These short articles are currently being published one at a time in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter. As they form part of the weekly quiz in that newsletter, exact locations are often not given. However it should to take little research to unearth that information.
Melbourne has a variety of public murals. Some are in high profile positions; others are tucked away and rarely seen.
No.1 – A ceiling celebrating the sciences
Destination shopping is not a recent invention. Today the television ads will entice you to Chadstone or Fountain Lakes or DFO because of the implied ambience. In the 1880s and early 1890s the place to be seen was ‘The Block’ – the northern side of Collins Street between Swanston & Elizabeth Streets. Instead of fast food outlets dragging kids in to get the latest piece of tat based on a heavily promoted film, kids would drag their parents in to see Gog & Magog in Royal Arcade. Cole’s Book Arcade always had entertainment, and generations later children would drag their parents into town to see the little man tap-tap-tap on the window. Those were heady days of excitement and entertainment for children, and the youth of today do not seem imbued with the the same sense of wonder. “You mean that’s what he does grandma? On the hour Gog’s hand moves 5cm to strike the bell! You dragged me away from my playstation when I was up to level 6 to see that?”
When a disastrous fire in the middle of The Block destroyed George and George’s drapery store they were forced to move up the hill to set up Georges Department Store. Several businessmen, recognising the value of the site for destination shopping commissioned the building of the Block Arcade. The arcade was loosely based on the Galleria Vittoria in Milan and was designed to provide the ultimate atmosphere of up-market shopping for the ladies of Melbourne. Shopping and promenading on The Block have been celebrated by authors such as Fergus Hume and painters such as S.T.Gill.
It was in this destination strip that the Singer Sewing Machine Company set up their prestigious Melbourne store. Newspapers using fixed metal type imitating the zig-zag patterns which could be produced by this wondrous modern mechanical contrivance. enticed customers to visit their landmark store. There on the ceiling was a mural depicting the wonderful advance being made by the sciences in the 1890s with panels in praise of chemistry, electricity, astronomy and so on.
Although the facades of the grand buildings together with the surface décor have often been retained, there are few shops which have retained their original internal design that contributed to ‘the compleat shopping experience’. The ceiling mural of the Singer Sewing Machine Store is one such reminder. Thousands pass the store every day but few bother to look at the ceiling. As well as the panels representing the various sciences, you will find a young lady holding the Singer logo above her head. Gentlemen are asked to avert their eyes at this point because she appears to have had a wardrobe malfunction (which no doubt could be rectified by the use of one the excellent products she is promoting). Such reminders of the grand days of destination shopping in the 19th century are becoming rarer, but next time you are in the area take time out to have a look.
Our last mural left you in the elegance and style of the immersive shopping experience of the 19th century ‘Block’ in Collins Street. Now for a different shopping experience. Follow Collins Street down to Spencer Street. There you will find the new Southern Cross Station. Turn right and follow this building along Spencer Street. It was originally planned that this structure should continue past Bourke Street but, with a Commonwealth Games approaching, money and time ran out and the State Government of the day said "stop there". Southern Cross Station ends abruptly and is continued by an ugly cement slab structure containing something called a Direct Factory Outlet or DFO. There is no factory to be seen and much merchandise does not arrive directly but through the same series of warehouses used to supply other retail outlets. That doesn’t seem to worry anyone.
However, if you enjoy a good giggle, have a look inside. Here you will find the opposite of the immersive retail design in the Block. True, each shop has a facade of fake brick, fake marble, fake wood and so on but don’t bother looking for a mural on the ceiling – there isn’t a ceiling, just aluminium ducts and exposed pipes. It is like walking on the set of a western movie with its fake building fronts. Maybe the designers had a little bet amongst themselves about the design of the facades – “how shallow can we make them before anyone notices?” Judging by the fact that I am the only one giggling, they haven’t yet reached the limit.
