period can recall either visiting the sign, or seeing it across town, distinctly.

It wasn't long before the Skipping Girl sign was dubbed Little Audrey. Little Audrey was a common phrase in Australia at the time, a curious little piece of folk slang lingo. Little Audrey stories were a popular piece of light entertainment, swapped between people like jokes.

In the stories, Little Audrey would normally be wide eyed and naive and would have some humourous interaction with someone older or more discerning. Audrey would ofetn say or do something daft, which provided the punchline. Competitions were held, asking people to submit their favorite Little Audrey Stories.

An example from a Brisbane newspaper in 1936 (The Queenslander, July 2):

It was a natural step then, for people coming from across to Melbourne to view the skipping sign, to start referring to the girl depicted as a Little Audrey.

In the 1960's Nycander decided to move their operations to Altona and put their factory up for sale. In 1968 it was bought by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, who intended to use the location as a training ground.

Towards the end of Audrey 1's time

The old factory was demolished and although the company had intended to transfer their famous sign to their new location, they were told by the Shire Council that that this was not permitted. The council considered the sign a distraction and, therefore, a traffic hazzard, a piece of nanny state wowserism that would fit nicely into the present day.

Little Audrey, removed by local wrecking
firm Whelan and looking for a new home.
As Nycander had effectively been forced to relinquish Little Audrey, there was some debate as to who could then claim ownership. Neon Sign's, citing the original lease of the sign from them, returned to claim it but demolition firm Whelan's contract stipulated they had rights to salvage the old factory. They quickly sold Audrey to a local used car dealer, CE Hayward Pty Ltd, for $100, after which she disappeared from view.

And there the matter appeared to have rested.

But in 1968, serious signs of dissent regarding the loss of Melbourne's cultural history were stirring. Protests over the demolition of historic buildings had begun and, while these were fledgling, pointed the way to the future. A new generation of Melbournians was not prepared to see their city changed and redeveloped without a fight.

And so The Skipping Girl Vinegar sign, a popular and fondly remembered part of Melbourne's skyline for several decades, became the focus of a public outcry. The removal and private sale of the sign was much discussed in the press, and a local radio station ran a 'Save Audrey' campaign.

By this time, eighteen months or so after Audrey's removal, the original sign could not be located. So a new replacement was commissioned and paid for through fundraising. The new sign would be smaller and would feature a more contemporary Audrey; with longer, freer flowing hair and a shorter dress.

John Benjamin, Governing Director of Crusader Plate whose metalworking factory was just 200m from where the old vinegar factory had stood, offered the roof of his building for Audrey Mark 2.

On the auspicious date of Friday, November 13 1970, the new sign was re-lit. Barry Humphries would later tell The Age newspaper that he had located the original Audrey behind the used car dealership in Richmond in May 1974. Rusted and beyond repair, he laid a wreath and composed a song in Audrey's honour.

But that's not quite the end of the story.

The new Audrey had nearly twenty years of active nights, before the building she now sat on changed hands again and imperiled her fate. The metal plate works closed in the late 80s and Audrey went dark again. The building was sold and refurbished, reemerging in 1989 in its current, swanked up form. To celebrate the re-dedication of the building, now dubbed Skipping Girl Place, the new owners paid for Audrey to light up again.

Audrey 2 stayed alight this time until 2001, when the building's new owners stopped her electricity supply as a cost cutting measure. Even her listing as a Heritage Item in 2007, saving her from removal or destruction, was not sufficient incentive to get the owners to start her up again.

She stayed dark this time around until 2009, when various Government agencies chipped in money to restore her, and energy company AGL offered to supply her power needs in exchange for some good publicity. A small solar system on the building's roof supplies enough juice to light Audrey up each night.

Audrey removed by crane for a spruce up.

Under restoration by Heritage Victoria

She has remained alight and alive since, skipping gently away as she overlooks one of Melbourne's busiest streets, a scene very different to the one her predecessor would have witnessed. The fact that she is now powered by a thoroughly 21st century style of renewable energy provides what seems a fitting end to the story. An end that is... until her building changes hands again.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Mad Max Carpark

I'll never forget the first time I saw it.

