Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Heritage and hospitality. For a long time I have been fascinated by the architectural, industrial and demographic changes of my home town. I think it's important to know your city, to explore a little deeper rather than skate across its surface. There is a great website called Walking Melbourne that lists iconic surviving and vanished buildings of Melbourne, and there is also a wonderful site about the excavation of notorious Little Lonsdale Street.

One of my favourite Melbourne historical tidbits is that Sir Redmond Barry, the famous judge and Melbourne cultural benefactor on whose bronze pronged head seagulls currently shit, had a mistress and children who lived in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, in a house he built for them. He lived across the Carlton Gardens on Rathdowne Street (you can still see his mansion) and once toyed with the idea of bulldozing a road through the gardens. Every time I have to drive around the gardens to get from Carlton to Fitzroy, I think about how annoyed Red must have been.

And just today I discovered that in my street there used to be a synagogue, which was built between the world wars when Carlton became somewhat of a Jewish precinct. I have always looked at that building, slightly too grand and exotic to fit in with the surrounding terraces, and wondered about its history.

My favourite thing about Melbourne lately is that history is being reclaimed and remade by the same commercial processes that shaped it. The cafe at the revamped GPO was known to me for some time only as "GPO". But I was delighted to discover that it's called the Federal Coffee Palace. Admittedly, the new version at GPO isn't a patch on the original Federal Coffee Palace, a grand building on Collins Street designed by William Pitt, who was also responsible for the Princess Theatre, the Victoria Brewery, the old Rialto Building and the Hotham Hotel (which is now the scummy All Nations backpacker hostel).

It opened just in time for the 1880 World Expo at the purpose-built Exhibition Building. (Stephen Street was also renamed Exhibition Street for the purpose - a road makeover that puts those pissy blue "Games lanes" to shame.) Its seven floors incorporated a bar, billiards room, smoking, sitting and writing rooms. It was demolished in 1973.

Then there's relatively new and sprauncey bar, Madam Brussels, named after Melbourne's most notorious madam. She was unusually rich and powerful for a 19th-century woman. At one stage she was listed as a brothel owner in the Melbourne phone book. She married a younger man, and owned most of the top of Lonsdale Street. (She did not, however, harbour the lost Victorian parliamentary mace; that was rumoured to have been her rival Annie Wilson. We had a story about this in Is Not Magazine Issue One.)

Then there's the Recorded Music Salon.

This place was iconic. In the late 1950s, a Polish guy set up a stereo equipment business at 11 Collins Street, Melbourne (I know this because the establishment date and owner used to be printed on the front window), and until its closure a little while ago, it remained in a sort of time warp of 60s hi-fidelity, all wood-grain cabinets and faded posters advertising obsolete component systems. For a while I was seeing this guy who was fascinated by the place, analogue music nerd that he was. It even gave its name to an album by indie band The Steinbecks.

It seems so crass that such a thoughtful, rarefied place has become another fucking 7-11. But I noticed the other day that the upstairs level is "under offer" to be leased. I fantasised that perhaps it would be transformed into a groovy bar with 60s or 70s decor, where people would gather to listen to fine records. I mean, the sign is still there. Who knows. I really hope so.

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