At the far end you will find a large mural depicting Melbourne transport throughout the years. This features trains trams, bicycles, horse drawn vehicles, early cars and trucks and a range of other vehicles. If you search around you will find an almost hidden set of stairs leading up to a viewing platform. The mural once graced the walls of the older Spencer Street Station but has obviously been restored since then as it is gleaming like a new pin. In fact it is so bright and shiny it seems to ignore the fact that those many thousands of horses in Melbourne streets had their own emissions and tucked around Melbourne streets you will still see the necessary boot scrapers outside buildings. Note how the horse drawn vehicles often display the name of their owner. I believe it is still illegal to drive a horse drawn vehicle in a public place in Victoria without the owner’s name painted on the vehicle in letters of a specified height. I could examine the details for ages but I don’t want to miss out on those boots I saw at a good price and the shop had a brick front so they should be good sturdy ones.
The following short article was first published under the heading Melbourne's Hidden Gems in the White Hat Melbourne Newsletter No.302 on 12th March 2009
Wandering through any block of central Melbourne you are likely to find reminders of great people from the past. For instance in William Street near the Yarra you are likely to be confronted with reminders of Prometheus, Sir John and Merv.
In 1918, John Monash become the first person in 200 years (and to White Hat’s knowledge, the last) to be knighted on the field of battle. Field Marshall Montgomery later proclaimed him “the best general on the western front in Europe”. When he returned to Melbourne, politicians, bureaucrats, administrators and people of influence were anxious to champion this brilliant general and engineer for a major position in any area other than their own. Hence a whole new institution had to be created. Private electricity companies already existed in Melbourne but the State Electricity Commission would set out to create an infrastructure to deliver electricity to the people of Victoria with Sir John Monash at its head.
But back to Prometheus. According to legend, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and presented it as a gift to mankind. This did not go down well with Zeus who sentenced him to a painful form of celestial dialysis, but mankind has since alternately celebrated and lamented that gift.
So how does wandering down William Street connect you with Prometheus, Sir John and Merv?
On the corner of William Street and Flinders Lane, opposite the site of Little Johnny Fawkner’s first pub, stands a building that was once called S.E.C. House then Sir John Monash House and now simply 15 William Street. It is possible that the building management has paid a large amount to a marketing consultancy who came to the conclusion that dropping the capitals would make the building more relevant so it may be called 15 william street.
In the foyer you will find Merv’s splendid mosaic mural of Prometheus grasping fire from the heavens representing how the S.E.C. brought light, fuel and energy to the people of Victoria. This mosaic was finished in 1967 when Merv was in his 70s at the time but this work created from a quarter of a million glass pieces made from Venice is one of his finest works. These were aspirational times and alumni of Melbourne University will recognise similarities with Douglas Annand’s mural The Search for Truth in Wilson Hall.
Meanwhile, in the diagonally opposite corner of the city, the mural of Prometheus on the Eastern Hill Fire Station reminds us how fire can be a great servant and a bad master. Harold Friedman’s giant mural The Legend of Fire contains the Prometheus legend together with the ‘backstory’. At the top you can see Phaeton taking his chariot too close to the sun and in its uncontrollable state started disastrous fires on the earth. Zeus who had just found out that it forbidden to smack naughty children instead struck Phaeton down with a bolt of lightning and fire disappeared from the earth until such time as Prometheus restored it. The base of the mural depicts the devastation that uncontrolled fire is capable of wreaking on the earth.
The mural sits on the outside of the extension to the Eastern Hill Fire Station built in the early 1980s in the ‘brutalist’ style. Brutalist architecture has got a bad name because it was given a bad name. It was characterised, among other things, by large thick walls of exposed concrete and Australia has some fine buildings in this style. Perhaps more in a later newsletter. In the recent busfires I know I would rather have been sheltering inside a brutalist building rather than one whose architectural style had a trendier name.
Anyway, next time you are in the city keep an eye out for these two depictions of Prometheus and maybe spare a couple of minutes to ponder their backgrounds.
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