A Feast of Colours and Forms – Central Melbourne’s 1930s Architectural Gems

Words and photos by Lachlan Finlayson

Melbourne is considered Australia’s second biggest city, slightly smaller than Sydney, and is the capital of the State of Victoria. It has multiple areas with fine examples of Art Deco architecture, including office buildings, residential buildings, public infrastructure and recreational facilities.

On a recent trip down-under, I enjoyed visiting and photographing both the exterior and interior of several lovely buildings in the Central Business District. Most of these still retain a commercial aspect, albeit often far removed from their original purposes. Many are now used as accommodation, commercial office space, various business purposes and retail outlets, reflecting the changing needs of a modern city. Most are well maintained, while a few perhaps need a little care if they are to last another hundred years! Given the public nature of many of these buildings, visiting and taking pictures is relatively easy, so here follows some selected examples that caught my eye.

Australian Natives Association

ANA House (Elizabeth Street) – Architect: Marsh & Michaelson

Remodelled in the late 1930s for the Australian Natives Association, a society formed some 70 years earlier to promote national awareness, eventually leading to the Federation of the Australian States in 1900. Various decorative features reflect Australia’s unique flora and fauna; for example, the internal staircases incorporate Gumnuts and Kookaburras in the balustrade, while the front of the building displays decorative Art Deco designs alongside a kangaroo, an emu and the Australian cost of arms. Koalas are also incorporated into this attractive and distinctive building frontage.  

ACA Building (Queen Street) – Architect: Hennessy, Hennessy & Co. with R. Morton Taylor

The stunning rose-pink Australian Catholics Assurance building was built between 1936 and 1937. The structure features multiple original Art Deco elements, including distinctive blue & red signage and decorative window surrounds.

ACA Building

Mitchell House (Lonsdale Street) – Architect: Harry Norris

Situated on a busy corner is Mitchell House, a light-coloured, Streamlined Moderne building which was also built in the period 1936 to 1937. The side entry leading to the elevators is particularly attractive, with a green tiled frontage and decorative floor and wall features. The initials of Mitchell House also feature on the beautifully polished terrazzo floor. Originally planned as a two-stage construction of ten floors, only the lowermost six floors were constructed. Large and bright signage with a distinctive font on both street-facing facades complements the overall Art Deco attractiveness of this building.

David Jones Department Store (Bourke Street) – Architect: Bates, Smart & McCutcheon

Built in 1933, it is no surprise that this building won awards for its spectacular and modern styling. Originally a Buckley & Nunn’s menswear store, the facade displays many stunning Art Deco features, including blue-black terracotta tiles with bright steel chevron decorations. Most outstanding are the colourful upper panels depicting three well-dressed men-about-town in day, evening and sporting dress. A truly remarkable sight to behold in busy downtown Melbourne!

Former Buckley & Nunn’s Men’s Store

Former Patersons Building (Bourke St) – Architect: Arthur Purnell

Also dating from 1934, this was originally a furniture store and warehouse for the Paterson family. Although showing signs of its age,  this building, at least above street level, exhibits some fine examples of Art Deco design. A dramatic vertical expression is achieved from the ten fins that run the full height of the facade, with each fin clad in distinctive green-glazed terra cotta tiles. A curved Art Deco motif is inscribed across the lower concrete spandrels. Whilst appearing somewhat unloved, this building is well worth a visit due to the high level of integrity to its original design, with later alterations limited mainly to the street-level shops.

Former Paterson’s Building

Presgrave Building (Little Collins Street) – Architect: Marcus Barlow

Built in 1938, and although not as dramatic as some other nearby buildings from the same era, it includes some delightful Art Deco features. A distinctive curved corner and strong horizontal lines dominate the facade. The signage is noteworthy, the upper being inscribed on the building’s surface, the lower attached in metal. Remarkably, it looks much younger than the 85 years since its construction. Originally housing a combination of retail and business premises, it is now a compact, ideally situated hotel in the CBD.

Presgrave Building

Yule House (Little Collins Street) – Architect: Oakley & Parkes

Built in 1932 and said to be one of the first fully Art Deco commercial buildings in Melbourne making no attempt to revisit previous architectural styles. This Streamlined and Moderne building includes a horizontal facade with thin strips of green tiles and curved decorative features at the street level. The signage neatly echos the Moderne style and green tile features. A big thanks to the Melbourne City Council for the no-stopping signs at this location, which aided my photography of the location.

Yule House

Newspaper House (Collins Street) – Architect: Stephenson & Meldrum

This building, originally built in the 1880s, was the subject of a competition to redevelop the facade in the early 1930s. The winning architects included a dramatic glass mosaic, a rarity in Melbourne buildings. The quote “I’ll put a girdle around the earth” is from Shakespeare and was popular at the time when international submarine cables were being placed to convey news and events around the globe. Horizontal linear features across the facade also add to the attraction of this updated building. Definitely worth a visit and a look upwards when walking the streets of central Melbourne, particularly in winter when the trees have few leaves to hide the views. Overhead wires from Melbourne’s famous trams remain visible throughout the year and can be seen in this and several other photographs.

Newspaper House

Manchester Unity Building (Collins Street) – Architect: Marcus Barlow

On a commanding corner location, the Manchester Unity Building was built in 1932 in a modern Gothic style and was the tallest in the city at the time. Of particular interest is the magnificent ground-floor arcade with its marble walls, floor tessellation, decorative ceiling panels and beautiful elevator accessories. The arcade is certainly the highlight of any CBD visit. The ceiling panels are unique and distinctive portrayals of Australia at the time, incorporating scenes of Australian flora, fauna, culture, primary industry and the work of the Manchester Unity company itself.

Information from the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia was invaluable in appreciating the inter-war architecture of this wonderful and welcoming city. This society was founded in Melbourne in 1992 and offers walking tours as well as printed guides for the Art Deco areas of central Melbourne and surrounding areas. The guides are also available for purchase online via the website.

Additional architect details for this page were sourced from Robin Grow’s excellent book Melbourne Art Deco (2009 Brolga).

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