I was wandering around Melbourne Uni's Parkville Campus, just killing time, hanging out, filling a lazy afternoon. I hadn't lived in Melbourne long, and I didn't know much about the uni, or the city's history

Walking along one of the many pathways, it suddenly came into sight; something totally incongruous, and at odds with the surroundings. A massive stone doorway, highly ornate and elaborate, with only blackness beyond

I had found the Mad Max carpark.

Also known as the underground carpark beneath the south lawn. 

But what was the stone doorway doing there? And where had it come from?

Melbourne in the 1880s; booming and marvellous.

Melbourne in the 1880's was a city in the midst of a boom.

The second largest city in the British Empire (after London) and one of the fastest growing and richest on Earth. The gold rush, which had commenced in 1851, had already peaked, but the influx of labour and capital this had brought to the city had matured into a diverse and rapidly expanding economy.  

This era is what gave us the phrase 'Marvelous Melbourne.'

Supporting this river of money was a burgeoning financial sector, illustrated by the large number of banks across the city. To demonstrate their flush balance sheets, these bank buildings were often elaborately designed and expensive constructions, new money made tangible.

One of these was the Colonial Bank.

Built on the corner of Little Collins and Elizabeth Streets, the Colonial Bank mirrored the early years of Melbourne's development. 

It was founded in 1856 by John O'Shanassy to serve small investors associated with the gold rush. The parcel of land the original building was constructed on, a considerably more modest building to start with, was the spot where Father Patrick Geoghegan performed the first mass in the Port Phillip area in 1839. It was said that the fig tree growing on the back of the allotment had been planted that day to mark the occasion, and so the tree was maintained in a small square of land, with the bank built around it.

By 1880, the Colonial Bank was successful enough to afford a grander edifice, and so the elaborate bluestone building above was commissioned. It would take two years to erect, in place of the old offices. 

The Argus describes the building once completed:

Topping off the building's appearance was an elaborate stone archway over the front entrance. 

Designed by Irish born sculptor James Gilbert, who also designed the sculpture of Sir Redmond Barry that stands in front of the State Library, the arch depicted mythical figures Britannia and Neptune, supported by a pair of muscular underlings.

The boom years of the 1880's were followed by the bust of the 1890's. 

Many business struggled or went under completely, and the face of the city changed again. The Colonial Bank survived these years, but was finished off by the unstable times that accompanied the First World War. By the 1920's, their elaborate bluestone headquarters was deserted and slated for demolition.

The Colonial Bank corner today

While building preservation was unheard of at this time, the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects did call for the building's stone entryway to be saved.

As this was a relatively simple task, the archway was removed and gifted to Melbourne University (although the sculptures of Britannia and Neptune were somehow lost in this process). The rest of the Colonial Bank, including its historic fig tree, was flattened and removed in 1932.

A sketch of the old Physiology building from , prior to the archways addition.

The University would initially incorporate the archway into their new physiology building, which was under construction at the time.

But the physiology building at Melbourne Uni would only last about forty years  In the early 70s it was demolished and the stone archway was moved for a third time, to its present location. The arch now has National Trust protection.

And this brings us to 'Mad Max'.

The carpark in real life.
Max and co in the MFP garage in the film.

George Miller was a doctor, who wanted to be a film maker.

In 1971, he attended a film making workshop held at Melbourne Uni, and somewhere along the way came across the south lawn carpark. As well as the elaborate entrance, the carpark also has a highly stylised interior, with futuristic-ally curved roof supports instead of standard, angular ones.

When Miller was filming his first feature, 1979's 'Mad Max', he utilised the carpark as the garage for the Metropolitan Police Force (Max's employer, before he goes rogue). Several scenes were shot in the carpark, including the famous moment when they hand Max the key's to the 'last of the V8 interceptors.'

The film became a cult success, and established both Miller and lead actor Mel Gibson as up and coming talents.